Thu | Aug 24, 2017

Fixing up National Heroes Park and writing parish histories

Published:Sunday | January 3, 2016 | 1:00 AM
Jermaine Barnaby/Photographer Workmen are well advanced in the construction of a $151-million fence at Heroes Circle in Kingston.

Let me start the New Year with some good-news commentary. A government has finally found the courage, and with a general election looming, to commit J$2.5 billion to the phased development of National Heroes Park. The development will include the erection of a new Parliament building.

Two unpopular but necessary things I have long been advocating for. And a vintage private enterprise, Jamaica National Building Society, through its foundation, is committing resources to the writing of parish histories.

Two very useful projects for the preservation of Jamaica's history and culture and building national pride.

Demonstrating action, not a bag a mouth, work on the perimeter fencing component of the National Heroes Park redevelopment project has already begun. The announcement of the project was made early last November with the signing of an MOU among various stakeholders.

Initial funding is off-budget with money coming from the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), the Culture, Health, Arts, Sports and Education (CHASE) Fund, and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). The project is open to support by others. But I would have had no problem at all with on-budget financing for the development of this premier public space which houses the shrines for our national heroes, is the designated place of interment for our departed prime ministers, and to which the national Parliament is to be relocated.

The TEF was established in 2005 and is fed by tourist taxes specifically to implement projects and programmes for the growth and development of the tourism sector.

Kingston and Jamaicans are too regularly excluded from the tourism calculation. The minister who is leading the project, Omar Davies (Transport, Works and Housing), has made a clear case for using the development of National Heroes Park to help drive Kingston tourism, which will naturally includes domestic visitors to this showpiece in the heart of the nation's capital.

CHASE, funded by betting and gaming taxes, was set up in 2003 to do what its long name says, including supporting arts and culture, and health and education could be thrown in, too, in the planned development of National Heroes Park.

Piles of public money

I have long argued that these special funds sitting on piles of public money, which are really off-budget taxes, should be tapped more broadly to drive national development in areas related to their mandate, and if necessary, their regulations be amended to allow greater latitude in the 'developmental' use of the funds they hold.

Parliament, not just the Cabinet, should closely oversee the deployment of these funds for strategic development actions.

I went to the Jamaica Information Service website to learn more about this exciting, long-overdue project which is now up and running. For one thing, I was worried that that perimeter fence now being constructed could readily become a wall of exclusion and excessive control in our super-security environment. I hope that doesn't happen. We can learn a lot from others who have done it right, like the British, about the unobtrusive security control of quite open public spaces.

There will be six main pedestrian access gates, which will bear the names of the National Heroes, with the main gate doubling with the names of Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante. Cousins to the end.

The $2.5 billion project, which will be undertaken in phases, will include a Parliament building, a recreational area, and improved spaces for monuments, including the existing shrines of the national heroes and those for prime ministers and Jamaican cultural icons.

Minister Davies said the project to transform the park into a world-class facility would serve to engender greater appreciation among Jamaicans, particularly the youth, for the country's rich history.

Major attraction

"Given its rich history, (the park)," said Davies, "can become a major attraction in the rebirth of Kingston as a tourism centre."

Then I went to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust website for some of that rich history. The area on which the National Heroes Park now stands was once one of the most popular spots in Kingston.

For 101 years, the land was the centre for horse racing in Jamaica. It was also the site for other sporting activities such as cricket and cycle racing. Being a place where people naturally gathered, the area was also the venue for travelling circuses that visited the island from time to time.

In 1818, the Kingston Council purchased the land, which was part of a property called Montgomery Pen, for £985 and 10 shillings. It was later known as the Kingston Race Course because of its dominance as the place in the city for horse racing, and remained so until horse racing was transferred to Knutsford Park, now New Kingston.

Several major events are associated with the site now occupied by National Heroes Park. These include:

- August 2, 1838, grand festivities marking the end of apprenticeship and the beginning of full freedom were held here.

- Queen Victoria's golden and diamond jubilees were celebrated here in 1887 and 1897.

The Jamaica National Exhibition was held from January 27, to May 2, 1891, in a building called Quebec Lodge where the Wolmer's Boys and Girls' schools are now located. This great exhibition marked the beginning of tourism in Jamaica which was then very much Kingston-based. Hotels were built to house overseas visitors to the exhibition and then offered accommodation to people wanting to escape the northern cold and those who saw the tropics as friendly to recovery from illness. Health tourism.

- In 1953, the Kingston Race Course was renamed the George VI Memorial Park in honour of the late King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II. The grounds were prepared for the Queen's first visit to the island.

- In the same year, a War Memorial to honour those who died in the First World War was removed from its original location at Church Street and relocated here. Each year, on Remembrance Day, the first Sunday in November, veterans gather around the Cenotaph to honour the memory of those who died in World Wars I & II.

- The site was officially renamed the National Heroes Park in 1973 and is now a permanent place for honouring our national heroes, whose monuments are located in the area known as the Shrine. Another section, reserved for prime ministers and outstanding patriots, adjoins the shrine area to the north.

At a University of the West Indies-hosted commemoration event last October for the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion, chairman of the JN Foundation, Earl Jarrett announced the launch of the Parish Histories of Jamaica project, as a legacy project to be underwritten by the foundation. The project to research and write parish histories will run over four years.

"The sponsorship of these parish publications," Jarrett explained, " is another avenue through which we can preserve our rich heritage and guarantee that future generations, locally and overseas, can access information about significant events as well as about persons who worked hard to build this country we call home."

The Parish Histories of Jamaica project is a scale up from JN-F's work on the history of Westmoreland, the home parish of Jamaica National which was born there as the Westmoreland Building Society on Thursday, August 13, 1874.

St Thomas, at the other end of the island, Paul Bogle's yard and George William Gordon's seat as Member of the House of Assembly, is, naturally, the first parish for the project to tackle, prompted as it was by the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion.

The researchers will find very valuable parish history material in Frank Cundall's 1915 classic, Historic Jamaica, which covered the history of the parishes up to then. But that was a full century ago.

Cundall was the Englishman who was long-serving secretary and librarian of the Institute of Jamaica from 1891 to 1937 and a prodigious researcher and writer on things Jamaican and West Indian.

He energetically drove the acquisition of material on Jamaica and the West Indies, and on West Africa and Central America forming the core of the West India Reference Library which became the National Library of Jamaica in 1979.

National Heroes Park needs to be uplifted to become a place of grace, dignity and grandeur, of charming beauty and national pride. And a fine recreational space in the heart of the city. The country badly needs a new Parliament building.

And those JN Foundation-sponsored parish histories will fill a real void in understanding our country's past better and especially our own little parish piece of it. I can already see the video graphic documentaries flowing from the texts and the parish museums springing up to preserve and display artefacts of their history. I warmly welcome both projects.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com