BUILDERS OF TORTOLA
Greg Tye comes from Los Altos Hills, in the San Francisco Bay area, although he completed his last year of High School in Santa Fe (new Mexico) and has spent time in other parts of the US Southwest. Los Altos Hills is an incorporated town in Santa Clara County, California, United States. The population was 7,902 at the 2000 census. According to Wikipedia, it is now one of the wealthiest places in the United States, largely as a result of its proximity to “Silicon Valley”. Much of this increase in wealth came after Greg left his hometown, although he did come from a “privileged” background with his mother teaching in law school and his father working in the aerospace industry. As he says it was a very different world from his various working worlds later in life, and from the British Virgin Islands in general – although he does see some environmental similarities between the area where he grew up and where he now lives – near Gun Point on the Dawson Estate in the western end of Tortola. He is the owner of Frenchman’s Cay Company Ltd., which does “Construction, Fine Woodworking and Landscaping”.
Greg came out of California, moving to New York in the early 1970s, with an interest in, and background and training as, a professional performing artist in Modern Dance - as well as having skills in horticulture. He had worked in nurseries in California and had also helped build houses as a teenager. He has always been a “survivor” in this way. Greg fitted in well in the New York modern dance scene and with the largely black dance groups he worked with (in Harlem and elsewhere), partly because of his upbringing and partly because of his own ethnic background (mostly white but with American Indian grandmothers – Cherokee and Nez Perce), which he believes made him more open-minded and ‘liberal’. He joined a dance group after arriving in New York, and was soon immersed in black culture. They toured the Caribbean and South America, coming to the BVI (on a side trip from an engagement in Puerto Rico) for the first time in 1974.
This became part of a pattern that lasted for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dancing and teaching in New York combined with working in an Architectural Woodwork business making furniture in his ‘spare time’. In many cases members of his audience became his customers. He also spent five years in architectural school. He continued to tour through the Caribbean, South America, North Africa, Eastern and Western Europe. And he kept coming back to the BVI for “recuperation” - reading, swimming, and ‘hanging out’. As he puts it he “floated a little bit”. While in the BVI he helped to build houses in several places and also did other odd jobs.
While he was “in and out” of Tortola in these early years, he lived for a few months at a time on several occasions in western areas of Tortola, around Long Bay and Smuggler’s Cove. He fondly remembers Bob Dennison’s “Hotel and Beach Bar” – an ‘honour bar’, where Bob’s rusted Lincoln Continental that once (in 1977) toured Queen Elizabeth in a parade, still hides in the undergrowth! He also lived on Soldiers’ Hill and in Brewers Bay (where Isis is now located). He feels that Tortola was a much more ‘social’ place in those days (the early ‘80s) with fewer expats, more contact with the locals, and a physical environment that reminded him of California in many ways. He and his wife at the time (who was black, and an American from Bermuda) lived in a different world from a lot of the other white people on Tortola. He also used to go to Jill’s and Stanley’s at Cane Garden Bay, and later to Quito’s. Jimmy Buffet was another visitor on the beach. Due to his horticultural interests and skills he also got involved with the National Parks Trust.
In the mid 1980s (until 1990) he got a steady job. This was a government job with a government contract, with the Department of Natural Resources. He worked with the National Parks Trust and Botanic Gardens as a horticulturalist. He also acted as a builder for the Trust. In this job he met new people including the “working expat” community to a greater extent. In 1989 he and his first wife divorced. Working in Roadtown he met one day at lunch (lunch is a special mealtime in Tortola, Greg says) his second wife, Brenda Lettsome. She was also working for the government. They were married in St. John (USVI) in 1990 and then spent two years in Victoria, BC, Canada. Brenda did a Masters’ degree at the University of Victoria. Greg built houses. They returned to the BVI in 1994.
Much of the area that Greg knew in the late 70s and early 80s has now changed completely. As a builder he sees most of this change in terms of the construction of the cultural landscape. The part of the Dawson estate where he lives still has relatively few houses, but since Belmont estates was begun the area around Smugglers’ Cove has been transformed. Long Bay resort used to have a few beachfront houses on stilts, and now covers much of the nearby hillsides. Soper’s Hole was almost empty. There was a small shipyard and a bar near where Pusser’s is now located. But modern development was beginning.
When Greg first came “Windy Hill Road” did not exist. He remembers it being cut through. There was just a track that enabled people from Carrot Bay to reach the Ridge Road (itself not really a ‘road’ as it is now) and then Roadtown. Cedar School (which his son attended) consisted of a few old buildings on the Ridge Road. There was almost nothing on the North Shore. There was hardly any housing in sight between Luck Hill and the West End. There was little of the contemporary development at Nanny Cay. There was some development of the Maya Cove area. There was very little in Greenland – a cemetery and almost nothing else. Although he is a ‘player’ in the building trade, Greg still finds the amount of cultural landscape change “shocking”. He had expected Roadtown to grow and to “fill in”, but had not predicted the amount of ‘rural growth’ that has taken place. Even in Roadtown there was little in what is now Wickham’s Cay I and II, although “reclamation” had taken place. Village Cay was there but not nearly as developed as today, and there was little else in the area.
Over the years Greg’s job has probably become harder, despite his increasing experience of the systems involved. Because of the demands of he expats, and particularly those in the financial services industry, the style and size of houses has changed. They are larger and more complicated and have to have swimming pools. Supplies for many of these houses are a problem and commonly have to be sourced off island. More professionals (engineers, project managers, architects etc.) are now involved that make the houses more expensive. Regulations have also increased in numbers and complexity. All of these things also mean a lot more paperwork.
If he were to live his life over Greg wouldn’t change a thing. He preferred the ‘old Tortola’ where there was less money (but people didn’t care) and more ‘community’ and more local events, but he also likes the new Tortola. He feels part of the ‘place’. In the future he and Brenda hope to travel more, but do not plan to leave their home. The BVI is a good place to raise a family, with wonderful people and a good culture.
Draft of March 19th 2010, of interview of March 18th 2010.
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