Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Kim-Marie Spence | Kingston goes global … again - Reflections on Kingston Creative in Singapore

Published:Monday | September 30, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Kim and Adrian Ellis, chair and founder of Global Cultural Districts Network
This picture was taken in front of the Chijmes Hall on the first day of the conference. Kim-Marie Spence is in the back. Chijmes used to be a Catholic convent school – Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School. It is now a lifestyle complex with restaurants, bars, and meeting rooms.

I spent the last week of August in Singapore representing Kingston Creative at the annual convention of the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN).

Kingston Creative is one of the newest members of this network, a membership negotiated by Kingston Creative’s executive director, Andrea Chung. Kingston Creative represents one of the few Global South members, besides Brazil, Malaysia, and, arguably, China. We are also definitely the first and only Caribbean member. In essence, we – all the members of the Kingston Creative family – are creating history.

GCDN is truly a community of Kingston Creative’s peers. Nowhere else could you have representatives from Times Square (United States), from the Southbank (United Kingdom) and also from Kingston Creative united in a discussion about cultural districts and the potential for social, economic, and cultural impact in their home cities, regions, and countries. Interestingly, the focus was not just on tourism, but how, as one presenter boldly puts it , “How do we create loveable cities?” This question focused on improving the quality of life for all residents, creative and otherwise.

Kingston Creative has become known for its role in changing the perception of downtown Kingston, creating a more ‘loveable’ downtown Kingston. It was refreshing to see that the dreams of Kingston Creative’s 200-odd volunteers being realised all over the world.

Creative incubator

I speak here particularly to Think City Malaysia and the Bandung Creative City Forum. Lee Jia Ping of Think City shared that they, like Kingston Creative, are launching a creative incubator and co-working space. Likewise, Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, shared a similar trajectory of Times Square coming back to its glory days. Having lived in New York in the early noughts, I remember when Times Square was best avoided. A better creative ecosystem redounds to all our benefit, not just tourists’.

Kingston Creative is making waves. Juan Carlos Belloso, GCDN board member and the founder of Future Places (and an adviser to the City Council of Barcelona), was excited by all we had achieved. And he was not alone! Kingston Creative stands out among the cultural districts of GCDN with its 200-odd-strong volunteer base, its funding through philanthropy, and its partnerships with community and corporate organisations (#First50).

Kingston Creative is also one of the few that have emerged from below, that is, as the idea and brainchild of concerned citizens, rather than from the Government.

I recall a conversation about offices at the conference. It then occurred to me that Kingston Creative, which had that very weekend delivered the Caribbean’s first augmented-reality mural, has no official office. We meet either at Bookophilia or at FNB/Swiss Stores, business of one of Kingston Creative’s long-time supporter, Ueli Bangerter. While others struggled to keep the community engaged, without the community and its partners there would be no Kingston Creative.

Singapore inspires

Singapore, as a location, was inspiring. The cultural districts of Singapore showcased collaboration – but very different from that of Kingston Creative. The government often studied and planned for historic districts and communities, such as Kampong Glam and Tanjong Pagar (which I toured). Buddhist temples in which ghosts are married (the famed Seng Wong Beo temple), small lanes lined with historic British-Singaporean architecture co-exist with world-famous, award-winning environmentally friendly, uber-modern buildings like the Oasia Hotel.

Space is made for the old and the new, the culture and business. Within the Singaporean government, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) (parallel to Jamaica’s UDC) saw the creation of cultural districts and liveable spaces as its mission. Much inspiration for us and how we see the continued development of Kingston, not just the downtown, especially regarding heritage, culture and innovation. It is important to find Kingston’s particular balance of the old and the new to ensure that the cultural vibrancy and character of Downtown Kingston – Life Yard, Culture Yard, Beat Street, etc. – remain, even while inviting new energy.

The distinct bottom-up nature and our early success (did I mention the murals, Market Street, etc.?) secured Kingston Creative a position within the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) segment. The Centre for Liveable Cities is essentially the Singaporean government’s urban-development think tank, complete with academic fellows and journals(!).

For me, CLC sounded like a dream. One reason I became involved in Kingston Creative was that I like to do (as my history demonstrates), and I also like to research. Research allows a bird’s-eye perspective and a nuanced appreciation of the ability and limits of public policy. However, involvement in Kingston Creative has allowed me to utilise that knowledge in practical and useful ways that I hope will make my city better (#iamdowntown). Much of what we presented spoke to the KC model of Kingstonians and Jamaicans, both here and abroad, contributing to changing and investing in downtown Kingston’s future.

Why did I go? Kingston Creative has to become sustainable. Kingston Creative’s success is founded on our volunteers, our leaders, and the contributions of the #First50 (of which the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport was the first). But it is time for sustained funding – and who else to advise but a group of our peers? And now, the work begins. The trip was not the end, but merely the beginning. For the second time in Jamaica’s history, there is engagement with Singapore, but this time, it’s about our future.

Kim-Marie Spence is a representative of Kingston Creative, a movement that is working to promote culture and the regeneration of downtown, Kingston.