The Home Maker

updated 10/06/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sharlene Benton and her sister Sandra Burton don't have friends over much. Their tar-paper shacks, next door to each other on a dusty road in Bayview, Va., have no heat, no running water and no indoor plumbing. It gets worse: "We haven't been able to use the outhouse in a while," says Benton, 38, pointing to the plastic buckets she and her two teenage children use as toilets. "The crackheads took it over and leave it filthy." But now their housing woes are over: In October the sisters will move their families into brand-new, pastel-colored duplexes a mile away. Most days they walk down to the New Bayview Rural Village site to check on construction. "I love this bathroom," says Burton, 39, a single mother of two. "I flushed the toilet this morning. I used to dream about that all the time."

Until recently even such basics were out of reach in Bayview. For decades the tiny hamlet on Virginia's Eastern Shore was a trash-strewn shantytown, where only 6 of the 52 families had indoor plumbing. Now, most of Bayview's 115 residents are heading for new homes, thanks to Alice Coles, a former factory worker who cleaned poultry and seafood for a living before she decided to clean up her village. The move caps off almost 10 years of work for Coles, 52, who secured more than $7.8 million in grants and loans and rallied residents and local professionals to rebuild. "At times she seemed like Moses leading her people out of slavery," says Maurice Cox, 44, an architect and the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., who worked closely with her. "So many people came in to offer a quicker fix. But she just held onto her vision."

Coles was driven by fond memories of what the town once was. Growing up in nearby Portsmouth, Va., she spent summers picking potatoes in Bayview with her 10 siblings. Back then it was a bustling rural village with a rich history. The townsfolk—descendants of slaves who were shipped there in the 1700s—had several grocery stores, a post office and a soul food restaurant, and congregated around the produce grading station, where farmers sold locally grown beans and strawberries. Unhappy living in a white Portsmouth neighborhood, Coles left her parents, a home-maker and a railroad worker, at 16 and moved in with her aunt and uncle in Bayview. She earned straight A's at the local school, but after graduation, when she turned up at the Perdue chicken plant in nearby Accomac expecting an office job, she was placed in a line of liver trimmers. "They didn't have any blacks in the office," according to Coles.

The chicken factory did, however, introduce Coles to activism: She went on to become a union organizer and eventually nabbed an office job with the company in 1974. Three years later she left to move with her boyfriend Albert Ruffin (who died in 1989) to Norfolk, Va., where she gave birth to Nikita, 25, and Reginald, 22, and worked at a butcher's shop.

By the time Coles returned to the area to care for her mother in 1981, the Bayview of her childhood was gone. New machinery had robbed farmhands of their jobs, and the seafood-processing plants had closed down. The residents "didn't have a vision anymore about buying a little piece of land and farming it," says Coles, who found a job picking crabs for $4,800 a year. "We'd been middle class, and now we'd become lower class."

When architect Cox first visited the town years later, "I'd never seen anything like it," he recalls. "Fifty-two families dependent on rusty water from three community wells. When it rained, waste from the privies would overflow where people were walking." Most homes were rented for $40 to $75 a month. Virginia Bradford, 72, who owned 23 rental homes in Bayview, says she "thought about" installing plumbing "but most of these [tenants] didn't pay. You can't do anything without money." Authorities turned a blind eye. "I never turned down those roads to Bayview," admits Bob Bloxom, a delegate in the state's general assembly, "and I should have."

For Coles, the last straw came in 1994 with the announcement of a state government plan to build an $85 million maximum-security prison 40 feet from her front door. She knocked on every door in Bayview to drum up opposition, winning over some locals who felt the prison would bring jobs, rallying support among whites in neighboring towns and building alliances with environmentalists. In January 1995 she spoke before the state legislature, invoking the spirit of Bayview's enslaved ancestors. "I said, 'We've cooked for you, we've delivered your babies,'" she recalls, "'and now you just shove us aside and take our land.'"

Coles won, but by then she was ready for an even bigger fight: dragging her town into the 21st century. On a balmy June night she stood on her sagging porch and held a town meeting of about 50 residents in her front yard. "They were scared the prison might come back," says Coles, "and they wanted to know what they could do." She suggested they form a community association to buy the land around them. Using the contacts she'd made during the prison battle, Coles learned how to apply for grants, loans and subsidies, and by October 1997 had assembled a design team that included Cox. Initially, "there was a healthy dose of skepticism within the community," he recalls, "but there was also a sense of resolve."

In the following months they formed a plan to eventually demolish 40 of the town's 57 buildings, planted a community garden, held a cleanup (hauling away 27,000 lbs. of trash in one day) and established a nonprofit organization to manage the project. Coles worked as an assistant manager for a solar-panel firm by day and devoted herself to the nonprofit after hours. In 1999 she became its full-time executive director, earning $40,000 a year. Now her priority is moving families from the worst shacks into the new rental properties, for which they'll pay no more than a third of their income in rent, with government subsidies making up the difference. "It'll be like a new world," says Solomon Burton, who has lived all his 74 years in Bayview. "My new house has a little bar, so I'm going to get two stools and have a drink when I move in. Then I'm going to take a shower."

Early next year 40 single-family homes (including one Coles plans to purchase), selling for $65,000 to $80,000 each, should be finished; 56 more are in the works. Coles's next challenge: getting locals to the point where they can afford them. The average annual income in Bayview is about $9,000, and half the residents are barely literate. Coles's plans include a "technology center" offering child care, elder care and job training, a community farm and a factory making hot-pepper sauces and strawberry jam. "In 10 years," she predicts, "this will be a village with stores, recreation and services." It'll be tough going, but Coles says she'll pray, educate herself—and draw on her trademark moxie: "If I can learn to clean a chicken," she says, "I can do this."

Susan Horsburgh
Robin Reid in Bayview

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