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BACK STREET: THE OLD BECOMES NEW

July 25, 2003 – Drive down Back Street around 5 p.m. as the sun is gradually fading, and a glance at the street's historic buildings finds them as faded as the late afternoon sun. The once vibrant street is uninviting, dismal, even sullen, except for a few spots that only seem to highlight the neglect of the others.
But that was last week.
Drive down Back Street today and the first thing that grabs your attention is hefty four-story scaffolding hugging the side of the Harmonic Lodge, the tallest building in downtown Charlotte Amalie with its two-story retaining wall.
Painters are busily changing its face. "The wall below the banding strip is going to be mystique blue, sort of a slate blue," said Felipe Ayala, "We don't want the wall to read white as an invitation to graffiti artists. And the top is going to be quince cream, an off-white." The banding strip, he explained, is a layer of brick, a bit like a waistband.
Ayala, a member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, is a consultant for the Anti-litter and Beautification Commission (ALBC), which is bringing a breath of fresh air, energy and purpose to the area with its "Paint, Scrape and Rejuvenate" project. The project partners with building owners to restore the old Danish buildings to their former splendor and dignity.
The endeavor started on St. Croix two years ago where the island's notoriously run-down Times Square was renovated. The project is funded by a ALBC grant administered by the St. Croix Foundation for both islands.
The project has met with enthusiasm on St. Thomas. Building owners who couldn't afford to do the renovations on their own pay a percentage — from 5 percent to 50 percent — and the commission picks up the rest of the tab.
Ayala said Brant Steele, owner of the old Ritz building, an oddly shaped block building on the corner of Raadets Gade and Back Street, was so excited that he went ahead and began painting Cuzzins' Restaurant, which is in the block being renovated. This is the building that once housed the Safari Lounge, the popular 1970s watering hole at the back of the block.
Edwin Davis, ALBC chairman, said the cost is about $150,000 to renovate the three buildings that the commission chose earlier this year and then put painting contracts out to bid. The bidding process doesn't take long, he noted. Renovations are taking place in groups of three, he said.
The Zora building across from Roosevelt Park has already been completed, with a graceful new yellow facade restoring the building's original color. The paint had been peeling in layers, and was almost colorless.
Back Street was once a proud, happy street with many little businesses run by owners who loved their buildings and treated them with respect. The street known in Danish days as Vimmelskaftet, translated in 1980 by B. Anker Jensen as "longandwindingnarrowlane," has been more commonly referred to as "Wimmelskafts Gade."
Lamentably, in the past 20 to 30 years, the rise of crime in downtown Charlotte Amalie has forced many businesses to close, abandoning the once colorful and beautifully maintained buildings. Davis and Ayala hope to change that.
"We want to welcome people back," Davis said. "Some of us who live here may not notice it so much, but visitors are so aware of how we look." Actually, many people who live here may have become inured to the derelict look of the street, but that is not to say they haven't recognized it for the crime to aesthetic sensibilities that it has become.
Requirements for treating the buildings are rigid. And that is place where Ayala comes in. The Historic Preservation Commission must approve all renovations. And approve all the colors. The colors are set by the trust. "All raised surfaces have to be painted white, all iron work black," Ayala said. "The buildings must be painted in hues of yellow, gray, green, white and blue. Shutters must be hunter green or a dark royal blue, Castile red or black. We work with the applicant to see what works best on their building." And, of course, all roofs must be light red.
The 34-year-old Ayala, a native St. Thomian, wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to history and the town he grew up with. He sees the romance that once was the Back Street neighborhood.
"It's going to have a great impact," he said. "There's so much here. Walter's Living Room on Raadets Gade has been here for years, and the Synagogue and the Reformed Church – it will all be revitalized."
"We have been working for close to eight months," Ayala said, "getting the logistics down, dealing with the property owners and getting it organized."
This is but the first phase in an extensive renovation of all of the island's historic district. Savan is next on the list, and some buildings on lower Main Street. When Davis or Ayala begin telling of their plan, the words tumble out. They can't tell you fast enough. "There's lots of work to do on Garden Street, too," Ayala said. The work eventually will encompass all the historic zones.
Problems crop up. A lot of the building owners are off-island, or difficult to locate. But the ALBC is nothing if not determined. Owners are located, and work gets started. "We are going to work with the People of Upstreet on renovating that building on the corner of Roosevelt Park down the street from Government House, to see if we can be of assistance, but we need a commitment from the owner."
All of the problems aren't restricted to those described: Some have an apian element. Ayala said renovations to the Harmonic Lodge have been delayed a bit owing to nests of bees. Two nests, in fact: one in the side of the building, and the other on the second floor behind the air-conditioning unit. "We don't kill them," Ayala said. "We treated them in an environmentally sensitive way. We had somebody come and take them away."
Another challenge was constructing the four-story scaffolding on the Harmonic Lodge. It was "tricky," Ayala said. "It took longer than a week to put it up to get to the top floors safely. The painters work from the top down."
Then there is another eyesore: the dilapidated pump station on the east side of the harbor. The little blue building, so conspicuously situated, has cried out for attention for years. And Davis heard its pleas.
"I've talked with Ed Thomas [chief executive officer of The West Indian Co.]," he said, "and we want to partner with WICO to completely refurbish it – turn it into a tourist stop with bathrooms and telephones, and maybe a refreshment stand," he said. "Oh, yes, and a little deck out in back so people could take pictures, and it would be a place for people to get out of the rain, too."
The Harmonic Lodge is expected to be finished in a week to 10 days, Ayala said, and the Ritz building in about a week. Then it's on to those other projects. Today Back Street, tomorrow Savan. And don't forget about Garden Street, Roosevelt Park, and the Charlotte Amalie harbor …

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