Alice Coles Of Bayview

Model Resident Transformed Poor Village Into Modern Community

Bayview, Va., is such a small community that even most Virginians have never heard of it. The people who reside there live in the kind of squalor that Americans would like to believe no longer exists in this country.

But, as Correspondent Ed Bradley reported last November, what makes Bayview extraordinary is not its poverty. What makes Bayview extraordinary is what Alice Coles and the people of Bayview did about it.
Until eight years ago, Bayview was a small, nearly forgotten community, hidden away in the farmland of Virginia's eastern shore. For decades, the collection of dilapidated shacks has been home to approximately 100 African Americans.

Alice Coles, who has lived most of her life in Bayview, showed Bradley around.

"The conditions here are much more deteriorated than what they were 30 years ago," says Coles. "Today, it's just two-room shacks, three-room shacks. You can choose any room for your kitchen because there's nothing there to say this is my kitchen, this is my living room or bathroom."

In shacks that rent for about $30 dollars a month, 60 Minutes saw conditions that can only be described as squalid. Only a few of the people had a kitchen, and all had to survive in the drafty places through the cold of winter.

None of these shacks has indoor running water or a toilet. In fact, until recently, the only water came from shallow wells that frequently were polluted by waste from the outhouses that are still common there. The electrical wiring is substandard and dangerous --resulting in numerous fires, with deadly consequences.

Coles says she's known 11 people – including six children -- who've died in fires. And one of these kids was just a baby whose mother and uncle were trapped when they rushed back into the burning shack to save the child.

"I can remember people just pumping, pumping. It was just one little string of water coming out of the pump, and the house burned like paper, and three people perished," recalls Coles.

Despite their poverty, the residents of Bayview belong to a tightly knit community with deep roots in the past. Some of their ancestors, who settled in Bayview as freed slaves after the Civil War, are buried in a local cemetery.

Traditionally, most people in this part of Virginia worked in farming or in the seafood industry, but by the mid-1990s, as those jobs disappeared, Bayview became even poorer and more isolated.

That isolation ended in 1995 when the State of Virginia announced plans to build a maximum-security prison on 270 acres right in the middle of Bayview. It would change this community, but it wasn't the kind of change anyone could have envisioned.

"The siting of a prison in a 300-year-old community? This is a very rural place," says Coles. "Can find open space anywhere. And I opened my mouth right then and said, 'No, this is it. I'm not gonna take this one.'"
A home video from 1995 shows Coles lobbying against the prison before county officials. At the time, she was a 45-year-old single mother of two kids, had only a high school education, and was making $5,000 a year as a crab picker. And yet, she emerged as the strongest local leader opposing the prison.

She spoke at a celebration of their victory: "We have stood together and have proven that we can take power within our hands for something positive, to build upon. Never let back on that. This is just the beginning of the beginning."

It was the beginning of a new organization -- "The Bayview Citizens for Social Justice."

"It was either improve our neighborhood or something worser than a prison was coming to our neighborhood," says Cozzie Lockwood, one of the founders. "So what we decided, we'll get together and maybe fix us some houses. But once we really got into it, the scope was so broad, we needed more than just some Band-Aids to fix the houses."

Coles says they realized they needed to learn organizational skills and fundraising: "About eight of us in the community, who were like the core leaders, we joined neighboring organizations that we felt could give us these skills by participating with them. People took me under their wings and just taught me things."

Bayview's new leaders were taught how to start a non-profit organization, about budgets, lobbying and politics. At the same time, they began to ask the Bayview community about its vision for the future.

"It was like a dream. The people dreamed real big," says Lockwood. "Especially when you're poor, you dream the biggest dream you want. Buy the land across the street, and build over there."
The man they asked to help them turn that dream into a reality was Maurice Cox, an architect and college professor.

"They were not trying to run away from their roots. They actually were trying to embed them deeper. And it was a wonderful moment when they decided that the new Bayview will be erected right across the street from the old," says Cox, who laid out a plan for a new village with a market, a community center, a day care center, and clean water.

"I knew that what we were dreaming was a multi-million dollar project. And I knew that it would take years to do, and what I needed to deliver for Bayview was a way to get there."

One of the first things Cox did was to organize a community-wide clean-up campaign and demolish the burned-out shacks. Then, he helped them get a loan from a private foundation for $345,000 to buy the land. But building a new community on it would require substantial funding from the government.

Was it difficult to get the government and the state to see their vision? Coles says yes.

"It was very difficult. You had to become a salesperson," says Coles. "You had to sell your story, your heart, your soul, your past. You had to sell."
But after three years, nobody was buying. So in May of 1998, Coles invited civil rights officials down to generate some publicity -- and it worked. Finding "inhumane conditions," the visiting officials said the people of Bayview were victims "of a modern day apartheid system" and "still living in the days of slavery."

"The bottom line of everything that Bayview did was that we looked around," says Coles. "We had everything to gain. We didn't have nothing to lose. So we put everything in it."

And it paid off. Suddenly politicians and an army of state and federal officials descended upon Bayview offering money. Since 1998, Virginia has committed $4 million dollars and various federal agencies have added over $4 million more. In all, Bayview has raised $10 million dollars from 32 separate state, federal and private sources.

Coles used some of the money to set up an office, but says she soon realized that overseeing a multi-million dollar construction project required expertise that she didn't have.

"I went out to another guy and asked for some training. I said, 'I've lost it. I don't know enough about engineering. I don't know enough about development,'" says Coles.

"He said, 'What do you need?' I said, 'I need someone that have been there and done that. I want someone who understand government funding. I need someone that understand non-profits.' I mean, I'm out here like Lonesome Dove. I'm out here in the high country. I don't even know my way."

They got Adebola Ajayi to help. Ajayi has 11 years experience in the U.S., working on rural poverty programs. In Bayview, he's the project manager, dealing with budgets, contracts, and schedules.

He is also an African and says it's no coincidence that in Bayview he's working with the descendants of African slaves: "Probably that's why I took the job."

What would he be willing to bet on the success of Bayview? "Everything that I have. Because I was part of it," says Ajayi. "I never participate in failures."

To prevent the failure of their new multi-million dollar development, Bayview's leaders decided they had to prepare their members for the change. So they started holding seminars on financial responsibility.
Out of Bayview's total population, only 14 families were selected to be in the first group to make the move across the road. Nearly everyone had put off packing until the last minute, as if they weren't sure the move was for real.

Moving day was Oct. 1, the day Bayview's residents got the keys to the houses they had been dreaming about and waiting for since 1995. Each house cost approximately $70,000 to build, but some will rent for as little as $30 dollars a month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural poverty program subsidizes the rest.

The apartments have amenities that most Americans take for granted. Most people in Bayview thought indoor plumbing and central heating were parts of someone else's life -- not theirs. According to Coles, it's hard for some of them to believe that after so long, their lives are finally changing.

She says she can hardly believe it herself: "I didn't know it until someone say, 'You mean to tell me I can control my heat on the wall, by a button on the wall? And I don't have to tote wood or bring in oil, smell like kerosene?' And others say, 'You mean to tell me I have hot and cold water on the knob? I've dreamed about it. I've seen it elsewhere. I never believed in this lifetime that I would actually live like people.'"

In planning the new Bayview, "living like people" meant designing houses with front porches. But since this is government-funded public housing, Coles says they had to justify why they were necessary.

"Because that's where our family life was spent, on the porch. And so, if you take the porch, just like taking your farm, you take a part of our past. That's where old stories were told. And songs were taught. And our poems and the scriptures of the Bible were all taught on the front porch," says Coles.

"We rehearse everything from the Gettysburg Address to the Creation...James...Johnson's Creation, on the front porch. We held the books for others, and others held the books until we learned together. So, a part of this village concept was the porch."
When all the houses finally are up, it will be a dream come true for Coles and the people of Bayview. It's a dream that back in 1995 seemed like an impossibility to most people, but not to Bayview's citizens, and not to Alice Coles.

Can one person make a difference?

"Yes. They don't make all of the difference. Just one little piece," says Coles. "And those, you know, like big doors. They hang them on small hinges. And if I couldn't be the door that opened, you know, to a better life, I'll be the hinge to hold the door. So, one person can make a difference. Yes."
UPDATE:: Since November, Bayview has continued to grow. Streetlights have gone up and the driveways are paved. Ten single-family houses have been completed, along with four more apartments, offices and a laundromat. Construction on a community center is expected to begin in September.
  • Rebecca Leung

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes

Comments