A crowd gathered behind the Aquinnah Firehouse for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Aquinnah Town Center Apartments on Thursday afternoon.
The four residential units will house families, and are slated to be inhabited starting July 1 of next year.
The apartments will provide affordable housing, with preference to Aquinnah residents, or to those with a job or children attending school within Aquinnah. The exact process for filling the homes will be finalized between the town and the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.
The apartments are part of a larger town center plan for Aquinnah, along with a playground, and a foraging area in collaboration with Island Grown Initiative.
“In terms of the town planning to really strengthen the town center here … [the apartments are] really one of the main pieces of it, with the playground — that we’ve been trying to do for literally 20 years — and the food forest,” chair of the Aquinnah Community Preservation committee Derrill Bazzy said.
Approaching the groundbreaking ceremony from the firehouse, a drumming performance was audible courtesy of Woody Vanderhoop, tribal council secretary of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, and his children.
The event then transitioned to opening remarks by Bazzy, and by Juli Vanderhoop of the Aquinnah Select Board and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). Vanderhoop focused on the value of affordable housing for locals, and especially for Aquinnah Wampanoags: “Affordable housing is something that’s good for this Island. We might not see what we are losing when we don’t build affordable housing. But what we’re losing is the community. In particular for Wampanoag people, our community.”
Also central to Thursday’s event was the unveiling of the Carl Widdiss Way street sign, in memory of the well-known Wampanoag figure.
Through Widdiss’s work as an Aquinnah Select Board member and housing committee member, efforts for this housing project began over a decade ago, said Bazzy: “He was the one who really spearheaded the town considering purchasing this land … And the town got it, and said, ‘Yeah, in the long term, this really makes sense, for us to have this — it’s right behind Town Hall.’”
Speakers throughout the event shared fond memories of Widdiss. “When you needed help, he was there,” said Carol Vandal, board secretary of the Aquinnah Cultural Center.
Vandal also spoke to the crowd about her experience hearing of Widdiss’ death while she was teaching in Minneapolis, as well as her feelings of healing upon returning to Aquinnah: “It’s so good to be home.”
Vandal additionally highlighted the importance of affordable housing in Aquinnah, noting that her children are not able to come home to the Island.
After her speech, Vandal, a poet and musician, gave a flute performance for the audience.
Regarding the project’s current success, Bazzy credited developer Island Housing Trust and builder Southwest Construction, as well as master planning from the Conway School of Landscape Design.
“The town is very supportive of housing. Aquinnah is very supportive. So when we had a good proposal, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, let’s do it,'” said Bazzy.