Hobson battle brewing

Published 10:30 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles about the village of Hobson and the conflict between historic preservation there and the need to provide safe, sanitary living conditions for those who live in the community.

A handful of old houses and other buildings in the historic community of Hobson are at the center of a dispute that has pitted homeowners against the city and history against safety.

During the past few months, two homes in the community have been razed by the city and two others are at risk of being demolished. Suffolk officials have tagged a total of 10 Hobson structures for continuing review.

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The issue for the city is safety, according to Tim Davis, Suffolk’s assistant director of community development.

“Demolition is a last resort for us,” he said recently. “We understand blood, sweat and tears went into these homes. But public safety is our paramount concern. When it becomes an issue, it is the issue.”

In Hobson, the homes that are on Davis’ watch list have problems ranging from peeling paint to collapsed roofs.

“Hobson is not unlike other parts of Suffolk,” Davis said. “And public safety is the overriding issue for us.”

But some people in Hobson believe that the village’s history sets it apart and should prompt a different response — and perhaps a bit of financial aid — from the city.

“Hobson’s current residents are not folks who just recently ambled into Hobson but are the sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original deeded landowners of this neighborhood,” Mary Hill stated in a public outcry letter after a home was demolished in February. “Many of these same children have come back to Hobson with the intent of restoring the thriving nature of this community and enhancing, resurrecting and memorializing the history of it.”

Hill is a seventh-generation resident of the Hobson community and owns several properties there, some of which are under observation by the city’s Department of Community Development.

She also has spearheaded an effort to have the village’s history recognized at the state level. That effort led the Virginia Department of Historic Resources last year to set up a framework under which properties in Hobson might eventually be added to the state’s registry of historic landmarks.

Hobson, located off Crittenden Road between Sandy Bottom and Governors Pointe, was founded in the 1700s by freed slaves who made their living by harvesting the oysters from the nearby riverbeds.

Some of the homes there are more than 100 years old. But those homes, despite the fact that many are still inhabited, have since deteriorated. Some lack the basic necessity of running water. Some of the residents still rely on outhouses.

And some of those residents have made a conscious choice to sacrifice the historic significance of their old homes to the wrecking ball of progress.

To that end, one group has formed a civic league and has turned to the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project for help. The project helps rural communities to upgrade their water and wastewater systems through grants and loans to rehabilitate housing and build water and wastewater infrastructure.

In Hobson, it has helped finance the demolition of at least one home that lacked toilet facilities and the construction of a new one with complete sanitary facilities.

During a December meeting in which about 50 members of the village heard from Davis and a representative from the Department of Historic Resources, there were cheers and applause when residents heard that the way had been cleared for demolishing and rebuilding five Hobson homes.

Hill was not at that meeting, but she had some thoughts recently about its outcome.

“I helped bring them here to address the quality of life for those who had outdoor privies,” she said. “But those who want to improve their homes also have to respect those who want to preserve the history of their properties.”