Impressions on a Visit to St. Thomas: Some Big Things
Writing about a place from a distance has certain dangers. The biggest ones are that you don’t know what you don’t know, and, as a result, don’t know what you are talking about. The tourist “expert” is a species that we are all familiar with.
But distance also has the advantage of putting things into a bigger picture, making comparisons and of being able to see what has changed over a period of time. So what follows are some impressions from a recent visit to St.Thomas, my first in two years and one of the first times that I did not get to St. John or St. Croix.
Beauty and tranquility: Coming down Mafolie Road at night and seeing Charlotte Amalie and the harbor at night, you understand why people put up with many inconveniences to live on St. Thomas. It is a sight that you never get tired of seeing and one that just gives you a good feeling.
But, as we all know, it’s not that simple. There is a wonderful movie titled Local Hero. In it, an oil company based in Houston sends a young executive to a buy an entire village on the coast of Scotland. The company plans to level the village and build a refinery. The village and the coast are so stunningly beautiful that the man immediately has second thoughts. But the villagers are all ready to sell, because, as their spokesman says, “you can’t eat scenery.” The inability to eat scenery and beauty is my next observation. But, the beauty of all three islands is extraordinary and something that we should never lose sight of.
Lindbergh Bay is hardly the most beautiful on St. Thomas. It can’t compare to Megan’s or Hull Bays. Its bookends are the giant green WAPA tanks and the VIPA administration building. I love Lindbergh Bay, especially in the early morning or at sunset. There is a peaceful calm that is hard to describe, and, in a very strange way, the planes taking off just across the road seem to add to the peace and calm: they’re up there, and I’m down here.
On two nights in mid-September, there were spectacular nighttime electrical storms. We get these storms in New York also, but these were different because, instead of big buildings blocking the view, I had a front row seat. At one point, I put down my book, turned off the lights and opened the drapes. The entire sky and the room lit up with gigantic bolts of lightning, some coming straight down and hitting the sea. Then claps of thunder would shake the entire hotel, while sheets of rain swooshed against the trees and buildings. I know that Virgin Islanders are sick of rain, but for a city person, this was pretty cool.
Hard to see poverty: Reading, Pennsylvania has just been named the poorest city in the United States, with 41% of its population living in poverty. Flint, Michigan is right behind it. In places like these, and my hometown of Milwaukee, poverty is visible and unavoidable unless you make a conscious effort to ignore it. Poor neighborhoods are wrecked, with lots of abandoned and foreclosed houses. What were formerly busy commercial streets don’t have a single business, just empty storefronts. Because work, especially for men, has disappeared, there are lots of idle people on the street. Their body language carries a sense of sullen despair. Along with work, hope has disappeared.
St. Thomas feels different, at least to the outsider. Physical beauty is a mask, but numbers tell the story. Food assistance has skyrocketed in the past couple years. It is a good barometer of people in a lot of distress. In discussions, there was a sense that the 8% pay cut taking by government employees would push many families to the brink. We are now seeing the terrible consequences of this deep and prolonged recession for many ordinary people. And, as the man said, “you can’t eat scenery.” But the scenery does make it harder to see what is happening “on the ground.”
Expensive: On the way back from a run one night, I stopped at a small market near the airport. I bought three bottles of GatorAid. At my local market in New York City, these would have cost exactly $3.75. In the St. Thomas market, they cost $7.50. Restaurant and gasoline prices seemed similarly high, no extremely high.
The Virgin Islands Department of Human Services did a comparison with other locations on the mainland that confirmed my experience. What costs $60 in a mainland city, costs more than $90 on St. Thomas and over $100 on St. John. Things are expensive.
Slow business: One day, I stopped on Main Street and in Palm Passage to get something fixed. It was a Wednesday in September, and there was only one cruise ship in port, but store after store had no customers. And when you talked to store workers or managers, the message was always the same: business is bad, and it is harder and harder to make any money.
This conversation is identical to ones that I have at home. Our leaders in Washington live in a parallel universe where giant corporations are “small businesses.” And these giants, all led by genius CEOs with enormous salaries, are, in the view of our leaders, being suffocated by taxes and regulations. For real small businesses, taxes and some regulations may be an issue, but what they are really being destroyed by is a lack of paying customers and a constant squeeze by big suppliers. As Descartes once said, “The most corrupting lies are problems misstated.” Those running the country continue to misstate the problem.
If there is a big message in these observations, it is that we – “we” collectively as a nation, except for the tiny sliver at the top – are poorer today than anyone thought, and may be a lot poorer in the near future. And at the heart of the problem is a lack of good paying jobs that produce customers who actually have money to spend.
Government that works: It is now almost a rule of life in our country to criticize government and those who work in it. It is a sad development, and one that we pay a steep price for. Virgin Islands government has historically had a bad reputation, much of it earned. But that is changing. One striking thing is that, in the face of rising poverty and need for public services, the response of government has been both creative and effective.
For example, the events – and critical follow up – sponsored by the Department of Human Services are on the cutting edge in effectively reaching people and meeting their different needs with limited resources. In our current sea of negativity, it would be useful to recognize these contributions and the leaders and workers who are making them.
People who care – and do something: In any community, there is a continuum that runs from people who contribute and do things to those who are passive to those who criticize and attack, but are never around when it’s time to do the work. The first group is the one that makes things happen, and there are a lot of such people on St. Thomas. I had the privilege to attend Rotary meetings to discuss the growth of the work being done by My Brother’s Workshop. It isn’t always easy to find inspiration in these hard times, but if you want to, look at the efforts of those who invest their time and money in efforts to build communities that are healthy, peaceful and hopeful.
These are some bigger observations. Next, some smaller ones on issues such as the changing design of cruise ships, taxi drivers, service quality and running on St.Thomas.