Shame on me. I am a Bahamian citizen and I am sitting by and watching history crumble before my very eyes.
Sure, I worry about it, but do I do anything other than worry or talk or try to get others to care? No, just like you, I expect someone else to do something about it. I’ll be glad to help, to raise funds, to fix up a building, to get architects on board, if need be, who are committed to historic preservation. I can round up civic organisations and friends. We can clean and fix up and paint and plant. But right now, I am just worried and I do nothing so shame on me.
Take the green building on East Bay Street with the falling down front parapet. Located just west of the beach soccer stadium within a few hundred feet of the bridge to Paradise Island and Potter’s Cay where every day hundreds of cars pass, it sits there staring at us, glaring at us, daring us. Its condition threatens us. At what moment will the thousand-pound-plus parapet being held up by a single column finally relinquish its determination to dangle?
The decay is palpable and so is the potential. That single building is a prime example of neglect on prime real estate. Shame on me for not doing anything. And why don’t I? Because I don’t think anyone will let me. Challenge me and I will run with it along with boards I serve on like the Historic Bahamas Foundation that has talented, passionate council members who care about our history and the buildings that house so much of it.
I know that this neglected, abandoned, crumbling green building was once the Bahamas headquarters of Pan Am, the first airline to service The Bahamas. It now belongs to the government which seconded the northern section of the property to the Royal Bahamas Defence Force. Here is the irony. The Defence Force, which maintains its side spotlessly, not a stain on the long white wall or a piece of trash showing in the fenced parking lot, has a sign posted in the weeds outside the building in front with the RBDF name, logo and tagline: Guard our Heritage.
So much of our history is threatened by abandonment and neglect. On Sunday, I went to Blackbeard’s Tower, or what is left of it. You can still read the letters high on the interior stone circular wall where the Bahamas Development Board in the 1950s recognised the significance of it as a tourist attraction and engraved an abbreviated account of the days of Edward Teach, the pirate known as Blackbeard. He allegedly built the tower as a lookout to watch for vessels coming into and out of Nassau harbour in order to gauge safe passage for his ships, small by today’s standards, out of the protective arms of Fox Hill Creek. Today, expensive sportsfishing and recreational powerboats line the bulkheads of the creek that piracy nurtured. But at least that part of the story is cared for. This was the second time I had been to the tower in recent months and wanted to cry for the state it is in. Wooden steps that once led to the highest point are torn from their foundation, strewn and laying sideways and bent, trapped by the sides in what would otherwise be mid-air 15 feet above the ground. Getting into the tower is not impossible, but it is not easy. The bush is high, the path overgrown. There is a small for sale sign by the side. I only hope that is for the lot next door.
There are commercial and non-commercial possibilities for many of our historic sites. Architect and brilliant Junkanoo body painter Monty Knowles once submitted plans for an outdoor dining experience including in-the-ground fire pits in an area near Fort Montagu. The interior of the fort would not be used but the fort itself would be the centrepiece of a casual, fresh food and fish restaurant. It made all the sense in the world with the fish vendors right next door. Guests could stroll the fish stalls, select what they wanted to eat, watch it as it was being cleaned, filleted, prepared and cooked a short walking distance away, fresh on the fire in front of them. Imagine the sunsets, the selfies and Facebook and Instagram posts.
Shame on me for failing to organise marches or groups or campaigns to save the remnants of the rich history of this gateway to the New World. No one else can claim that title and yet we do not see the sign anywhere. Why do we not have it painted in big bold letters on the roof of the old Customs warehouse at Prince George Wharf where thousands of cruise passengers entering Nassau harbour would see it every day? Welcome to Nassau, Gateway to the New World. So simple. So why not?
I believe the answer to why not lies in the fact that we treat our history as if it were an academic subject rather than the nexus of economic potential.
Successive governments have sidestepped our sites and our story as though they could be dealt with after all the important work was done. I recently shared the tale of two lighthouses, one that is bathed in community spirit, the other, neglected. The lighthouse that lights up a community has helped unite the community of Elbow Cay in Abaco. The romance of its presence draws visitors from around the globe. Every sailboat that comes to The Bahamas has to be photographed with the candy-striped lighthouse in the background. There isn’t a soul in the area that can’t tell you the history of the lighthouse or try to get you to contribute to its refurbishment, operation or maintenance. And volunteers keep the history going knowing they are part of the effort to ensure the survival of the last hand-cranked kerosene powered lighthouse in the world while everywhere else lighthouses are automated. The other lighthouse, that neglected on at the western tip of Paradise Island, should be the famous one. It does, after all, mark the entrance to the busiest cruise harbour in the region.
Shame on me. And shame on us. All of us for letting that precariously dangling parapet on the Pan Am building remind us that we forgot to mark our history. We forgot that the very airline that was the first to fly across the two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, the first to put passengers in jets, the only airline to have luxury flying boats, that Pan Am was the same airline that delivered our first visitors from the US, changing our world forever. We forget that the airline’s founder and president, Juan Trippe, an aviation pioneer and entrepreneur who transformed the industry, also transformed Eleuthera by opening it to the rich and famous who sought perfection in beaches, warm waters and privacy in equal parts. Eleutherans remember Juan Trippe and his wife with fondness and admiration to this day.
What will happen when those who are alive today are no longer around to tell the story of The Bahamas back in the day? If we do not preserve its story through our monuments, plaques, sites and beautifully preserved buildings it will be gone forever. We cannot reclaim that which is lost. If we do not begin to show our past the respect the future requires of it, then shame on me and shame on us.