The value of an easy place to miss

Published 9:08 pm Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hobson is an easy place to miss. With just a handful of houses along Crittenden Road — which itself is only a lightly traveled road connecting Route 10 and Route 17 —the village is receding in the rear view mirror of many visitors before they are aware they’ve missed it.

But pull off the main road sometime and drive around the few intersecting streets that comprise the community and you’ll find a close-knit collection of homes and churches where most folks know one another and many families have lived for generations.

What you’ll also find are some of the poorest living conditions in all of Suffolk. Some people in Hobson live in homes without working toilets, relying instead on pit privies. Others, as Suffolk News-Herald readers will have learned during a recent series about the village, live in houses that do not meet city building standards. Some of the most dilapidated of the structures stand empty as the city cajoles and threatens non-resident owners to fix up the buildings, which officials contend can be dangerous and promote illegal activities.

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In the midst of this community has grown an argument over the nature of many of those old structures. On one side are those who want to see living conditions improve for Hobson villagers. That group have organized a civic league whose primary focus has been on getting help from a private foundation that works to bring running water and working toilets to rural communities and homes that lack those amenities.

On the other side of the debate is a small group — with some backing from the State Department of Historic Resources — that claims the historical value of those old, inadequate homes is such that they should be saved from bulldozers, whether they’re sent by city officials or private individuals. The first of a small group of Hobson homes slated for help from that private foundation, in fact, was one that the DHR had under consideration for designation as a historic resource. The home’s owner, however, wanted an indoor bathroom more than he wanted to protect an old structure that might have had some minor historical significance, and he was able to get private help to fund the rebuilding cost.

It’s not hard for most people to understand what drove that man’s decision. Sometimes things have genuine historic value and deserve protection — even to the point of government subsidies. But the simple fact that something is old does not make it historic, nor should it oblige taxpayer support. And when a private owner decides the structure no longer meets his requirements, he has the right and the responsibility to make the necessary improvements — at his own expense or through the willing and informed charity of family members, friends or other private organizations.

What may be harder for some folks in Hobson to swallow is this: When those repairs and improvements go undone for so long that a building becomes a danger to the community, the city then has a right and a responsibility to require that remedial work be done. And when that work is not done after a protracted process of cajoling the owner, city officials should do just what they’ve done in at least one Hobson case — send in the bulldozers.