A FERAL FANTASYLAND

A Major Real Estate Developer’s Stunning Display of Goodness

Note: An abridged version of this article appeared in the March-April 2022 edition of Catster Magazine

Most of us — well, perhaps all of us — have always had the impression that real estate developers (particularly the behemoths) are greedy, careless, heartless and could really care less about what they might destroy in pursuit of their construction aims. From our perspective it’s pretty much about building what they want where they want, getting their cash, and bailing. Smash and grab, if you will. And in many if not most cases, this is very true.

But not in all cases. Check this out:

About three years ago, I moved to a neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia called East Beach, the outer edge of which for years was lined with marinas, boat hotels and a seedy bar or two. The story of the evolution of East Beach would require an entirely different article, but suffice to say much change has and continues to come to the area. Demolition and construction currently abounds where I am, the marina district, and the face of the place is in a dramatic state of transition. The marinas thankfully remain, in fact they’re all getting needed facelifts, but everything on land here has been / is being turned upside down for new beach homes, luxury apartments, condos and whatnot.

East Beach Marina District, in the early days of total rebuild. The large building at center right is the old Boat Hotel referenced here, razed for the Senior Living facility and longtime home of the East Beach Cats. The land in the background between the marinas and the Chesapeake Bay, which for decades was pretty much a drug and prostitution slum and reportedly identified by TIME Magazine as on the most wasted real estate spaces in America, was totally razed and rebuilt from scratch and is now packed with luxury beach homes in a park-like setting. Here you see the beginnings of that development, which has been completed for some time.

Days after I moved into the area, I noticed next door on the property of what was an old boat hotel a sort of mini shantytown of small wooden boxes, and a sheltered stand loaded with cat food and supplies. All just sitting there on the edge of the property surrounded by a patch of weeds. As I approached, I suddenly noticed about four identical looking black cats lounging around in said weeds, on top of the little boxes, and just hanging around the area. A KittyTown, it was!

Before — on the grounds of the Boat Hotel. My Apartment building, built about five years ago, is in background.

As a fascinated “Cat person,” I asked around and learned that about eight years prior, a bunch of black cats had been wandering the neighborhood, and their numbers had been growing. So some locals, assisted by a local veterinarian, rounded up the cats which numbered about nine at that point, spayed and neutered them, and created the little KittyTown. To this day, twelve amazingly committed locals take turns feeding, watering and looking after them every day of the year. The kindness and dedication is something to behold.

They came to be called the East Beach Cats, and they and their little shantytown are almost sacred here (and the cats know it, believe me!). They all look exactly the same — jet black with piercing yellow eyes — except for one, a once-wandering Siamese who came upon the little KittyTown one day and never left. His name is Frank. He stands out like a sore thumb.

Not long after I moved in, word spread that the boat hotel where the East Beach Cats’ complex was located was set to be razed. The property had been bought by the development arm of a company called Bonaventure, which had plans to build a luxury senior living facility on the property. While the idea of such a facility likely to be filled with agreeable new senior citizen neighbors sounded great, and Bonaventure was known in the area and not disliked, we all were nervous about what would happen to our ferals.

As demolition began on the boat hotel, KittyTown was cordoned off and the area, which again was on the very edge of the property, was untouched. But what was ultimately going to happen there? Certainly, as the spot was weedy and the little wooden boxes not exactly attractive, the scene was inconsistent with a luxury complex. As the complex, which came to be called Acclaim at East Beach and indeed was looking luxurious as promised neared completion, the news of the fate of the East Beach Cats finally came. Not only were they going to remain exactly where they were, the folks at Bonaventure had quietly designed a new mini complex for them, matching the look and paint scheme of the larger complex, planned to professionally landscape the weedy area, and pledged to grant the caretakers the same access to to the piece of land that they have always had. The relief and gratitude in the community was palpable to say the least.

Last fall, it all materialized. As you can see from the photos, Bonaventure crews basically created a waterfront park for the ferals in addition to a fantastic and secure new home. It is a wonder, and it is obvious that the cats are enjoying it all very much.

After!
Ribbon cutting!

“We are beyond grateful for everything Bonaventure has done for the cats,” said local Lori Harrington on behalf of the caretakers, “Allowing them to stay was all we wished for. Designing and building them luxury waterfront condos was beyond our wildest dreams and for that, a simple thank you seems inadequate.”

Volunteer Caretaker Lori Harrington and Friend
Coolin’ at the Crib.

So there we are. The happiest of endings. I would be remiss, and I’m guessing Harrington would agree, if I didn’t emphasize that their new home is their space and theirs alone. It is absolutely essential for anyone who happens to visit the area (it’s a wonderful beach, by the way and a great place to visit) and strolls by to have a look to keep their distance, and to eschew any temptation to toss food to them. They are well fed twice a day on a carefully selected diet that keeps them happy and healthy. And approaching them (if you aren’t a known caretaker) makes them extremely uncomfortable. Not that they’d let you near them, but still…just FYI.

Bonaventure, of course, did not have to do this. They could have used that space for any number of things — it’s not a particularly small space — but they chose goodness, generosity, and to honor the community and the volunteers’ longstanding work to see to the wellbeing of these animals.

Bravo, Bonaventure. May your example inspire others in your industry to find ways to give as they take, so to speak.

Now, statistics show that around 70 million cats in the United States are feral or unowned, so in that shade the East Beach gesture is of course small. But small gestures grow and inspire quickly as does kindness and community spirit. Obviously not everyone can build a luxury mini condo for feral cats and it’s certainly not necessary to do so. But if this small and generous act makes people think more about the crisis of feral animals — and it is a crisis — and come up with their own community solutions, then this small act is in fact a massive one. Or, as Desmond Tutu said much more eloquently: “Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

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CHRISTIAN JOSI

CHRISTIAN JOSI

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Veteran media / comms advisor & political strategist, producer, non-profit management pro, writer for a variety of publications. Beach dweller. Handful.