No way out!
Housing woes in several inner-city communities have forced scores of persons to live in board houses on premises which could ignite in a minute. Today, The Sunday Gleaner continues its series looking at some of those communities.
Shoemaker Errol 'Tippa' Roberts came inches from losing his livelihood when five years ago fire gutted the tenement yard where he lives and operates his business on George's Lane, in downtown Kingston.
Miraculously, the rickety wooden shop, at the rear of the premises, stood unscathed following the blaze which razed at least two homes in the tenement yard.
The fire also demolished a building next door and scorched surrounding lots. Years later, except for an increase in crime, not much has changed in the community, and the fire hazards which existed then, still remain, said Roberts.
"It not safe. It's not safe at all. If one burn, all a dem a go burn. Me know that," said the community 'elder', who fears that another fire could strike his and other premises in the clustered, impoverished community at any time.
And Roberts is scared that the next time his shop may not be saved. According to Roberts, he lost much in the 2010 blaze which gutted the house he shared with his child's mother.
"We know that it not safe. But most people can't do any better cause is here dem have to live. My house did make out of board and after the fire me just decide that me nah build no more board house. So, me build it back with concrete," said Roberts as he glanced at the walls of his shop decorated with memorable newspaper articles and old photographs.
"This shop was the only thing that save after the fire. Everything else burn down flat," said Roberts as he theorised that the high-rising flames went over the roof of the shop.
"Me glad because is a whole heap of material and so on I would lose if it did burn," he said, recalling that he slept in his shoe shop for several nights after the fire.
Inside the George's Lane tenement yard where Roberts lives, the scene is similar to many others in the neighbourhood which were visited by the news team. Electrical wires from illegal connections criss-cross on the ground and above into wooden buildings. Here, mortgage, rent, electricity or water bills and property taxes are foreign ideas, evoking a chuckle from residents whenever questions about them are raised.
Obvious fire hazards
The houses are packed closely with only a small passage between them. There are hundreds of plastic bottles strewn in the yard outside Robert's wooden shop, obvious fire hazards. Yet the occupants of the premises seem to have little care, especially since fires are uncommon in the community where residents share bathrooms and kitchens.
According to Shakeef Simpson, 20, the 2010 fire was started by another resident when the flames from a fish-frying episode got out of control.
"It start in the settee. Then it spread into the middle door, then it catch the bed, then it start to burn out the
furniture," said Simpson, recalling how he and others dashed back and forth dousing the flames.
"Me remember me run come round the pipe side here and see some clothes in water soaking, and me pull out the clothes them and throw the soap water on the fire. Then me start full some water and throw on it," continued Simpson.
"Some big man come help me little after that and when we come back and open the door, a big ball of smoke and fire just lick we. Then the gas cylinder in the house explode," he said.
Simpson declared it was sheer luck why no one was injured in the blaze which occurred late in the afternoon and during a power outage.
The fire destroyed everything in its path including trees and utility poles and according to residents, some of those who claimed to be helping to extinguish the fire used the opportunity to steal anything they could.
Sixty-nine-year-old May Joseph, who lives across the street recalls the congestion on George's Lane as fire fighters from two units and men from the community scampered about. "I see the fire but I couldn't get down to my house because the lane block," said Joseph.
"My house was going to burn because it ketch but my son was here and him help to put out the fire," she said, pointing to a burnt section at the front of her wooden house.
Joseph has accepted that living in crammed tenement conditions increases the chances of man-made disasters, but, "If it happen, it just happen. Fire is not really certain, you know. So, if it happen, me have to cope," she said.
Icylyn Bailey, 77, is more concerned with surviving day-to-day in the crime-infested area than the fire hazards that put her at risk.
"Me live in a Georges Lane from 1967. The young boy dem, you can't talk to dem. I just have to mind my own business and live. That's what you do here," she said, adding that as for the fires, "anything can happen. Any number can play. So, all me have to do is pray to The Almighty".