Bayview Rural Village

Dec 31, 1997



LocationBayview, Virginia, USA
OrganizationBayview Citizens for Social Justice, Inc.
Design FirmRBGC Architecture, Research & Urbanism
Lead Designer and FacilitatorMaurice D. Cox
Project OrganizersAlice Coles, Bola Ajayi, Frank Driscoll, Cozzie Lockwood, Vladimir Gavrilovic, William A. Drewry
Project PartnerThe Nature Conservancy
Design TeamGiovanna Galfi one, Marthe Rowen, Craig Barton
Project TeamTim Ciccone, Jeff Evans, Will Hertzog, Celia Liu, Esther Yang
Structural EngineerNolen Frisa Associates
Civil EngineerFPS
Electrical/Mechanical EngineerKincaid-Bryant
ContractorArmada Hoffler Construction
Total Budget$1.7 million
Major FundingCommunity Development Block Grant, US Department of Agriculture Rural Development Grant (515 Program)
Units32 low-income rental units
Area860 sq. ft./80 sq. m (average)
Site160 acres/65 hectares

Community leaders meet design team; first walk-through
$20,000 EPA planning grant to Bayview Citizens for Social Justice, Inc. (BCSJ)
Bayview Community kick-off meeting: short-term goals established
Community members organize Bayview Community Day
BCSJ applies for incorporation
Residents agree to pursue “new land” strategy and discuss housing types at 4th Community Workshop and Picnic
NAACP brings national attention to the community’s substandard living conditions
First deep well drilled; pit-privies installed Plan for New Bayview Rural Village presented at 5th community workshop and picnic
BCSJ gains 501(c)(3) status

Grant received from Dave Matthews Band to fund housing workshops and design services
Affordable-housing consultant joins project
Grant received to purchase land
Documentary film production begins

BCSJ applies for USDA funding (515 Program) Barn raising
BCSJ receives housing funding from UDSA

Project 70 percent funded with money from 15 different funding streams
Ongoing meetings with funders, government agencies, and others to obtain necessary local, state, and federal approvals
Delays in local approvals process cause project to lose partial funding

Meetings and approvals process continue
BCSJ hires director to manage growing organization
Project fully funded

Project receives final approvals
Construction begins on rental housing
CBS’s 60 Minutes profiles Alice Coles
Documentary film This Black Soil released
First residents given keys to their new homes


Maurice D. Cox Bayview Rural Village

The story of Bayview Rural Village is one of transformation—not just physical but social change.

Bayview is part of a string of historically black communities along the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Many of its residents can trace their roots back more than 350 years to the earliest days of slavery. Over time, however, this once-vibrant community steadily slipped into a state of physical and economic decay.

For years families in Bayview lived in substandard housing, most without running water or indoor plumbing. Only six of the town’s 52 homes had toilets. When it rained, dilapidated outhouses overflowed, forming pools of polluted water in Bayview’s streets. The community’s only sources of water were shallow, contaminated wells.

Then in 1994 this forgotten rural outpost, where more than a third of the population lived below the poverty line and one in five lacked a high school education, found itself at the epicenter of a battle for social justice. Residents’ success in defeating a proposal to build a prison in their backyard would galvanize the community to fight for more substantial change.

In this interview architect Maurice D. Cox, a partner in the firm RBGC Architecture, Research & Urbanism, professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, former mayor of Charlottesville, and a community leader, discusses how design became the vehicle for Bayview’s transformation.

Bayview was an incredible success story that took many, many years to happen. How did you and your architectural firm get involved?

It was a case of being in a place where the community could find me. I was facilitating a community design workshop in Cape Charles, on the Eastern Shore. There must have been 100 people in the room but only a handful of African-Americans. Alice [Coles] came right over to my table and sat down. I was doing what designers do, drawing and making site plans, and she seemed absolutely mesmerized. After the workshop she pulled me aside and said, “I’m Alice Coles from Bayview, and we are trying to improve our community, too. We would be so honored to have an architect work with us.” And I said, “I’ll work with you.”

Literally, that’s how I became involved. I didn’t know anything about the battles that Bayview residents had fought to defeat a maximum-security prison. All I knew was that I had met this incredibly focused, driven, and articulate black woman, and I was taken by her courage.

I often suspect had I not been in a place where the community could find me, this project would never have happened. I mean that quite seriously. If designers are not in the community, then those who might potentially need our talents the most simply might not find us.

What happened next?

One of her partners in the prison fight, Steve Parker, an outreach coordinator of the Nature Conservancy, had promised her that after their successful defeat of the prison, he would help Bayview address the issues that continued to plague her community. And he did that. On Alice’s recommendation, he contacted me and said, “Here are the issues that Bayview is wrestling with. What would a team look like to address them?”

So I assembled an interdisciplinary team including an environmental engineer, an environmental planner, myself as the community designer, and a community economic development consultant. Bayview had serious issues regarding safe drinking water, and Steve found a grant for $20,000 through the EPA that was targeted for communities fighting issues of environmental justice. We applied for the grant with Alice. In just three months, we were notified that we had received the grant and would be due to begin the following month. I still had never visited Bayview, but at this point I had committed to do the project.

The Nature Conservancy arranged for all of us—Bayview community leaders with their families and our design team with our families—to spend a day on Hog Island on the Eastern Shore. Their idea was to have us meet in a neutral place, break bread, and get to know each other before we went to the larger community.

I remember so vividly walking on the beach with Alice Coles. She told me stories of the battles she’d fought, and I told her stories of the battles I’d fought for my community as an elected official in Charlottesville. That sealed the deal. She was convinced after spending that day with me that I was a fighter, and she knew, given the politics of the Eastern Shore, that I was in for the biggest political battle I had ever fought. The next day we all met again, this time in Bayview to meet the extended community.

What were your first impressions of Bayview?

It was incredible. My design partners with our families, and Bayview residents with their families all crammed onto one of the community leader’s porches. They brought out platters of fried chicken and potato salad. It was to be the first of many picnics that they held around our workshops. After we finished eating, Alice Coles finally, finally led the team on a tour of Bayview.

We quickly left the paved main road and found ourselves on the side streets. The roads turned to dirt, and the houses started to look very decrepit. First she took us over to one of the community’s three wells. It had this old, rusted hand pump that screeched when you pumped it. They said that this was where they drew their water—all 52 families. Families had a daily ritual of taking in buckets of water, boiling it, and using it for all of their household purposes. They took us house to house, and people invited us into their homes. I had never seen spaces so small and deteriorated. On the one hand, I was in a state of disbelief, but on the other hand, I was trying desperately not to show them how shocked I was over their living conditions.

It got worse and worse as we got farther and farther from the main street. My children went into the homes as well. It was really quite a moving experience. When my wife and I left the Eastern Shore that evening we felt the stakes had been raised considerably. Our feelings were primarily of inadequacy; in the end we were just designers. We didn’t know if we could solve a community’s problems that were so incredibly dire, but we had already committed to working with them. So we went back to Charlottesville to make this work.

Had you planned and designed a project like this before?

I had never worked on a rural project of this scope before. I was raised in the city, accustomed to seeing urban blight and working with low-income residents in pretty bad urban environments. But I had never been this engaged in a rural community and never knew how different their lives could be. I certainly wasn’t prepared to believe that people lived like that in the twentieth century—less than two hours from the nation’s capital.

I often try to convey to people that even as these families were living in absolutely substandard conditions, there was an incredible sense of community spirit in Bayview. They were gracious hosts and did not appear to be ashamed of their situation. I’m sure they were, but it somehow didn’t kill their spirit. So the character and tone of our workshops and visits to Bayview were always incredibly festive. You could close your eyes and almost blank out the physical decay for a moment. We were always laughing, sharing stories, and playing with kids. In reality, however, the physical blight was compromising every aspect of their community’s health—their physical health, their mental health, their economic health. The physical decay of the place was bearing down on their ability to be a healthy community.

How did you approach the project in those first few months? How did you establish a relationship with the community?

We organized a series of nine community workshops. Once a month we would travel three hours by car out to the Eastern Shore. The first meeting was particularly memorable. We had carefully scripted how we thought the workshop would go. We went into the meeting, must have been 45 people there. We had everyone from Bayview residents to the slum landlord [who owned most of the rental housing in the community]. We had the local chapter of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], the Nature Conservancy, and even county government representatives. But most of the people were from the Bayview community, and it became very apparent from the first minutes of the meeting that people had come with incredibly high expectations of what we, as community designers, could do. They talked about health care, about jobs, and about housing. We literally had to throw away our script and simply engage people in a conversation.

They talked about what it was like to live in homes without bathrooms. They talked about the pit privies, the outhouses, in their backyards that no longer functioned. The pit privies were not even routinely emptied. So they would fill up, and when it rained, waste would spill out onto the ground and create really unhealthy conditions. And people were living right in the midst of all that. So they had these very real concerns to share with us.

Then something wonderful happened. As we talked about bringing clean water to the existing houses, a resident said,

A typical home in Bayview before Bayview Citizens for Social Justice enlisted the services of a design team to help them reenvision their community. © Susannah Mills

“Why would you even bother bringing water to shacks like these? This place is nothing like the Bayview we grew up in.”

So we asked residents to tell us about how Bayview used to be. The exercise unleashed a whole series of incredible memories. They talked about the corner store, about the homes families owned. They talked about farming in the surrounding fields. They talked about a place that had been a rural village. This idea of Bayview as rural village became the starting point for our community design process.

Did you worry about setting unrealistic expectations?

I felt my first task as a designer was to get Bayview to dream—and to dream very big. Yes, I was concerned about our ability to deliver on their dreams, but it wasn’t because their expectations for the community design process were unrealistic. I was concerned whether we, with this little EPA grant, could come up with the concrete strategies needed to implement their dreams.

What was the strategy that you eventually arrived at?

We started by helping them to imagine small, incremental changes that were within their reach. We simply asked, “What are the things we can do now to change the character of the community you live in?”

They said, “Well, we haven’t hauled the garbage out of this community in years.” Or, “There are burned-out buildings that are still standing and are eyesores in our community—let’s demolish them.” Another resident suggested, “We should plant some flowers.” It was that kind of energy. By the second meeting, residents had formed a committee to clean up Bayview. They decided to hold a day to celebrate Bayview, to transform their community in small ways that their neighbors could see immediately.

We removed over 27,000 pounds (12,247 kg) of trash in one weekend, including everything from old kitchen appliances to car tires. When people saw that burnt-out buildings could be demolished in a matter of minutes, they were amazed by how rapidly they could change their community. It was a very empowering experience.

Once you’d gotten these initial projects completed and started building momentum, what was the next step?

After our initial successes in improving the existing community, we started talking to residents about taking on more challenging tasks, like refurbishing an abandoned chapel that was a beloved monument in their community, or imagining the building of a community bathhouse where residents could come to take showers, or exploring the idea of building a community kitchen. These ideas were proposed to solve short-term needs so that the community could focus on the long-term goals they really wanted to achieve. I found that every time we returned to Bayview, residents were more and more capable of tackling more difficult tasks. Our monthly meetings and the community’s preparation for our arrival became an opportunity to build their capacity to make decisions and go about getting things done.

While this was going on, what was the design team doing?

We didn’t start to show residents any plans for the new Bayview Rural Village until five months into the process. In the meantime the design team had lots of technical work to do, everything from environmental assessments of the pit privies and wells to documenting existing housing conditions to archival research into the history of Bayview. We felt a need to validate the stories of what Bayview once was for residents. Sure enough, in the local historical society we found photographs that showed that there was a train depot in Bayview, and other houses stood were there now were fields. There use to be neighborhood-owned restaurants and a corner store. It was wonderful to discover that residents’ vision of Bayview as it once was was true.

How frequently did you meet with the community, and how did you encourage participation in the design process?

There were nine meetings over the course of the first year. Part of the way we encouraged participation was to design our workshops around things [people] already normally did. For example, we never publicized our meetings as workshops. It was always, “Come to the cookout, the architects from Charlottesville are coming.” Or “Come to the fish fry and help design the community you want to live in.” Their area had incredible gospel choirs, so we’d have a concert before or after the workshops. Our meetings were always held when people were not working, during the evenings or weekends, so people could gather, stay, and socialize. We simply met people where they were.

Tell us about the workshops. How did you facilitate an exchange of ideas with the community?

Most of our meetings were what I would call teach-ins. We would get started at about 10 a.m. and we wouldn’t let people go until after five or six in the evening—and people stayed with us. We explained everything, even the most technical aspects of the project, so that they could make informed decisions.

For me, the most interesting part of the process was the idea of using the design process as a way to help people make decisions. Making design choices can be an extremely empowering experience for the layperson. Our design team regularly presented the community with a series of options. If we were looking at a proposal for the community catering kitchen, the bathhouse, or restoration of the chapel, we always presented the community with at least three ways of accomplishing the design task. This forced them to evaluate the pros and cons of each option and come to a group decision. We would conduct our teach-ins first, then at the end of the day, a decision would be made, and we, the designers, would live by it.

I have come to believe that if you teach people what their options are, they have this miraculous capacity to make the decision that is in their best interest. It was amazing to watch this unfold.

What were some of the hardest decisions that they faced?

The decision to tear down over 75 percent of the physical structures of their community, to tear down their blighted homes, that was pretty hard. When it came time to make that decision, we took all the black-and-white photographs that my University of Virginia students had taken to document each house, we blew them up to poster size and covered a wall with them. Because it was so visual, it had a powerful effect. For the first time people were looking objectively at these rented shacks that they had called home and were seeing them for what they were. By the end of this exercise an overwhelming majority of the residents said, “These shacks need to come down. These are places that aren’t fit for living.” At the same time they were talking about their own homes, so it was an emotional moment.

Another significant moment came much later, in year two of the process. The decision was whether to build single-family homes for individual ownership or rental housing for the poorest residents of their community. Here we had all these people who aspired to finally own their own home, and they collectively decided to do low-income rental housing first. It was a very altruistic thing. They said, “You know, we need to look out for the poorest of the poor in Bayview.” This spirit of self-sacrifice happened time and time again during our gatherings.

So they built rentals first and then owner properties?

Yes. Today there are 32 units of subsided rental housing constructed and about 15 to 20 lease-to-purchase homes, which came afterward. From 1997 to 2003—six long years—they continued to live in the same shacks as they survived on these dreams of a new Bayview.

And that is what I thought was one of the most powerful lessons learned. These shacks were the homes that they had lived in way before I came on the scene. So when outsiders would come in and say, ”This is deplorable. How can people live like this?” they would say, “Well, we have been living this way for years. At this point waiting a few more years for new homes won’t matter.” They understood that their homes were substandard, but they also had a vision now of what their community could be, and they were willing to wait. And during that period of waiting is when the real work was done, the work of helping them build an organization that could deliver a $10 million community development project.

They spent five years building an organization that hired from within the community. By the time they eventually got into the development phase of the project, they had employed over 15 Bayview residents. People were doing clerical work, they were doing computer work, or home budgeting workshops with residents to get them ready for life in their new homes. And that sustained them for years.

You were asking for an incredible commitment from this community. How did you build a sense of commitment, or was that something the community brought to the table?

They took responsibility for themselves. They insisted at every step in being equal partners in this adventure. As a designer I couldn’t do the community-organizing piece for them. Our design team would basically go out to the Eastern Shore once a month, but when we left, the community had assignments, they had subcommittees—they understood what they had to do. And they did it.

How did the NAACP get involved?

By 1996 Bayview had just come out of a three-year battle to defeat the maximum-security prison that was targeted for their community. The local chapter of the NAACP on the Eastern Shore was one of the partners that worked with Bayview to defeat the prison. So when we started working with Bayview, the NAACP’s local leader was at the table. They were our partners from the beginning.

That was very helpful, because when things started getting rough and local bureaucrats started putting up obstacles to our getting some of community’s goals accomplished, like the permitting to drill deep wells, we had a direct pipeline to the national NAACP.

I think the local chapter leader thought the national representatives could solve some of these testy local problems, but when this delegation came and saw Bayview, they were so outraged by the state of decay that people were living in that they said, “We need to blow this place wide open. We need to expose this place.”

The NAACP issued a national press release, and it used some incredibly explosive language in their description: “People in Bayview are living in the Third World.” It characterized Bayview’s conditions as a “modern-day form of apartheid in America.” Some really biting quotes, and the NAACP sent this out to the major news outlets. That’s when Bayview landed on the Sunday cover of the Washington Post. It shined a national spotlight on one community’s poverty.

Bayview was ready to capitalize on this press. Not only did they have a vision for a new rural Bayview, but they also had an organizational structure in place to manage the process. Just five months into our design process, we started talking with the community about becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation—even before we presented any ideas of what a new rural village might look like. So when the Washington Post story broke and we started getting attention from our US senator and from the White House no less, Bayview was in a position to say, “Yes, we need your resources, and by the way, we have the organizational capacity to manage our own money.”

Putting an organizational structure in place—even before we had a design concept—turned out to be the most strategic decision made during our design process.

Tell us about the design for the housing.

The community continually told us, “Whatever you do, don’t stigmatize us. We want to be in affordable housing without the stigma attached.” That really validated our ideas about trying to continue the vernacular heritage of the area. [They wanted] their community to blend in with the other communities that are a part of the Eastern Shore. The houses are autobiographical. They look the way they look because the people in Bayview wanted the houses to tell the story of their presence on that land. I had never designed houses that looked like that before. In fact, if it was going to be my signature, I suspect they would not have looked like that, but I was telling Bayview’s story.

In a project of this nature that takes so many years to complete, there are always high points and low points. What was the low point for Bayview?

The most difficult part was when the project moved into its development phase, and a nonprofit that didn’t exist two years earlier now had responsibility for millions of dollars—with no track record and lots of nervous state and federal bureaucrats all looking over their shoulders, thinking “We need to fix Bayview, get it out of our hair, and move on.” And here was this community that was insisting that they become their own developers. There were many people who could not accept that. Their attitude was “We don’t have time.” Instead, the community said at each step, “No, we want to learn how to do this.”

There were a lot of snags along the way, particularly in the approval process on the local level. It took months when it normally would have taken weeks. This was mainly due to people being concerned that they were going to be held responsible. They didn’t trust the capacity of Bayview. It really was a nightmare from the agencies’ perspective.

I remember that the porches on the houses became a particular point of contention. Tell us about that.

The porches took on a sort of symbolic role in the life of the community. In our design process we were always meeting on someone’s porch. That was where the community received guests. A lot of their life was spent on the porch, and Alice speaks so eloquently about the role of the porch. That’s where they learned to read, that’s where they heard stories from their grandparents. It had real symbolic meaning for them.

So in all our designs for Bayview we had these very deep porches. The funders for this affordable housing thought we were crazy. They said. “We don’t pay for those kinds of amenities.” We ended up getting into a battle with the funders over the importance of a local design.

They were more in the business of delivering quantity, and it seemed Bayview was insisting on quality, which was different than what they normally encountered. We fought and we fought and we fought, and thanks to Alice and the passionate way she spoke about these porches, we won. They allowed us to build these rather spacious porches for these affordable rental properties.

How was the project funded?

The residents of Bayview didn’t say, “We want quality, and you better give it to us.” They said, “We want quality, and we are willing to go out to private funders to get it.” So in the end there were an incredible number of financing sources, I think 17. Even this formula of mixed funding was a new form of financing for the state and federal agencies. They were accustomed to having their money in the deal—and only their money. Instead we had foundation money, state money, local money, and federal money. We found that the feds wouldn’t allow one thing and the state would. Then there were things that local funds wouldn’t allow but state funds would. We had to try to juggle all these conflicting requirements and try to come up with something coherent.

With all this mixed funding, there must have been a lot of reporting required for each funding source. Who was doing all that work?

[Laughs.] The community constantly struggled to build its capacity to respond. [The people of Bayview] had to hire professional accountants and an attorney. They had to write the reports. I won’t sugarcoat it: It was a constant challenge to respond to their funders. And most of the funding did not come with administrative assistance. It was [restricted] to brick-and-mortar kinds of things. I didn’t have to witness it on a daily basis, but I know it caused incredible strain. Alice could tell you, there were a lot of people who were lost along the way, who were disillusioned, thinking that this would never happen. She had to continue to persevere.

How were meetings with officials conducted?

Bayview taught some of its members how to operate video equipment. So there would be 20 bureaucrats sitting in a meeting, and the first thing Bayview did was set up its video equipment. This had a very powerful effect. People were literally on their best behavior because they knew they were being filmed. Afterward the community would go back and study these tapes and talk about what had happened. They were also using them as a tactic for intimidating bureaucrats and making sure they understood that everything they said was now on record.

It was mainly bureaucrats talking and Alice and [a core group of community members] or the designers reporting back on the status of the project. Very dry stuff that had to be worked through. After a while there was nothing to engage the wider community in the development process, which was going to last five years. So we proposed a number of interim things that would engage a larger group. The residents decided, for example, that they wanted to reestablish their connection to the landscape. That became a proposal for a community garden. Another project was to raise a barn.

This was the same strategy we used to make incremental changes in the first month. We began by cleaning up garbage, and four years later we were building a barn. Two years after that, we were delivering a new community.

When were the first houses finally built?

The project started in 1997 and wrapped up in October of 2003. The rental houses were finally complete,the roads were in place, the retention pond had been built, the sewer system had been laid—and that’s when the press started coming back to celebrate the fact that the community had done this.

[Bayview Citizens for Social Justice, Inc.] is now the largest affordable housing provider on the EasternShore. And, quite rightfully, Alice has been honored in many venues for her leadership.

What do you think the community gained from being such an integral part the design process?

Naturally, the bricks and mortar will be there forever, but the organization that they were left with, an organization that solves affordable housing problems, is the thing that gives me the most satisfaction. To know that architecture was a part of that, that they built an organization that was about building a beautiful place…. It’s one of the most fulfilling projects I have ever done. My challenge now is how do I do more of this.

How do you justify the benefits of good design, of the kind of participatory design process that you led in Bayview, to someone who doesn’t appreciate the importance of aesthetics or doesn’t think design is a primary concern?

I actually don’t think that aesthetics should be the first concern. I didn’t reach the Bayview people by talking about aesthetics, I got to them by talking about community, about creating a place where children felt safe, about creating jobs that matched the skill levels in the community. We weren’t really talking about design, but all the things we were talking about had design consequences. The task of the designer is to help people see the interface between design and the things people care about.

What about on a political level? How do you convey the benefits of a participatory design process to government agencies and other decision makers?

I am a little bit of a realist here. I’m not absolutely convinced that the innovation is going to come from those sectors. I think it will come from other places, from the bottom up. If you can get communities to be a little bit more demanding than they have historically been—to demand quality, to demand choice, and to demand their right to decide, to dream—then the rest of the structure will change. I know a lot of communities look at what Bayview did and feel inspired by it. They feel that they, too, can challenge the system to come up with new strategies, and I think that’s where the power lies.

Isn’t this the role of a community activist more than a designer? Is it important to have a designer involved in the process?

I absolutely think it is. [When a disaster happens] people don’t think, “Oh my gosh, we need a designer.” They think about all the other technical professional skills that might be needed to respond. They don’t think of it as a design problem. Our challenge is to show that what we have to offer is an ability to look at things holistically and make connections. When Bayview was presented to me, it was presented as a problem of water. It wasn’t about community. It wasn’t about creating a rural village. It was about water. So why would you go to an architect, if your problem was water management?

We need to be in the places where problems exist. We have to be in the room when the decisions are being made to be able to voice our opinions. Then our talents will be exploited. That’s how you get design to be important. Designers need to be engaged, to be civic leaders, to be in the right place at the right time.


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