Victorians to launch petition to save heritage site

Two weeks after a 200-year-old structure was ordered removed from Victoria, East Coast Demerara, villagers say they will fight to ensure the relic one of the few remaining pieces of their heritage is preserved.

The historical building Victoria villagers are fighting to keep from falling under the demolition hammer.

A letter of petition outlining the history of the landmark will be sent to the Public Works Ministry, which had ordered the demolition, the National Trust and all other stakeholders later this week in an effort to have the building remain.

Chairman of the Victoria Reconstruction Trust Desmond Saul told Stabroek News on Wednesday that most of the villagers have signed the letter, which will be sent out before the end of the week. He said based on the response received, the National Trust will then decide the next step to be taken. Saul explained that he does not believed that the structure falls under the ambit of what the removal letter addresses, since it preceded the existence of Victoria as a village. According to him, subsequent legislation should have look at “grandfathering.” He stressed that this structure is a part of not only the village’s history but African        heritage.

Saul said when he heard of the ministry’s letter to have the structure demolished, he was “surprised that the government would make such a move.” He added that one would have thought that the Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) as well as the Regional Democratic Council (RDC) would have been contacted, before the decision was reached. He said that if such a consultation was held he was sure that the ministry would have been advised against the move, particularly due to the structure’s historical significance.

Saul explained that there are only two physical structures remaining in the village that can be traced back to the period of slavery; in addition to the building, there is also a Strawnight Brethren Church. The church, Saul noted, is in a dilapidated state and in urgent need of restoration. He further explained that another church was broken down and replaced by a concrete structure about five years ago, owing to “certain circumstances” and the only remaining history there is the bell tower.

Villagers are hoping that the ministry will reverse its decision and have the landmark remain. Meanwhile, officials from the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) visited the village on Tuesday and collected information on the structure’s history.

On April 22, Hilda Barnwell, who has been selling in the structure for the past 16 years, was served with a letter from the ministry informing that the structure was infringing on the government’s reserve and had to be removed immediately.

An upset Gordon Gillis had explained that the structure was built in 1803. He claimed that since the abolition of slavery, the Gillis family has been responsible for it. Gillis said that he had managed to keep the structure in good condition and has been paying rates and taxes over the years.

Residents had told Stabroek News that if the structure has to be removed, the same has to be done with the nearby gas station. The structure is located on its eastern side. Several persons had also expressed the view that the structure in no way obstructs the flow of traffic.

The owners of several buildings located nearby have also been served with removal notices.

Public Works Minister Robeson Benn had noted that if a building is on government reserve and poses a risk to persons using the nearby roadway, a notice of removal will be given. He said that the structure’s historical value has been noted and the ministry has contacted the National Trust to “make checks.” The National Trust has since expressed the view that the structure should remain at its present site because of its historical value.

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