The Mayor has a vision for the City – as all good mayors should.
I manage to secure a half hour with His Worship the Mayor of Kingston and St. Andrew, Councillor Delroy Williams, on a busy afternoon. He is in between important visitors departing, and pressing matters brought to his desk by Town Clerk Robert Hill at the end of our talk.
Mayor Williams has a calm and almost self-deprecating manner, with a little humour rising to the surface from time to time. When describing his vision, he becomes serious. “To put it succinctly,” he begins, “I want to make Kingston the number one city in the Caribbean – the capital city of the Caribbean – and a truly global city.” Taking it a step further, he would also like to see Kingston become a “major player of influence” in the Latin American/Caribbean region, in terms of sports, politics, trade, international relations, culture and so on.
Mr. Williams puts the tips of his fingers together and expands on the vision. Firstly, he sees Kingston becoming a tourist destination. “Brand Jamaica”? Well, why not “Brand Kingston”? City tourism is a growing trend, he notes. He sees Kingston Harbour filled with vessels of all shapes and sizes. Boats will ferry tourists from the cruise ships (some 3,000 passengers) to the historic town of Port Royal. On the other side of the Harbour there will be the expanded sea port for trade. This will not only bring life to the Harbour, but will also generate economic activity at several levels. “I see Kingston as a path to economic development,” he adds.
In connection with this, we note that Kingston was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Music in late 2015. And yet, Mayor Williams points out, Kingston has never hosted any large-scale international reggae (or other music) events. It’s time that changed.
Speaking of the economy, Mr. Williams is currently looking at the markets, which bring so much energy into the city. The famous Coronation Market has a special place in Jamaicans’ hearts, despite being situated in what is, from time to time, a somewhat volatile community. It is the largest market in the English-speaking Caribbean, covering roughly two acres. It was badly damaged by fire in 2010, but has since pulled itself back up. It is as popular as ever, despite the challenges. Coronation Market is one of those places where Jamaicans go as much for the experience as for the actual act of shopping for yam and okra and mango and pear (prices are very reasonable, by the way). It’s a tradition. Now, Mayor Williams’ plan is to “commercialise” Coronation Market; by this he means “interspersing” the market area with commercial centres. Of necessity, he said, “structure and order” must be brought to the market, which is always lively, but often chaotic.
And speaking of order, Mayor Williams is concerned with the vexed issue of street vendors (who spill out in the doorways of stores, onto the sidewalks and into the street itself at times). “The vendors are critical to the economic life of the City,” Mayor Williams affirms. “They have been chased all over the City. We have to respect human dignity, as well as create opportunities for them.” Indeed, how often have we seen these vendors harassed by law enforcement, running down the street with their goods falling out of their hands, or having their wares confiscated, despite their pleadings.
Sad as this situation is, however, downtown businesspeople will be quick to tell you that vendors do not pay any rent, taxes or light bills. Nevertheless, Mayor Williams would like to see them do better: “We have to find a way for them to operate legally,” he says. He is looking at special “vendor streets” (Beckford Street being one), which would be pedestrian areas. Local stores are not quite sold on the idea yet, perhaps, and arrangements would have to be made to accommodate deliveries to the stores, Mayor Williams notes. There are a lot of details to be worked out; cities are complex places. I personally think more pedestrian areas would be of benefit to businesses, vendors and shoppers alike.
So where would people park? Kingston’s narrow downtown streets are often clogged with traffic, and parking is an issue. I wanted to ask more about transportation – an issue that plagues many cities these days – but Mayor Williams says he would like to establish paid parking areas – with increased security – on streets that are normally not used.
Mayor Williams mentions green spaces. Ah, good! He tells me he is planning to have “KSAMC roving teams” moving from one part of the city to the other, engaged in beautification activities – planting trees, etc. We simply don’t have enough green space, he agrees.
This brings us on to another difficult and much commented on problem: that of solid waste. I express great concern about the ageing and neglected infrastructure of downtown Kingston – sewage systems, broken water mains, potholed roads, and so on. Is it ready for development as a tourist destination, if these structures are decaying? Mayor Williams says the Corporation is in dialogue with central government on such matters. Do you have the funds for all this work, I persist? “It’s not just a question of funds,” Mayor Williams responds. “It’s a question of using the funds efficiently and without waste.”
I ask Mayor Williams what his favourite city is. He is momentarily stumped, but laughs: “Kingston, of course!” Apart from Kingston? He finds it difficult to answer; perhaps he hasn’t found one that really seizes his imagination, yet. I thought this would be an easy question. However, he tells me he will be visiting Mexico City soon, to look at their pedestrian areas and to see how they are regulated.
Mayor Williams says he would like to see Kingston as a “sustainable city.” Certainly, it must be as safe and clean and attractive to visitors and residents as possible; but it must also aim towards ultimate self-sufficiency in terms of water, food and energy. Cities are greedy and demanding. More and more humans will be living in cities by 2030, so city planners, policy makers and residents themselves must start thinking along these lines. Mayor Williams sees this as very much a long term vision. “Now,” he says, “we are establishing the foundation.”
Air pollution is an issue Mayor Williams has been concerned about for quite some time. According to the World Health Organisation, the ambient air pollution of particulate matter in urban areas in Jamaica is higher than the average for the Latin America/Caribbean region and the third highest in CARICOM. Two years ago, as the terrible fire at the Riverton City dump raged, Mayor Williams (who is Councillor for the Seivwright Gardens Division, just a mile or so from the dump) urged the Ministry of Health to test nearby residents for high levels of toxins (and in particular, the cancer-causing substance benzene) in their bodies. “It’s in our interest to address this issue,” says the Mayor. “It’s a public health issue, and there is a major cost involved. The Riverton fire was really deadly.”
I love the City of Kingston. It’s been my home for decades now, and there is a special energy about it. It may be a little rough around the edges, but what city isn’t? There is much work to be done, but I wish Mayor Delroy Williams well as he seeks to implement his vision. It’s not very different from my own.
I wish our conversation had been longer, but I would like to thank Mayor Williams and his efficient Personal Assistant Kimberley; as well as the friendly and humorous receptionist downstairs, Mikisha.
Footnote 1: The hotly contested high school athletics championships (“Champs”) has just begun, so Jamaicans (mostly the men) of all ages are conscious of their school (or old school) allegiance. Although Mayor Williams was wearing a mauve shirt, he is not a Kingston College old boy. “I am a Calabar man,” he told his departing guest, who enquired about the colour.
Footnote 2: Speaking of clothing, I almost got myself disbarred from the precincts of the KSAMC. I was wearing a sleeveless top. I had completely forgotten about the strictly enforced dress code at Government offices. It’s a good thing I was wearing a scarf, which I draped around my upper arms like a shawl, rendering myself more modest. Another woman in the reception area, who was wearing a rather more low-cut top, was not so lucky and was banished. She lingered outside, frowning, on her cell phone.
I studied the notice in the reception area (and on the window outside) and noted the following:
STRICT DRESS CODE ENFORCED
MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC WHO ARE NOT PROPERLY ATTIRED ARE PROHIBITED FROM ENTERING THE BUILDING, IF YOU ARE WEARING ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
SHORTS VERY SHORT MINI-SKIRTS TANK TOP BLOUSES TUBE TOPS LOW CUT BLOUSES SPAGHETTI STRAP BLOUSES SLEEVELESS BLOUSES MIDRIFFS etc.
MERINOS/UNDER-SHIRTS ONLY SHORTS SLIPPERS LOW SLUNG PANTS WITH EXPOSED UNDERWEAR etc.
ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS!
So, you have been warned… I am worried about the “etc.” part too. It suggests that, like immigration officials who may have some latitude, the strict security guards at the door might be able to bar an unsuspecting lady or man from entry, at their discretion. To be on the safe side, perhaps the ladies should wear a burka. (No, just kidding! Or am I? The ladies’ list of prohibited clothing is longer…)