Do you ever wonder what your favorite island was like 10, 15, even 20 years ago? Were you there to experience it?
Many of you may be too young to remember what St.Thomas, USVI was like before it was ravished by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, then Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. Well, allow me to introduce you to “Rock City” as I met it…
Imagine, if you can, yourself on Veteran’s Drive (our main thoroughfare). As I arrived in May 1983, our harbor was gorgeous—shiny, clean, and downright pristine. There were one or two friendly police officers patrolling the downtown area, just to make sure nobody tried to jaywalk or litter the streets and alleyways.
I had never seen before, in my 32 years of life, witnessed the scene in front of me: the alleyways were occupied by dozens of some of the cutest, quaintest shops and restaurants, and there was music and merriment all throughout the entire downtown shopping area. It was practically like that 24/7. The Havensight shopping area was only about 1/3 the size that it is now, but there were three times as many cruise ships docking here on a daily basis.
Before reaching the West Indian Dock, there was a wonderful fuchsia hotel which upon my first visit was run by Hilton, then by my next visit it had changed to Sheraton, but within a year of my relocation here it was lastly run by Ramada Inns Corp. How do I know? Because the three times I stayed there between May 1983 and July 1992 (when I had my wedding reception there), those were the three corporations who had owned it, before they pulled out of our territory.
Diagonally across from Yacht Haven Marina Hotel, there was a Dairy Queen. But this DQ sold both native dishes and American-style foods. A little further, about a half block north of DQ, Pueblo Supermarket. That’s still there. The amazing thing to me at the time about this market was that it stayed open almost 24 hours, but most of all they sold liquor by the fifths. For me, this was shocking; liquor in the food market? Not where I came from!
There was also a terrific Woolworth’s in town where Kmart is now. Traveling back downtown, Emancipation Garden had far more cultural fairs than they do now, usually in the middle of the day. Visitors and residents alike would spend their lunch hours getting acquainted with island culture and enjoying performances, usually by the students of various schools. Those who didn’t sing, danced. Those who didn’t dance, recited poetry or told creative stories. And still others would decorate this historic sight with their original arts and crafts—so many varieties of colorful handicrafts. It looked like Carnival time almost every single day of the year.
Walking down a tiny few blocks beyond the major shopping district, we had mainland eateries such as Baskin Robbins, Arby’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and KFC on the waterfront. Then, a few years later, came Burger King. Alas, those businesses sustained heavy losses during the storms, so they flew away, never to return. Except KFC, and they made sure they opened far away from the waterfront next time.
Now let me take you on a magical tour of the nightlife of the past here. The Windward Passage Hotel, right on Veteran’s Drive, had a happy hour that surpassed all happy hours. Two for one drinks for $1.25 if spiked, but $1.75 if you only wanted soft drinks. They also sold two hotdogs for a dollar (that became my after-work spot for my entire first year on island!). There were two bands playing each evening, sometimes three, and a Caribbean floor show on Saturday nights. But we couldn’t tire ourselves out there because starting from Market Square going out Back Street towards the traffic light on Garden Street, there was a disco, bar, night club, or dancehall on each and every corner. And most corners had after-hours clubs upstairs from the regular places. Disco, Jazz, Calypso, and Soca were alive at night; there was even a place called Pardner’s that would play Country Western music upon request.
In the 1980s, there was a group of us that would always meet up at this one extremely popular establishment. Even though the police or marshals would kindly remind all of us that closing time was 4am, if things were nice and the atmosphere was mellow, the owner would turn the music down low, and we’d be locked in partying until near 6am. The joy was, that at that time, the Daily News paper plant was located almost to the end of Back Street, in a big light blue building. So, we would all leave the club and go straight to the paper plant to get the very first papers that were printed, before they were made ready for distribution. Then, we’d stop off at this 24-hour restaurant that let you order breakfast any time of day or night. And that’s the first place that I ever heard anyone order “steak and eggs” for breakfast. Other folks ordered huge cheeseburgers with French fries and scrambled eggs, or ground beef and cheese omelets. I really began feeling like I’d landed in Emerald City or someplace. Then, at the very break of day, I’d stroll home, usually all alone back down to the beginning of Back Street at Market Square. The smells of fresh products, freshly baked Johnny cakes, Anesta’s Pates, garden fruits, herbs, and spices permeated the air and the market ladies would greet me, and usually giving me a sample or two, fixing me either a large cup of homemade ginger beer or passionfruit drink, and I’d return to my little room at the guest house in Savan, feeling like all was right with the world, and thanking God for blessing me with the fulfillment of my childhood dreams to find the perfect place for me to live.
The funny thing is, that even though most of the St.Thomas of the 1980s and early 1990s as I knew it, has either drastically changed or is no longer in existence, I’ve been able, with the love of a marvelous St.Thomian husband, to adapt to the changes. And three and a half decades later, I still thank God daily for the blessing and privilege of living on St.Thomas today.