George Davis | Renewed downtown emerging
As I sat in the outdoor dining area at the new Ribbiz on the Kingston waterfront a few weeks ago, I almost had one of those 'pinch yourself' moments.
I felt this way as I looked across into the distance to my left at the cars snaking along the Palisadoes roadway, then to my right as a plane taxied on the runway at the Norman Manley International Airport. All this while trying to blink away the slight burning sensation in my eyes caused by a light spray of seawater that had crashed on to the wall of the lounge.
I had to battle to keep the paper napkin from blowing off the table, as the sea breeze was particularly strong on that Friday afternoon. Never has the Kingston Harbour appeared to me to be more aesthetic, perhaps even a little exotic.
And as I chewed on my lunch and drank in the scenery, I completely forgot that I was in downtown Kingston. The same downtown Kingston that many people unfamiliar with the space are afraid of. The same downtown Kingston stained by decades of violent crime, marked by zinc fences and, in some cases, no fences. The same downtown Kingston defined by loose gangs of thieves blending in with the crowd of bustling higglers, vendors, shop workers and transport providers.
The same downtown Kingston in which many motorists speak with pride about never having wound down their car windows as they've driven through. The same downtown Kingston where some people would have you believe there's an infection in the air that compromises the proper functioning of vital organs and even their personalities.
The new Ribbiz shares space with, among others, Gloria's Restaurant and M10 Bar and Grill. It is a tremendous addition to a fantastic location, representing tangible proof that downtown Kingston is indeed on the way back.
Various administrations over the past 30 years have spoken with conviction about the redevelopment of downtown Kingston. Digicel made a bold move to plant its headquarters on the waterfront at a time when other large companies weren't keen on putting down roots in one of the most crime-infested and underdeveloped capital cities in this part of the world.
As I sat waiting for my meal at Ribbiz, my mind drifted to the impression left in my head by the splendour of the Victoria and Alfred Mall on the Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. I spent a week in Cape Town in 2002, with most days catching me lounging inside the food court at this wonderful facility.
The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront development attracts 24 million visitors each year, offering 450-plus stores, 80 restaurants, 10 hotels and 600 residential units. That development employs 17,000 people, predominantly South Africans. The astonishing thing about the V&A Waterfront was that prior to 1988, the area was a rundown part of Cape Town appearing to lack the glorious future it has since enjoyed.
I draw a parallel between the V&A Waterfront development in Cape Town and the steady transformation of downtown Kingston to show that a space which was once gritty, crime ridden and underdeveloped can be transformed into a world-class attraction that invites investment and generates meaningful, long-term employment.
There have been numerous studies done, papers written and policies touted by governments concerning the redevelopment of downtown Kingston. Because of the tremendous amount of groundwork needed to energise that process, people could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has been done or is being done.
But the construction of a new home by GraceKennedy, the building of the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the addition of restaurant and dining facilities like the one described above, and the construction of apartment buildings smack on the waterfront is hard evidence that in a few more years, downtown Kingston will be back.
Pretty soon, most Jamaicans will be proud of doing business and spending leisure time in downtown Kingston, and we'll have no cause for shame if our overseas-based friends and family come 'a yaad' and ask us to take them to the waterfront on a Sunday evening.