The uglification of uptown Kingston

Earth Day was three days ago. I often write and comment on the beauty of our island and the many challenges it faces – climate change, deforestation, and environmental degradation of all kinds. But, solutions there are, if only someone would listen; but they are in a great hurry.

As I write, bulldozers are at work in a section of Hanover, destroying mangroves and coastal forest; apparently, this is to build a new large hotel. And when I say large, I am talking 2,000 rooms. While this is happening, Prime Minister Andrew Holness is making speeches at the United Nations, asserting that small island developing states like ours need more funds to help combat climate change. (I am sure we are aware that mangroves are a bulwark against the impact of climate change? Didn’t the National Environment and Planning Agency tell us so?)

But I digress. I am writing here about our urban – or suburban – environment. Kingston is an interesting city, a city I love dearly. And good things are happening downtown! The Ward Theatre is being gradually renovated, the waterfront – which is getting worn away by rising sea levels – is being strengthened (it’s called “revetment”). A huge amount of infrastructural work still needs to be done, to prevent the sewage pipe leaks, huge potholes and other regular signs of urban decay.

This amazing street art by Richard Nattoo is part of the Paint the City Street Art Project sponsored by the Tourism Enhancement Fund and Kingston Creative. Mr. Nattoo is one of the nominees for the Prime Minister’s Youth Awards for Excellence. (Photo: Twitter)

Inspired largely by Kingston Creative in partnership with Mayor Delroy Williams and the private sector, some parts of downtown are being “beautified” with brilliant, expressive art work that encapsulates Jamaican culture. Some of the narrow, formerly bleak little lanes are now bursting with color. It is hoped that all of this will support a growing arts, crafts and entrepreneurial cadre, a catalyst for creativity. It will certainly attract visitors, when the time comes. I know it was a hard struggle to get this off the ground in the early stages, but support is growing. It is long, long overdue.

So how are the “leafy suburbs” (mostly residential) of St. Andrew, outside the downtown area doing? Well, they are becoming less leafy every day, thanks to the inexorable creep of “the developers.” No, it’s not a creep really; it’s an inexorable assault. Almost overnight, bulldozers move in and a house or a tree that you grew up with, that is part of the landscape – is simply gone.

Moreover, not only old trees but old houses are being torn down to make way for parking lots, high-rise apartment blocks, commercial centres, even second hand car lots (as if we don’t have enough of those). Roads through communities where people live and work are being turned into highways with concrete walls down the middle (not trees or flowering bushes).

This lovely house on Seaview Avenue, demolished recently in order to accommodate some offices and a concrete parking lot, could have become an art gallery, with green space and a little park for residents to enjoy. It had a great cultural history, as Ms. Ford-Smith points out: “This…was built in the style of North African architecture. It stood on green space and was not yet hidden behind the towering prison-like walls pockmarked by barbed wire that have become the new norm in Kingston…Until recently, it housed the collection of work by artists like Albert Huie, Edna Manley, Karl Parboosingh, and other painters who followed them. That collection could have been updated and extended on site and shared with the public. That house had been the home of Burnett Webster, who first produced the plays of the great Una Marson back in the 1930s when Jamaicans began to chart an alternative to colonial imitation.”

Honor Ford-Smith wrote about this in the Sunday Gleaner today. What we need is public green space. The Golden Triangle Neighbourhood Association (GTNA) has been agitating for this, for some time, with close to zero official response to date (see below).

I know what the counter-arguments might be: People must have somewhere to live. Residents are just being snobbish and saying “Not In My Back Yard.” It’s progress, it’s development. If all else fails, some might pull the divisive partisan political/uptown/downtown/class/brown people cards, or a combination of same. However, our Prime Minister’s vision for the city, as expressed fairly recently, was that high rise housing is the way to go.

In her Gleaner article, Ms. Ford-Smith stresses:

I am not here arguing for the preservation of icons of the wealthy. I am arguing for the importance of public space and green space in a city that is changing rapidly. I am arguing for us to make use of the natural assets that we have instead of destroying them in favour of mimicking the profound ugliness and alienation of northern cities.

Referring to the wanton destruction of a historic home on Seaview Avenue (see photo above), she continues:

If this well-off suburb with its considerable concentration of capital can’t hold back the hand of the vulgar neoliberal pirates and guineagogs, what hope then for the rest of us? Will the next building to be crushed be the historic site of the foundation of the University of the West Indies at 62 Lady Musgrave? I can see the developers drooling now, their wallets throbbing in their trousers as they look at the green space around this building.

If we continue at this race, it’ll be all over, folks. Carbon and disease know not rank, and the hinges of hell will be cooler than our city if we can’t come up with an alternative to enjoying the age of me. The trees are being destroyed to make way for concrete structures, and the birds have already fled.

Except, perhaps, from our yard, which we have deliberately turned into an urban forest. We have the only guango tree left in our neighborhood, where large (older) trees in particular have been hacked into oblivion. We (and our close neighbors) are a cool oasis for ourselves and the birds, in a spreading desert of overheated concrete.

Another modest, older house falls victim. (My photo)

We need these public green spaces desperately, more than ever – for our physical and mental health. You only have to look at the few such spaces that exist in uptown Kingston, which are overflowing with people on weekends.

Whatever the arguments, pros and cons, one thing is for certain: developers certainly seem empowered. They are having their way. Just as I wonder how the hotel builders in Hanover got permission for their depredations into our precious, dwindling mangroves, I also wonder how they got permission to chop down the beautiful, slow-growing lignum vitae trees (our National Flower), destroy roads with trucks, create unbearable noise and dust pollution for those living nearby. Is this all really “development”?

But the fact is… they did get permission from the “powers that be.” And who are we, mere members of the public, to question this?

Footnote: After several attempts to communicate by telephone and letter, the same “powers that be” (that is, the Office of the Prime Minister, the National Works Agency and others) do not seem particularly interested in questions and concerns on the topic of urban development (or rather, degradation) and do not wish to hear about solutions offered by those who live and work in the area. This is not about complaining for the sake of it. Change is inevitable, we all know that. It is sustainability that residents are concerned about – a livable community.

Poor Vale Royal (where former Prime Minister Edward Seaga lived for a while) has certainly seen better days. The Office of the Prime Minister is responsible for this historic building. (My photo)

Efforts by the GTNA to talk to (or meet) with someone at the relevant Government offices regarding A) the sad state of the historic Vale Royal house and B) plans for Lady Musgrave Road have been met with a level of indifference and a “passing the buck” approach that is quite remarkable. The GTNA sent a detailed, technical six-page letter regarding plans for Lady Musgrave Road. An acknowledgement was eventually received but there has been silence since then.

The GTNA continues to advocate for sustainable development plans throughout the community for all those who live, work and do business in the area. There are other citizens’ groups who have similar concerns.

Because – yes, there is another way to live, for ourselves and our children and grandchildren.

A vision for a better community, from a GTNA workshop in October, 2018. Representatives from all the “relevant Government authorities” were all there. But 2 1/2 years later, are they listening?

4 thoughts on “The uglification of uptown Kingston

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