On the Milk Stand

Something happened recently that went without much comment. A building that once stood at the northwestern corner of Mackey and Shirley Streets was bulldozed down to rubble. The reason? To create a turning lane. The building? A milk stand.Before I go on, let me say that I don’t have a problem with the bulldozing of the milk stand. Oh, I felt a twinge of regret at seeing it go. But this isn’t going to be a polemic on the evils of tearing down historic buildings to ease traffic congestion. I recognize the need for a turning lane right at that point, and I applaud the decision to make that corner more efficient for traffic. The decision was a pragmatic one, and it was a good one, as far as it went.What I do want to write about is our capacity for bulldozing that building without understanding — without even asking — what a milk stand is and why it’s significant for the city of Nassau. So I want to give a little history about the milk stand.Before I do, let me say that I am not a historian, so this article isn’t going to be giving dates and full names and all the written facts. I’m an anthropologist, and have the luxury of regarding history as one of a set of stories that people tell themselves and their children to make sense of the world, to make sense of themselves. All too often we live in blessed ignorance of our ancestors and their lives, their struggles and their needs. We Nassauvians are still fortunate enough to inhabit a city in which our forefathers’ stories are written in the very buildings we see around us, but we exist in such studied ignorance of what those stories are that when things happen to change that environment, we have no way of knowing what has changed.Here’s my version of the milk stand story.Once upon a time, there was a man named Harold Christie. Now he is incidental to the story of the milk stand, except in one respect — he invented the first Bahamian model of development-through-foreign-investment. Thanks to H. C. Christie, during the 1920s, when other countries in the region were struggling with post-war poverty, industrial unrest, and hardship, The Bahamas flourished. Part of this was due to the transhipment of liquor to the USA. But part of it, thanks to Christie, was the first Bahamian land boom since the Loyalists. Long before the UBP or the PLP or the FNM were ever dreamed about, Harold Christie was selling Bahamian land, water and climate to the first foreign investors to line the government’s coffers with gold.Enter Austin Levy, who bought huge tracts of land in Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera, to start a dairy farm. He started big by Bahamian standards, and grew huge. By the time the Second World War rolled around (and go look up the dates if your history education was faulty and you have no idea when that was), the Hatchet Bay farms were producing enough milk and eggs and cream to feed a nation.And feed the nation they did — the nation as it existed in the capital city. At the same time that bootlegging was making the city rich, the out islands were struggling. The poverty that fell upon them in the post-war years was not helped by the rash of hurricanes — rather like the ones we’re having now — that swept through the colony between 1926 and 1935. Out islanders were migrating to the city in droves, settling areas like the Valley and Englerston and the Grove and Chippingham. The city of Nassau, whose public infrastructure stopped at the ridge we call the Hill, was straining under the growing population. One major concern was sanitation. Most of those who lived in the Over the Hill area — our ancestors — lived in one- or two-room houses with no plumbing or electricity, and everyone washed and lived in the yard. The country was wealthy, but many people were poor. And by the time the Duke of Windsor came to Nassau as Governor, the poverty and the well-being of the average Bahamian were starting to become serious concerns.Enter Austin Levy with his dairy farm and a plan to create a healthier population by providing people with fresh dairy products to build strong bones and teeth and to keep the illnesses at bay. In those days, the Bahamian diet consisted of fish, grits, and what people grew in their own back gardens. Lobster was dirt-cheap, an everyday dish, and chicken (which you killed and cleaned yourself) was reserved for Sundays. Fresh meat was to be had only on high feast days like Easter; eggs were things that came out of chickens, and milk was something you poured from a can.So Mr. Levy built a dock on East Bay Street where he brought his produce, and he erected little stone booths at intervals throughout the city, placing them on intersections where people could get to them. From the 1940s until the early 1970s, the milk stands were places where you could go to get fresh milk and eggs, things most Nassauvians had never had before. They were distinctive for their rounded corners and their walls half covered in thousands of tiny tiles, and for their service windows and their little steps that allowed people to purchase what they needed as they passed.Thanks in part to Mr. Levy and his milk stands, Nassau’s population became better nourished and healthier. Now I’m not claiming Mr. Levy was a local or national hero; what was good for Nassauvians was equally kind to his pocket. And so in the demolition of the milk stand at Mackey and Shirley Streets, history is repeating itself in a strange sort of way. The stand was put up by a foreign investor whose kindness to us helped his own bottom line; it was taken down with the assistance of another foreign investor whose helpful nature is equally good for business. Making traffic move more smoothly at Mackey Street will not only ease congestion on our side of the bridge; the hope, of course, is that it will affect Paradise Island’s traffic jams as well. This is not to say that any of this is a bad thing. It’s simply to tell us a little more about who we Bahamians are.And so the story of the milk stand: a story of our past, a story of our selves.