Mon | Apr 24, 2017

Chucking poor people out of Kingston

Published:Sunday | September 13, 2015 | 9:00 AM

Last Sunday, The Gleaner published an article by Delroy Chuck, MP for North East St Andrew, in which he attempted to clarify his presentation on urban renewal made in Parliament on September 1. Denying that he was advocating "gentrification", Chuck insisted that he "never suggested the replacement of poor people's homes by middle-income and affluent residents".

But Chuck's defence raises more questions than it answers: "My proposal is for the Government to use the Housing Act or any necessary law to acquire large tracts of property, of at least five acres, in communities such as Vineyard Town, Allman Town, Rollington Town, Franklyn Town, Swallowfield, etc., and enter into joint-venture agreements with private developers to build affordable apartments and town houses in closed, gated and safe communities."

These towns are not exactly downtown. They are uppish. Who will be able to afford the apartments and town houses in these new exclusive gated communities? The same people who sell off their old houses to the Government? Hardly likely. Mr Chuck hasn't thought through the matter carefully enough.

Yet, he confidently asserts, "No doubt, the properties being acquired should be purchased at market value or even at more fair and reasonable prices to allow their owners to buy into homes elsewhere or, perhaps in time, into one of the homes being constructed in the newly developed areas." How long is "in time"? And where, exactly, is "elsewhere"? Sounds a lot like never and nowhere.

 

KINGSTON BOLSTERED BRITAIN

 

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, downtown Kingston was very prosperous. The city was founded soon after the 1692 earthquake destroyed Port Royal. Located at the mouth of a magnificent harbour, Port Royal had long been a major logistics hub. Of course, when the wickedest city on earth was established in 1518, almost five centuries ago, that fancy term wasn't in fashion.

All the same, Port Royal and, later, Kingston were bustling trans-shipment centres. Goods moved through the harbour from Europe to North and South America. And raw materials went back. Enslaved people were transported from Africa and shipped to various destinations in the so-called New World! New to who? But that's another story.

The British writer, Michael Scott, born in 1789, came to work as an estate manager in Jamaica in 1806. He wrote a novel, Tom Cringle's Log, which gives a sweeping account of the grand scale of business generated by the port of Kingston: " ... The whole of the trade of Terra Firma, from Porto Cavello down to Chagres, the greater part of the trade of the islands of Cuba and San Domingo, and even that of Lima and San Blas, and the other ports of the Pacific, carried on across the Isthmus of Darien, centred in Kingston ... ."

Even if there's some fictional exaggeration in the novel, historians do confirm that Kingston was a major port, generating vast wealth. In the words of Tom Cringle, "The result of this princely traffic, more magnificent than that of Tyre, was a stream of gold and silver flowing into the Bank of England, to the extent of three millions of pounds sterling annually, in return for British manufactures ... ."

Cringle admits that this Kingston traffic bolstered the British economy, "supplying the sinews of war to the government at home, and, besides the advantage of so large a mart [market], employing an immense amount of British tonnage, and many thousand seamen; and in numberless ways opening up new outlets to British enterprise and capital". And some of us still feel that the demand for reparations is a big joke at our expense!

 

CUT AND RUN

 

In 1907, a massive earthquake devastated Kingston. Rich people fled to the suburbs. Poor people remained. They had no choice. It's the same old story. Environmental disaster highlights class divisions. As Buju Banton laments in Untold Stories:

Who can afford to run will run

But what about those who can't?

They will have to stay

Opportunity a scarce, scarce

commodity

In these times I say

Now and then! By the 1950s, the gap between those who could run and those who had to stay widened with the relocation of the commercial capital from old to New Kingston. Downtown Kingston was virtually abandoned by the wealthy. I wonder whose 'bright' idea it was to turn the Knutsford Park Race Track into an uptown ghetto, free of poor people.

To think that nobody then could see the value of rehabilitating Kingston, so beautifully situated on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world! In a more enlightened society, city planners would have 'sighted' a new Kingston in its original location. Instead, we took the easy way out: cut and run.

The days when downtown Kingston was the playground of the rich are long gone - just like the famous Myrtle Bank hotel. It's mostly poor people who still live and work downtown. With a few stubborn corporate exceptions! The old city and its environs can be revitalised. But we have to carefully consider how it is to be done. We have to accommodate both the haves and the have-nots. It's a complex issue. We can't afford to just Chuck it.

- Carolyn Cooper is a teacher of English language and literature. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.