USE THE HISTORY OF THE PAST AS A MODEL FOR FUTURE IN THE REHABILITATION OF CHARLOTTE AMALIE:

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Postcard from the collection of Myron Jackson

USE THE HISTORY OF THE PAST AS A MODEL FOR FUTURE IN THE REHABILITATION OF CHARLOTTE AMALIE:           

This series presents a chronicle of events which led to the deterioration of spirit, vitality and energy of today’s urban Charlotte Amalie and offers a guide on how to reverse that decline and restore those qualities to the Town.

This document and its content is the copyright of The deJongh Group - © The deJongh Group 2015. All rights reserved.

PART 1 OF A 6 PART SERIES:   WHAT TIME PERIOD TO CHOOSE?

Recently, I was asked for my thoughts on how to rehabilitate our Downtown Charlotte Amalie to add life and vitality; to make it more vibrant and inviting to overnight visitors and local residents, and to fuel added economic benefits, with stores staying open late, and nightlife and entertainment after dark. 

My response was:  “First, research the history of the Town, and model its revitalization ─ with updates and adjustments for current demands and the dynamics of time. Then, base the revitalization on the period when the desired qualities existed in the greatest abundance, and the community’s balance was at its peak."  This is not to suggest that there was ever a juncture in our history that was perfect; when there was no poverty, no problems to be resolved, tensions to be diffused, or scandals to be extinguished.  

So, which period in the history of Charlotte Amalie ─ in the American era ─ would best serve as this guide?

  • It could not be the decade of the nineteen-teens.  The hurricane of 1916 had devastated the community.  The transfer of the Islands from Denmark to the USA had just taken place.   World War I was winding down and American/Virgin Islands ownership was still being sorted out in the minds of the community.
  • It was not the 1920’s.  The issue of citizenship was still unsettled for many.  There had been two more strong hurricanes, and there were few work opportunities in the Virgin Islands; leaving many to travel to the Dominican Republic and elsewhere to seek employment in the cane-fields or homes of the wealthy.
  • Nor was it the 1930’s. The impact of the Great Depression was still raging when President Herbert Hoover, the first US President to visit the Virgin Islands, insulted our home by calling it the “effective poorhouse of the United States. …” as seen in the 2/1/15 article by OldTown Crier.com.
  • The 1940’s brought the end of World War II and many V.I. men were returning home from the European or Pacific theatres.  William Hastie, the U.S.’ first African American Federal judge, already popular in Virgin Islands circles, was appointed governor of the VI during this decade.  Moreover, U.S. President Harry Truman visited in his presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Williamsburg, in 1948.  Greatly impressed by the natural beauty, he proclaimed in the same article cited above “… tourism … the savior of the Virgin Islands. …”  Nonetheless, tourism was still a new concept, had not yet taken hold, and his proclamation was all too fresh in the minds of the community.
  • By the 1950’s, tourism was beginning to make a difference.   The annual St. Thomas Carnival was back, and in a big way.  Hopes for the future of tourism ─ though, still mostly on the horizon ─ were high. National Geographic Magazine published a travelogue designating the Virgin Islands as “Americas Playground.” The fifties were significant even for me as an 8 or 9 year-old Little Leaguer, who successfully pitched the Championship game for St. Thomas’ Savan Team.  But then, new governor Archie Alexander, appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, set a sinking tone for the decade.  Initially, he embarrassed the community by making his first known gubernatorial act ─ the purchase of a pink Cadillac as his official vehicle.  According to Gordon K. Lewis, in his book, A Caribbean Lilliput, Alexander was described as having "… an openly contemptuous attitude toward the local people … and a complete inability to comprehend … West Indian social intercourse.…  Alexander's tenure … was cut short….” after only two years, at the end of 1955.   Author, Lewis went on to state “The Eisenhower administration and the Republican Party came to consider Alexander's appointment an immense embarrassment.”  The calypso singers of the time had a field-day ridiculing him.
  • The 1960’s brought an American embargo on Cuba, preventing American tourist contact with the popular Caribbean island and creating a destination-void that St. Thomas was only too happy to fill. As a result, cruise ship traffic to St. Thomas intensified. At that point, Charlotte Amalie was already not only an active commercial port town, with a burgeoning tourist trade, but also an exuberant nightlife-town as well.  It was a time when Charlotte Amalie worked effectively; was completely walkable, when goods and services were all close at hand, and when residents were proud, forward-thinking and optimistic. Employment was strong, jobs were plentiful and persons from elsewhere sought employment in St. Thomas.  That was an era when tradition counted, neighbors assisted neighbors, residents swept the streets in front of their homes and hope was high.  During this period, people ─ even if they did not know each other’s name ─ shared a pleasant “Good Morning.”  

The decade of the1960’s stands out for its social and economic growth and optimism.  Charlotte Amalie was then almost 300 years old.  The commercial portion of the Town had originally been built around its famous, protected deep-water harbor, the best in the Caribbean, and the residential buildings were built around the commercial areas.   The majority of these residences had initially occupied mainly the gently sloping valleys and low foothills, north of the Town. Initially, only the most prominent residences were built on the hills between the valleys.   By this time though, the Town’s residences had grown in numbers, and surrounded the Town on three sides.  The remaining hillsides extending up to the mountain’s ridgelines were still essentially untouched. The relationship between the commercial and residential areas was inter-reliant; they each needed the other ─ the Town needed the People and the People needed the Town. 

In an effort to capture and further express the essence of this time, I recalled being told by good friends ─ a married couple ─ who owned and operated a very successful store on Main Street about how they first met.  They were then each a young single tourist from the States, visiting Old San Juan, sometime around the early 60’s, when they independently decided to take a side trip to St. Thomas for the same weekend.  At that time, you would simply go to the San Juan airport, take a Caribe Air flight, and be on St. Thomas 45 minutes later.  They had each heard of the nightlife on St. Thomas and they both ended up ─ at the same time ─ at St. Thomas’ decidedly fashionable, Harbor View Hotel on Frenchman’s Hill. (The old, charming, slightly-run-down one, that had so much ambiance and class ─ along with an amazing restaurant and bar; not the dreadful, colossal fortress of today.)  They came for the nightlife, met each other and fell in love. But they also fell in love with St. Thomas.  And from that first visit, they never wanted to leave.  They loved the quality of life, the place, the pace and the people.  They raised a family, built a home, operated a successful store, bought investment property and stayed for forty years.  This all took place because St. Thomas’ nightlife, commerce and quality-of-life were all in harmony, balance and equilibrium.  Together, those qualities and that balance, served as both the magnet ─ that drew people to the community ─ as well as the anchor that provided the necessary stability for the Island.  Achieving these qualities and balance ─ again ─ should serve as the model on which we base the revitalization and the rehabilitation of Charlotte Amalie. 

PART 2:  WHAT WAS TOWN AND MAIN STREET LIKE IN THE 60’S?

We want the cruise visitors to return again to St. Thomas, on their own, for a longer overnight stay?

  • So, make their first one-day visit such a powerful, authentic experience that they never want to leave in the first place!  Then
  • They will certainly return!

When I was growing up, in the early 1960’s, St Thomas had only one place. That was Charlotte Amalie.  Only, we did not call it that then.  We just called it Town.  Actually there were two places – one was Town and the other was Country.  Though, not many people lived in Country ─ and at the time, not much happened there.

After graduating high school, nearly everyone in my Class of ‘63 held a graduation party.  And, we all went to each other’s parties.  We met in groups at central places in Town, and walked together to each other’s homes.  It was easy, because most persons on the island lived either in or very close to Town.

At that time, not many persons owned cars.  Most could not afford one, and few really needed one, as you could walk everywhere in town. The farthest homes were located in Bourne Field, close to the Airport.  It took a little longer to walk there, but it was ok.  This gave us more time to joke, laugh and fool around as we walked. 

Town was broken into: Up Street, Down Street, Savan, Frenchtown, Garden Street, Round the Field, Sugar Estate ─ which at that point was a recently developed suburban community to the edge of town to the East ─ and Bourne Field to the West.  A vibrant place, Town was the center of business, commerce, worship, employment, education and entertainment ─ consistently mixed with nearby residential to keep the area abounding with people — people of all ages, colors and nationalities. 

On weekdays after school, children played in the Emancipation Garden while their parents ended their work day.  Saturday afternoons almost always included the triple-feature movie, with newsreel, at the Center Theatre.  On Saturday nights, the stores stayed open late and shoppers filled the streets.  On Sunday mornings there was church.  After church, well-dressed families and couples strolled, friends chatted at Post Office Square and at the Emancipation Garden.  On Sunday afternoons, everyone ─ at least, my friends ─ were again back at the Center Theater for the feature movie of the week.  This time though, the movie-goers would be sharply dressed in their Sunday-best with more socializing after and maybe even a milkshake at the “Oasis on Main Street. 

Main Street, which ran from the Head of the Paved Street, (at Borger Gade, also known as the Beltjen Road ) West to “Seventy-Five Corner, (at General Gade) West of Market Square, was the center of commercial activity.  There was a public library, two drug stores (St. Thomas Apothecary Hall and V.I. Apothecary), several restaurants (the Oasis, Seven Queen’s Quarters, the Red Rooster, the Igloo, and the Left Bank), clothing stores (Cavanaugh’s, Elverhoj’s and Arnold Bennett’s for Men) several hardware stores, two banks, a bakery, department stores (Lockhart’s, Hays, La Gracia) a lingerie and ladies foundation store (I. Levine) and many other small and varied stores and shops.  A colorful and exotic place, which had grown organically over hundreds of years, Charlotte Amalie’s Town was no cookie-cutter urban downtown. 

Just down from I. Levine, on Store Tvaer Gade, were two separate butcher shops, close to each other on the same side of the street.  The shops did not have names and both butchers were of French heritage and were named Pierre. One was White, and he was called White Pierre. The other was Black and he was Black Pierre.  While they provided much of the fresh meats to the community, their respective iceboxes also kept them the coolest places in town to meet people and gossipDowntown also included a full grocery store (Chinnery’s Food-O-Mat,) and a vibrant Market Square for produce, fresh fish and other seafood. 

For those still unable to find that special desired article, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog Store enabled shoppers to peruse the three-inch thick Sears' wish-book and return several weeks later to retrieve the purchased item. 

Across Main Street, Madame Cecile created elegant custom fitted hats.  Food connoisseurs  and gourmands (such as they were in that day) were pleased that Danish butter in a sealed tin requiring no refrigeration, Pate de Foie Gras and other gourmet products could be found at The Criterion Grocery, to the East of Roosevelt Park.  Cashmere, woolens, Bacarat and Lalique crystal and elegant silverware could be purchased at Maison Danois and The Continental.  In the shade of the Continental building arcade sat an elderly lady with a colorful head-wrap and with a wooden tray on her lap, who sold necklaces, hand-strung from black and red Jumbie-Beads to tourists off the cruise ships.  She was our first jewelry vendor.  Just North of her, alongside Post Office Square, a sturdily-built, push-cart entrepreneur named “Texas”sold his Fraakos, hand-shaved from a block of ice in his red, white and blue Fraako Cart.  Sweetened condensed milk on your Fraako was “five cents extra.”  Across Post Office Square, at Joes Bar, Mr. Gustav Petersen (who lived with his wife “Miss Eulie” Petersen, upstairs of the bar) hosted the leading men of the community ─ the elders ─ for a daily afternoon discussion of politics, sports and a cold drink.

After I was old enough ─ if you would consider 15 or 16, old enough ─ to hang out at night, I found out that there was even more to do.  There was live jazz at the Fallen Angel on Strand Strade, dancing at Sebastian's on the Waterfront, partying at The Crimson Parlor on Raadets Gade and more dancing at Calypso Joe’s, by the Pott Rum Factory (where the GERS building now sits).  Sparky’s Waterfront Saloon, Higgins Gate (later the Safari Lounge), the Jungle Club, Joey’s Black Patch, Katy’s at Market Square and the Bamboo Room, just to name a few; were all places to meet old friends and make new ones. 

The bars and dancehalls were inhabited by international stars and the famous, as well as us regular folk.  One night while dancing, someone bumped into me. As I looked around to see whose elbow that was ─my partner said “that’s Sidney Poitier.” After all the reveling, the Crazy Cow Diner, on Raadets Gade, was always there to serve the juiciest late-night or pre-dawn cheeseburgers.  And there was even more —including some that my parents would not have wanted to know about.  St. Thomas’ Downtown was bustling during the day and was jumping long after dark ─ all to the benefit of a thriving economy. 

Meanwhile, ceremony and tradition, both deeply ingrained into the culture, was always adhered to.  Funeral processions from the Catholic, Methodist, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran and Moravian Churches all passed down Main Street on the way to the Western Cemetery.  Businesses along the area all accorded these funerals the respect of one significant tradition: As the hearse passed a store, activity in and around the store would pause; hurricane shutter doors would be pulled in, and men on the sidewalks would momentarily stand still, remove their hats and hold them with their right hands over their hearts in reverence of the passage of the deceased.  It was unthinkable that this dignified, traditional gesture of condolence and respect might someday, not be followed.

By the mid 1960’s, two generations ago ─ while there was poverty, and substandard living conditions in several areas─Town represented a classic and balanced mix of locally-owned and operated businesses that complemented each other, exemplified St. Thomas' culture and traditions, and fulfilled the community’s needs. 

PART 3:  “THE CAT WAS ON THE RUN, URBAN RENEWAL IN ST. THOMAS ─ AND WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

As a testimony to how far St. Thomas had ascended in the commercial and advertising world’s focus: On Tuesday, August 2, 1966, the Lincoln-Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company’s introduced  the 1967 Mercury Cougar at a “Gala Beach Party and Special Reveal” to the Nation, at Magen’s Bay, on St. Thomas. This event was staged with great fanfare and media coverage.  One publication, The Cougar Club of America’s Newsletter, describing the event, stated: “It was dusk. The beach was lined with torches” transforming it into a visual fantasyland. At the appointed time, a “World War II landing craft” was spotlighted as it approached from the open water. As it reached the Beach from offshore, “the bow opened up, and a white 1967 Cougar was driven onto the beach” and the “Cat was on the Run.” The Cougar drove up and down the beach several times to wild applause and loud cheers. Attendees to the event were dazzled and enormously impressed.  I attended courtesy of my Father who, at the time, was Commissioner of Finance for the Virgin Islands.  But thousands of Virgin Islanders who were not allowed to attend the highly secured event, protested vigorously well after the event ended.  They objected loudly to the spectacle of a beloved public beach being usurped for private commercial purposes ─ at a function from which they were excluded.

Those who were Virgin Islanders were very proud of our home; proud of who we were and the fabulous beauty of our Island.  We were also proud to showcase it and share it with visitors ─ but never to our own exclusion. 

The furor and debate surrounding the Magen’s Bay exclusive Mercury Cougar party gala resulted in the passage of Legislation prohibiting the public beach from ever hosting a private event from which the general public was excluded.  It also climaxed with the later passage of the Open Shorelines Act of 1971, which insured public use of the entire Coastal Zone, fifty feet inland from the high-water line. 

  • (Note: This Act, which became law in 1971, remained an issue of controversy for years after.  However, since the adoption of the Coastal Zone Management Law came into effect, the CZM Commissioners have been successful in enforcing adherence to the Open Shorelines Act.)

In the late 1960’s, while I was back in the States, still studying and training to become an Architect, I read a professional journal article that listed the fastest rising homebuilders in the nation.  It named a rapidly growing company called CO-BUILD, headquartered in St. Thomas.  The article claimed that Co-Build was currently building several thousand homes in St. Thomas, VI. 

Stunned, as I read on, I wondered: thousands of homes?  In Saint Thomas? How could that beWhere?  No way!   I had not heard of plans for this.   Moreover, beyond the Town limits there was no infrastructure and no public transportation ready to accept this this.  I thought, “It must have been a misprint?

The next time I came home however, I found that it had not been a misprint at all.  I saw that thousands of what we today call “affordable” new homes were being quickly built on vacant grazing/farmland in Estate Tutu, East of Charlotte Amalie.

This residential suburban expansion was intended to provide new home ownership opportunities for many previous residents of substandard housing in blighted areas of urban Charlotte Amalie.  On the positive side, this Urban Renewal freed many residents from the squalid living conditions in superficiary homes ─ most without indoor plumbing ─ in swampy, dilapidated places with decayed, clapboard houses in locations like Buck Hole, Southwest of the Catholic Cathedral, where the Department of Labor Building is now located and Barracks Yard, where the United States Federal building sits today.  This represented the beginning of Urban Renewal on St. Thomas.

The new homes, then being built in St. Thomas’ Eastern suburbs, provided significant upward mobility and a positive transition from the woefully substandard and deteriorated structures, to safe and sanitary housing in the newly built suburban communities.  Furthermore, these new communities have since gone on to have produced sound financial investments and opportunities for their home-owners.  For example:  new houses that around 1970 were purchased for approximately $16-17,000, are today selling for more than $250,000.  However the migration, beginning in the early 1970’s, to St. Thomas’ new suburban communities, was not without negative, unintended consequences. 

  • As former in-town urban residents relocated Eastward to the newly built communities, the previous neighborhoods in town began to vacate, leaving entire sectors of previously bustling urban zones to become empty wastelands. 
  • Suddenly, in-town urban populations dropped significantly. 
  • Businesses which, for generations, had depended on nearby residents as their traditional customer-base, found themselves with far fewer customers.
  • The businesses began to wither and some died.
  • With only dwindling populations in the adjoining neighborhoods left to serve, the businesses started to look Eastward for relocation sites in order to be closer to their former customer base.
  • Several businesses began to relocate away from the town.
  • Those businesses unable to relocate tried first to “wait it out” then subsequently closed.
  • As businesses closed, unemployment levels increased.  Furthermore, large numbers of those recently laid off, due to business closures, sought employment with the VI Government.  This era significantly expanded the proportionate size of Government ─ beginning the trend towards the V.I. Government becoming the largest single employer in the Territory. 

 

PART 4:  AS PROBLEMS BEGAN TO EMERGE. 

At the time, the political zeal and enthusiasm to improve living conditions for those to be relocated to the new communities was extraordinarily strong.  So strong was it, that for the few who may have suspected the presence of future shortcomings, it was probably politically wise to overlook the possible weaknesses and remain quiet.  It was “obvious” that the new communities would generally represent an order-of magnitude improvement in the quality of life for many. Nevertheless, full and complete planning consideration appeared not to have been given, or provisions made, for necessary support services and accompanying infrastructure such as public transportation, sanitary waste disposal, or potable water supply for the large number of new suburban homes being built.

 Immediately, problems began to emerge.  For instance:

  • While there were small cisterns built into the new homes, there was no area-wide public potable water supply.  And, as the cisterns emptied by consumption, they were required to be refilled by commercial water-truck services, at significant recurring cost. 
  • As urban residents moved out of the Town to newly constructed suburban communities, they lost their previous abilities to walk to their jobs, to their schools and other institutions, to do their shopping, etc.
  • While, they had previously been able to meet all their daily needs without owning a personal vehicle; their dependency on vehicular transportation suddenly increased exponentially.
  • In order to travel to work, or to school, persons were often forced to either purchase vehicles which they previously never needed or owned ─ and likely could not afford ─ were relegated to asking for rides, or to having to hitchhike along the roadsides.
  • The new suburbanites also lost the generations-old, stable, social networks provided by their previous neighbors, who before, had shared communal duties, services and responsibilities in downtown “yards,”neighborhoods and communities ─ which had functioned much like afternoon child care.
  • Even after elementary schools finally began to be constructed, opened and operated in and around the new suburban communities, children frequently returned home after school to new, but empty, homes─ missing the strong sense of surrounding community support and adult supervision previously provided by grandparents and neighbors in their old, in-town neighborhoods.
  • Surprisingly to many, the quality of their lives quickly deteriorated and diminished as daily pressures, flash-points and inter-personal and social friction increased. 
  • This was only made worse by the unsettling discontinuity of having new and unfamiliar neighbors from unaccustomed communities. 
  • Exacerbating all of the points previously noted (and not caused by any of the above), the 1970’s also brought the first pair of Middle-East-based oil crises and the ensuing international recessions.  During these events, the worldwide cost of crude oil skyrocketed to unprecedented levels internationally, along with rising interest rates.  Inflation surged and local costs of everything conceivable spiked in prices as well.
  • While the costs of living steeply climbed, in the Virgin Islands, salaries did not keep pace and have never caught up. 
  • Resultantly, social pressures, aggression, hostility, crime, and all that accompany these dysfunctions, quickly increased and spiraled to unprecedented levels. 
  • Bewildered, residents wondered:  What is to become of our Virgin Islands?

This ended an age in St. Thomas’ social history considered by many residents of the time to have been almost idyllic; and brought about an era characterized by frustration, anger, cynicism, hopelessness, despair and violence. 

Before the housing expansion: You could frequently hear many low-income community residents defend their precarious financial status by stating:

  • "We're not poor, we're just broke..." There was still Hope, Faith and Confidence in the future.

But after the expansion to the Eastern suburbs and the impacts had manifested themselves, the defense mantra had changed to acknowledgement:

  • "Damned right were poor We're poor as Hell..." The Hope was badly eroded, if not gone!

This also led to the further decline of in-town populations caused by the moving away from St. Thomas of entire families ─ including some very prominent ones.  In their wake, they left behind:

  • Deterioration and abandonment of historical family homes and buildings, many of which are still closed today,
  • The closing of many nightclubs, traditional businesses, the demise of Charlotte Amalie’s previously active urban nightlife , badly divided  families, and
  • The general deteriorated and struggling urban communities which still exists and persists today.

Since that time, significant efforts have been made to ameliorate the infrastructure shortfall that was created by the rapid Eastward expansion to Tutu.  Water lines have been extended to provide service to the new communities.  Schools have been added in Tutu and Eastern sector of the Island. Roads have been widened and new bus transportation system incorporated. Sewage treatment facilities have been upgraded and expanded collector lines have been installed.  Even a new library has been constructed (albeit in an inopportune location). 

But while these efforts have helped to some degree, the solutions were too little, have occurred at the exclusion of other much needed infrastructural improvements, required in other areas, and have come too late.  The damage had already been inflicted.  The community’s social and economic balance had been disrupted, and has remained out of equilibrium for more than two generations ─ for far too long. 

In the meanwhile, vast amounts of the community’s trust, hope and confidence was squandered.  In its place, a negative planning vacuum was created and despair took hold. That once ubiquitous, upbeat, forward--thinking, full-of-hope, can-do, Virgin Islands culture that I knew as a young boy ─ and was so proud of ─ had changed.  It was significantly diminished ─ if not, gone. 

 

PART 5: VARIETY LOST

With the relocation of large numbers of residential units, that once existed close to Downtown, to other parts of the Island, over the past forty-plus years ─ and not having made any significant, meaningful, effort to replace those in-town residential land uses since, Main Street has now ─ by default ─ become a zone exclusively devoted to the cruise ship tourist.  And since those tourists are required to be back on the ships by a certain time, Main Street is completely shuttered and empty after dark. 

Sadly as a result of this, very little of that variety and vitality that I fondly recall of the Town still exists.  Our Downtown has traded most of the variety and diversity of products that the Town used to offer for a proliferation of primarily jewelry stores. 

There are compelling economic reasons for this.  I understand, for example, one scenario:

  • A two story-high building with only a single interior access stair to the second floor is rented by the landlord for all twenty-four hours of each day of the month, twelve months of the year.  The building is leased to a primary tenant who has exclusive access to the upstairs space. That tenant pays a rental rate based on the use of the entire building and may use that upper floor for some limited ancillary commercial purpose like storage, a bookkeeping office for the store, etc. However, only one level of the building is generally used for active retail sales.  And then, it is used for only eight of the twenty-four hours ─ only 33% of the available time per day.  Furthermore, the entire store is closed on days when no cruise ships are in port.  This places a great deal of financial pressure on a small retail sales floor to produce high revenues within a short period of time. It also has the understandable effect of limiting the merchandise being offered for sale in the majority of those shops to ultra-high margin products ─ like high-end jewelry.
  • This exerts a two-fold pressure on the store to (1) inflate the prices that are charged for the merchandise in order to cover the cost of the unused portions of the building rental and (2) to limit the merchandise sold, to only the most profitable items.  It either case, this is detrimental to St. Thomas’ viability as a competitive, value-driven tourist shopping destination.  It either diminishes the value transferred to the shopper, or limits the variety of merchandise, or ─ quite possibly ─ does both.

For those who love to jewelry shop, the experience may be a fabulous frenzy.  But for those others, not so inclined and not interested in that one class of product, this results in an incredibly boring visitor experience, from which many tourist ─ I understand from my research/interviews ─ have more and more frequently chosen to be excluded from.   

It also excludes most of the rest of us Locals who now only visit Main Street maybe once or twice per year. In my own case, I am there so infrequently that I must appear to be unfamiliar with the area.  As a result, I’m badgered constantly with offers to take me “…back to the ship.”  Or having my arm grabbed and guided by some barker (who probably has been on this on Island for a miniscule fraction of the time that I have been a practicing architect on St. Thomas) offering to show me “… where to get the best bargain in jewelry purchases.”  No thanks.  I’ll do what so many others are doing.  Avoid the area altogether. “Ill shop online.”

I now avoid an area that I used to love because it no longer serves any of my needs, or the needs of many of the rest of the Virgin Islands community for that matter.   That is why our Town is dying.  And, after dark, every building is shuttered.  And the only ones walking in the area are those very few who are walking home ─ or the mentally challenged, homeless vagrants, going nowhere through these dark, empty streets. 

Over the past few years though, after many Op-Eds written by me and my participation in multiple community sessions, charrettes, symposiums, planning forums, and more than forty years after completing our firm’s much referred-to Main Street Mall Urban Design Study in 1974, I am beginning to feel hopeful again.  I believe that our community is beginning to learn the lessons of The Tutu Experience and the Law of Unintended Consequences;the failure of traditional Urban Renewal at the National level, and based on these lessons-learned, will become optimistic and invigorated again.  That is good news; as Knowledge is Power

 

PART 6:  TEN STRATEGIES TO BRING DOWNTOWN CHARLOTTE AMALIE BACK TO VITALITY

With the re-emergence of Cuba back into the already ultra-competitive Caribbean tourism market, as the Virgin Islands struggles to maintain an edge, and to hold onto an appropriate share of tourism ─ we need to rapidly work to rehabilitate, renovate and revitalize what we have been given stewardship of. This is not just to retain our ranking in the tourism marketplace, but also because this is our home.  This is where we live and we need our economy to once again flourish if we as Virgin Islanders are once again to be successful.

The following recommended policies, strategies and actions generally represent the broad steps that this writer believes should be taken to mitigate and reverse the impacts caused by the actions that occurred over the last generations.  These recommendations are intended to guide our Downtown back on the path towards recovery, rehabilitation and revitalization. 

1)      RETURN RESIDENTIAL TO DOWNTOWN:  Encourage the re-introduction and redevelopment of residential units in and adjacent to Downtown.  This should include a mix of affordable, as well as luxury, scattered-site and upper story rental housing above street level commercial functions.  Sufficient housing should be provided in order to create demand and to justify and support again adding variety and diversity to the commercial and entertainment facilities offered in the Town.  The proposed housing mix should include live-work housing for the young professionals, artisans and artists and business innovators likely to frequently patronize the proposed nearby restaurants, after dark entertainment venues and nightclubs. 

a)      Moreover development and financing options employed should include low-income tax credit project development teams designed to stabilize the income diversity of the community for years to come.

2)      CREATE MIXED-USE DEVELOPMENTS: Promote incentives to stimulate Mixed-Use Residential and Commercial developments within the Town with less dependence on the provisions of off-street parking spaces in order to earn the “right to develop.”

3)       MAKE TOWN WALKABLE AGAIN:  Develop plans to improve the “walkability” of the Town by adopting the conceptual transportation proposals of OUR TOWN’s BLUEPRINT including the landscaping, lighting, Waterfront Highway Improvements and the proposed, safe pedestrian crossings.

4)      EXPAND DOWNTOWN AS A SHOPPING AND SECURE NIGHTTIME ENTERTAINMENT VENUE WITH ADDED VARIETY: Encourage the expansion of the current Main Street shopping area beyond the traditional boundaries to allow for shops of more variety and diversity.  This would allow the existing stores and shops to continue to occupy the core.  It would also encompass a wider range of stores for a greater diversity of products that cater to a broader range and more diversity of shoppers.  

a)      Provide highly visible police and security presence and strong nighttime illumination throughout the area.

b)      Promote the development of selected second story spaces, within the existing Main Street core area, which would be able to be accessed from existing courtyard stairs allowing them to operate independently of the building’s street level spaces.  These could be reduced-intensity spaces suitable for art galleries, fashion boutiques, etc.

c)      Stimulate expanded downtown entertainment venues to include enclosed facilities as well as open venues that occur in varying locations with related business sponsorships (examples, Miracle on Main Street, sponsored by the St T/St J Chamber of Commerce; the highly successful ICMC Jazz in the Park series of events) and related participating vendors with permits and coordinated by selected community organizations.

5)      REACTIVATE WATERFRONT BASED SMALL CRUISE SHIPS:  In addition to continuing to boost the principal cruise ship activity for the current classes of ships, encourage the return of the small cruise ships (i.e. Newport Clipper, Nantucket Clipper, Leveant, etc., with approximately 100 passengers each) that previously berthed at the Waterfront apron at Charlotte Amalie Harbor.  Since those ships would generally stay at the Waterfront overnight; this could generate pedestrian activity onshore which would help to create added demand and patronage and feasibility to night-time businesses and activities onshore. The town would have to coordinate its readiness for this level of cruise ship however, before inviting them back.

6)      ENCOURAGE AND ASSIST BED AND BREAKFASTS:  Develop incentives to assist the existing small in-town inns, hotels and bed & breakfasts to re-establish and integrate them, along with adding new ones, into the rehabilitation and revitalization of Downtown.  

7)      INSTITUTE WATER SHUTTLES FOR TRANSPORTATION AND CONTINUE TO INVESTIGATE THE DEVELOPMENT OF A BY-PASS VEHICULAR ROUTE AROUND THE TOWN TO THE NORTH:  Utilize water shuttles to augment the movement of persons and groups between selected points and nodes within the community.  Offer first option(  s) to acquire these water shuttle operator’s licenses to current taxi drivers.  These shuttles could operate in several formats.  For instance one scenario could be, a water shuttle-based loop could connect Downtown with Yacht Haven/WICO and Crown Bay creating a continuous nighttime and entertainment shuttle that integrates the three centers allowing them to be experienced individually or collectively in a single evening. This would create a more pleasant, faster and more unique transport mode and would accomplish more efficient people moving alternatives with less demand on surface roadways.

8)      DEVELOP MULTIPLE MINI OR SATELLITE GOVERNMENT CENTERS:  Create small multipurpose government centers that are strategically located to allow community residents access to most typical municipal government services within walkable distances from various residential portions of the Town.  Include small police substations in these Centers.  These centers should be placed strategically, where their locations can create maximum leverage for their success and to also ignite the successful development of adjoining areas.

9)      ESTABLISH AND IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH FACILITIES AND TREATMENT CENTERS:  Research, plan, develop, fund and implement effective mental health facilities on St. Thomas to house and treat the growing population of under-served individuals with mental health and or drug related issues. These individuals are frequently dangers to themselves, to the community and a significant deterrent to the successful redevelopment of Downtown.

10)  DEMAND/DELIVER EXCELLENCE IN QUALITY IN CONCEPT DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION ─ BUILD PRIDE ─ TAKE PRIDE ─ MAKE PRIDE ─ PROMOTE PRIDE:  Make every effort to return the traditional elements of Excellence, Quality and Pride in being a Virgin Islander and a resident of this community to this Downtown Rehabilitation Project.  A proud Virgin Islander who is also a real stakeholder in this community can project, advertise, promote and maintain “home” far better than anyone else can. If we: Use The History Of St. Thomas Past As A Guide On Which To Base The Future Rehabilitation Plans, and strive to attain similar levels of community-wide excellence, cohesion and balance, these goals can most certainly be fulfilled.  

For the most part, these policies outlined above are designed to incentivize the implementation of actions to be taken mostly by the private sector. Although only two of the ten recommendations (#8 & #9) are entirely governmental in scope and nature; the VI Government, through legislation, zoning, regulatory oversight, public policy and creation of incentives, must play the leading role in the planning, legislative and implementation process as well as the development and the construction of common facilities, improved utilities, transportation systems/methods and infrastructure.

Moreover, the Downtown sector of Charlotte Amalie could not be addressed and effectively improved without paying significant planning attention to the existing adjacent residential neighborhoods that surround the Downtown areas.  These neighborhoods, now under the planning oversight of the VI Enterprise Zone Commission (VI EZC) should be driven by the policies developed by VI EZC., with architectural oversight and control by the St. Thomas committee of the Historic Preservation Commission. 

It is my hope that this Op-Ed series has been beneficial to Governor Kenneth Mapp; Lt. Governor Osbert Potter; the new Administration; the new Delegate to Congress, Stacey Plaskett; Members of the new Legislature and the Virgin Islands community at large ─ to all of whom, we wish much success.  As President and Co-Founder of the deJongh Group, Architects and Planners, and President of the VI Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, we collectively pledge our support to continue to develop ways to stimulate our community to action, to begin this critically important Urban Rehabilitation and Revitalization effort and then to help make it successfully happen.

Robert C deJongh, AIA, NCARB

  • About the Author:  Robert deJongh AIA, NCARB, is an Architect/Planner.  He is President of the VI Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Co-Founder ─ along with his wife, Donna deJongh, AIA, NCARB, who contributed significantly to this series ─ and President of the deJongh Group, Architects and Planners, founded in 1973.   

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ROBERT C. DEJONGH, AIA, NCARB, co-founded The deJongh Group, Architects and Planners in 1973 As a graduate in 1971 from Howard University School of Architecture and Planning. His expertise and involvement in the areas of planning, design, development and all aspects of architecture gives him solid credentials as an architect and planner and have provided him with a level of wisdom, foresight and understanding of the design process. Under the leadership of Robert deJongh, The deJongh Group, PC, has designed many significant projects most which have earned several awards for the firm. In addition to being a registered architect in the U.S. Virgin Islands, District of Columbia and the state of Georgia, Robert deJongh has served on numerous professional, civic, community and business boards including the President of the VI Chapter American Institute of Architects and also President of the St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce. He currently serves on the AIA National Documents Committee which drafts all of the AIA Contract Documents that the entire industry depends on. As a member of the Corporate Board of Directors of the TLC Beatrice International Company for 17 years until its closing, Robert’s experience has afforded him extraordinary insight and Fortune 500 and multi-national level business experience.


 


 


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Guest Monday, 21 August 2017