‘Time to act’
Why care about downtown Kingston? What's so important that we should have special planning efforts and groups that are devoted exclusively to redeveloping and improving downtown Kingston? The answer is simple: downtown Kingston is everybody's community.
Downtown is the only truly common ground within the fragmented fabric of our society. Consequently, we cannot ignore the importance of downtown Kingston to Jamaica's future. We are all well aware of its problems: high crime rate, dirty streets, run-down infrastructure, and others. Notwithstanding these problems, it is time we pay attention to its future and the visions of its residents. There are at least three ways in which it serves as the modern equivalent of the village square of earlier times:
n It is the centre of our subdivided and segregated society.
n It is a common space.
n It provides our only shared symbol for representing the entirety of our society.
Downtown's communities, commercial district and main streets developed because it was the physical focal point of early Kingston. This was the one area that every resident could reach places of least-cost and highest-efficiency access for the entire metropolitan community. It still is.
Downtown Kingston, as the larger area is normally referred to, was, up to the 1960s, the commercial hub of the port of Kingston. The original gridiron street plan, which dates as far back as 1692, remains virtually unchanged today.
STILL A MAJOR COMMERCIAL CENTRE
As Kingston expanded over the years, this area still remained the major commercial centre. By the early 1960s, downtown Kingston had become increasingly congested and cramped. Narrow streets, lack of adequate parking, and an increasing population density now characterised it.
Kingston's port, the island's main link to the outside world, was, at this time, inefficient and difficult to manage. A local entrepreneur conceived of the idea of relocating the port facilities. Thus, Newport West was created, and an important aspect of the downtown area was lost from the central business district.
By the 1970s, the central business district and the surrounding areas recorded some of the highest population densities in the urban area. During the mid-1970s, the problem of uncontrolled street vending, a source of livelihood for many, also became evident.
The central business district had now become an example of urban decay and blight. This situation was further exacerbated by the establishment of new commercial centres, more closely located to the suburbs and which had a magnetic effect on commerce and the economy of downtown Kingston.
The Urban Development Corporation (UDC), with the redevelopment of the waterfront, initiated improvements in the city. This trend was continued with the construction of the Jamaica Conference Centre and the coast road, which provides a quick link from the city to the airport in the east. The Ward Theatre restoration and the upgrading of the St William Grant Park were also undertaken to respond to the many uses of the park and its immediate environs and to make efficient use of the limited open space in the area.
In addition, the Kingston Restoration Company Limited was established in 1983 as a result of consultation between the UDC and private-sector organisations.
Downtown, you can feel the possibilities, share in the dreams of its residents, sense the energy, see the vision, and realise the urgency. The overriding urgency, though, is that it's time to act.
Downtown must act on a lesson that is relevant for every society. A society that is worried about the limits of its physical and financial resources has no choice - it must maintain the viability of its best-situated spaces and the capacity of the public and private infrastructure that has developed because of that centrality.
We must preserve the generations of investment that have created downtown Kingston.
Downtown is everybody's community. It is the one place in our country that potentially belongs to everyone - rich and poor, black and white, sophisticated and derelict, old and young. It gives us the opportunity to interact with or, at least, acknowledge people of different colours and backgrounds and degrees of worldly success.
n Victor Cummings is a former member of parliament for Central Kingston with lifelong ties to downtown Kingston. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org