A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Despite efforts by private citizens and promises from politicians, downtown areas throughout the Virgin Islands remain pockmarked with derelict buildings. While lawmakers cringe from proposals that would make property owners responsible for the upkeep of their own property, urban blight has crawled from the back alleys into business districts and onto the main streets.
There is a little oasis, however. In the heart of Charlotte Amalie, the St. Thomas Reformed Church has been slowly but steadily upgrading its surroundings, buying and restoring nearby old buildings, expanding its holdings and its influence.
“People walk through this area every day from the cruise ships,” said the pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey Neevel. Like residents, visitors want to see charming historic properties, not abandoned and crumbling hulks.
“Renovating historical buildings is not cheap,” Neevel said, “but it’s what we have. We’re sort of land-locked down here.”
The congregation’s commitment to improving the surrounding area started many years before he came to the church, he said.
Architect John P. Woods, a church member who also served on the State Board of Historic Preservation for many years, has been at the forefront of the effort. He said he’s been working on it for 20 years.
“Everything started with Hurricane Marilyn,” Woods said. The sanctuary of the church where services are conducted was heavily damaged by the 1995 hurricane. It lost its roof and much of the rest of the structure.
The congregation came together in a massive effort to rebuild the church, and they had great support from fellow church members outside the territory. Help came in the form of donations and in labor. Woods said more than 100 volunteers came from the mainland to help.
The storm also destroyed the parsonage on Blackbeard’s Hill and that also was rebuilt.
Apparently the experience was so positive that it planted the renovation seed in the hearts and minds of the church members.
A few years later, “the opportunity came up” to purchase some property sitting catty-corner from the sanctuary, on the northwestern corner of Crystal Gade and Nye Gade, Woods said. It looked like one structure, but was actually two adjacent buildings.
Both Woods and Neevel referred to the property as a suspected “crack house.” Buying it was in part an effort to improve the neighborhood.
The project helped spark the birth of My Brother’s Workshop, an organization designed to teach carpentry and construction skills to men who had had run-ins with the legal system or who are considered at risk. Members of the group handled the demolition work required on the old property and began the reconstruction.
“That was really their first job,” Woods said.
The project “revitalized both the people and the buildings,” at the same time, Neevel said.
The structure was converted into classroom space, an administrative office and the pastor’s office.
The church also purchased the parking lot across from the sanctuary. Woods said it generates rental income during the week and serves parishioners on Sundays.
More recently, the church has acquired three buildings tied together by courtyard and walkway, across from the sanctuary.
“We have plans to renovate all three together to have a Mission House,” Neevel said. One has already been rehabbed. It’s used for children’s education classes on Sunday and for the 12-Step recovery program during the week.
The Mission House will have showers and restrooms and bunk beds for up to 16 people, Woods said. It will be available for church groups coming to the island to do community service work and may possibly also be rented as a hostel.
Meanwhile, the congregation is making improvements to the church building; there are plans to renovate rooms on the lower floor and to put in an elevator.
“They’re all historic properties,” Woods said. “We follow the guidelines” for historic preservation.
“The properties, you can get good deals on them,” he said. But it costs to fix them up. “The investment we’ve made this far (for construction) is probably around $1.5 million.” Another $150,000 will be needed for the Mission House and about $200,000 for the church building.
The church has received private grant money for some of the work.
“It’s an ambitious project” Woods said, but one that’s paid off for the community as a whole. Three different long-time island families who have holdings near the church have renovated their properties since the Reformed Church began its renovations.
“We started our thing and produced our own little urban renewal around it,” Woods said. “We feel that three other properties got renovated because of what we started.”
Reporter Bernetia Akin can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.