Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Alice Coles

Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Alice Coles

Article excerpt

ALICE COLES stands in a field across from the shantytown in which she has lived all her life. Eight years ago the US state of Virginia planned to build a maximum-security prison in this field. But something quite different has been erected in its stead. Two rows of stately, gabled farmhouse-style dwellings flank a dirt road that awaits paving and streetlights. Just south of the homes lie communal fields of okra and squash, a storehouse barn and a greenhouse full of seedlings. This is the New Bayview Rural Village, the future home of the 52 families of Bayview, an isolated and impoverished African-American community on Virginia's eastern shore.

'This village was built from scratch. The water system, sewerage, the streets.' Alice speaks slowly, but incessantly. For 10 years she has been explaining. First she explained to politicians why her community didn't want a jail in their back yard, despite the jobs it might bring. They backed down. Then she explained to funding agencies their moral obligation to provide adequate housing for people who had never flushed a toilet or turned on an electric stove. They agreed. Then she explained to her neighbours how to sign leases and mortgages and how to maintain homes with modern amenities. Most are eager to comply.

The New Bayview development has cost $6.5 million. More than 100 people from neighbouring counties have applied here for future housing. Funded by state, county and federal grants as well as private contributions, its future is pregnant with possibilities... and uncertainties. On this rural peninsula just 200 miles from Washington DC, a third of the local population earns less than $10,000. Bayview is a particularly blighted example of the area's poverty. Largely illiterate and dependent on seasonal farm work, most families have struggled to pay the $25 to $50 rent for the tarpaper shacks that they've been living in up until now.

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The rent for the brand-new rental units - complete with running water and central air conditioning - is capped at a third of the tenant's income. But significantly a handful of local residents have rejected the offer to trade their squalid dwellings for the units. 'They don't want responsibilities,' says Alice. …

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