Gilmore Pledges to Help Bayview
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 1998;
BAYVIEW, Va., Aug. 11Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III walked down the rutted dirt roads of one of Virginia's poorest communities today, declaring conditions "deplorable" and pledging that his administration would help eliminate the squalor that has attracted worldwide attention.
His sleeves rolled up, but with yellow tie intact, the Republican governor strolled under the hot sun past the crumbling shacks and outhouses of this impoverished community on Virginia's Eastern Shore, saying that after hearing reports about the Third World conditions here, "I wanted to see it with my own eyes."
He chatted briefly with a few residents, some of them fifth-generation descendants of the freed slaves who founded Bayview and made it into a thriving working-class community -- before the local fishing and potato-farming industries dried up.
Gilmore squeezed the shoulders of a couple of boys, telling them he too has an 11-year-old son, and he visited the home of Diane Austen, who routinely totes well water contaminated with sewage for her sponge bath and takes out the "night pot" for disposal in a privy.
"The conditions we have seen today in Bayview are deplorable and need attention immediately," Gilmore later told residents and Northampton County officials gathered at Kiptopeke Elementary School.
Although he would not put a dollar figure on the state's contribution to the effort, Gilmore pledged that his administration would support a planned "transformation" of Bayview, and that "if it isn't done, I'm going to ask my staff people to come back to me and tell me why it isn't done."
For Bayview, progress -- or at least the promise of it -- has been a long time in coming, and many in the town of 114 residents said that for the first time in years, there was reason for optimism.
"Now that there is a commitment and a strategy, hope is on its way," said Alice Coles, 47, whose family once ran Bayview's black chapel and who now is president of a group called Bayview Citizens for Social Justice. She said she felt "almost like jumping and shouting for joy. We have made history."
For years, many residents of Bayview have lived in tarpaper shacks. They have bathed, washed their clothes and cleaned their dishes with water they pumped from sewage-tainted wells.
Along Bayview's pockmarked dirt roads, outhouses overflow with waste after heavy rains, adding to what Northampton and national NAACP officials have called inhumane conditions. Of Bayview's 52 homes, only six have toilets and running water.
Three months ago, the NAACP declared Bayview a disaster area. They called its residents "disenfranchised citizens" living in a "modern-day apartheid system."
Since then, politicians and bureaucrats have descended on Bayview with various promises to assist what state officials estimate will be a $6 million to $7 million program to improve the town's housing supply, water system and other amenities.
Federal officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency came to pledge help, as did several of Gilmore's Cabinet secretaries.
Other visitors included reporters from as far away as Sweden, Germany, Great Britain and Norway, all wanting to document the incredible abject poverty of a town that's less than 300 miles from Washington.
Again and again, they've told the story of how Bayview, once a mostly working-class community, descended into poverty as the jobs evaporated.
Some local residents, bound to the community by family ties, now travel up to an hour to low-paying jobs at poultry processing plants or companies that manufacture solar panels or concrete. Many others have left town, leaving behind a community that has had little money, no amenities and fading hope.
"Most of the people that live away [from Bayview] don't think about this," said Victoria Cummings, 29, who uses her food stamps to buy jugs of drinking water for her family. Cummings lives in what is called "The Bottom," the lowest section of Bayview, where heavy spring rains flooded her yard and seeped into her shack.
"The water, it's rusty," she said. "It ain't fit to drink."
For now, about 50 rickety outhouses that had long ago overflowed were torn down and were replaced with 34 new pit privies that stand like whitewashed sentries in front of homes. Residents have put locks on the privy doors to keep out vandals or vagrants.
A new, deeper water well was dug, bringing 14 families clean drinking water for the first time. These residents use five communal spigots to fetch their water; another well is planned for the rest of the community. The temporary improvements were paid for by a $31,000 state grant.
Two large green trash bins for residents' garbage were donated to the community, and a pile of donated crushed slate rock will be used to resurface a gutted road.
These are all stopgap measures, officials and residents agree.
"Yes, we need clean water and a place where people can dispose of their waste. Two hundred years ago, this is what would have been acceptable," Coles said of the new pit privies and water wells. "But we're now entering the 21st century."
The long-term goal, devised a year ago by Coles's group, is the revitalization of the community. A plan, conceived with technical assistance from University of Virginia professors and supported by a $20,000 federal grant obtained through the Nature Conservancy, would rebuild Bayview.
The program would remake Bayview into the rural village it once was, with retail stores, churches, a post office, privately owned homes, rental units and cottage industries.
Approximately 75 to 100 homes for low-income residents -- including indoor plumbing -- would be built on 43 acres of empty field across the road from where Bayview's crumbling shacks now sit.
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