Fri | Jun 18, 2021

Honor Ford-Smith | Control the developers

Give us community and green space in our city

Published:Sunday | April 25, 2021 | 12:11 AM

62 Lady Musgrave Road, an elegant two storey house, which was headquarters of the fledging University College of the West Indies (UWI) from 1947 until 1950.
62 Lady Musgrave Road, an elegant two storey house, which was headquarters of the fledging University College of the West Indies (UWI) from 1947 until 1950.
An aerial view of New Kingston. Over the years, older houses and structures have been torn down to give way to multi level apartment complexes.
An aerial view of New Kingston. Over the years, older houses and structures have been torn down to give way to multi level apartment complexes.
Honor Ford-Smith
Honor Ford-Smith
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What do those of us who were born and raised under the clock want for our cities, our neighbourhoods, our communities in this region that is our home, the home of our children’s future? Kingston is the place where Garveyism, Rastafari, and reggae flourished. It is the place where the minds of Caribbean philosophers Sylvia Wynter and Mortimer Planno, St Lucian poet Derek Walcott, St Lucian economist Arthur Lewis, and others flourished. In small communities like Hannah Town or Vineyard Town in Kingston, you can still see the charm of walkable neighbourhoods with homes designed for our climate.

What is Kingston now? Is it a place where human relationships can flourish or a place that aspires to be a weak imitation of the concrete and asphalt jungle that is Miami? Is it a place where we care equally for ourselves and each other in an environment that is relentlessly and stunningly beautiful in spite of the evil doing and done to it?

In February, I learned that developers tore into and destroyed yet another of the beautiful old houses still left in Seymour lands in the middle of Greater Kingston. This one, on Seaview Avenue, was built in the style of North African architecture. It stood on green space and was not yet hidden behind the towering prison-like walls pockmarked by barbed wire that have become the new norm in Kingston. That old house on Seaview, already crumbling, like many others all across the Caribbean, could have been a stunning public space – a place to take your kids. Until recently, it housed the collection of work by artists like Albert Huie, Edna Manley, Karl Parboosingh, and other painters who followed them. That collection could have been updated and extended on site and shared with the public. That house had been the home of Burnett Webster, who first produced the plays of the great Una Marson back in the 1930s when Jamaicans began to chart an alternative to colonial imitation.

IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC AND GREEN SPACES

I am not here arguing for the preservation of icons of the wealthy. I am arguing for the importance of public space and green space in a city that is changing rapidly. I am arguing for us to make use of the natural assets that we have instead of destroying them in favour of mimicking the profound ugliness and alienation of northern cities.

A terrifying report published in The Gleaner shows that hunger is still with us. And malnutrition haunts us, too. How is hunger connected to the destruction of an old house? It is connected because it signifies a cynical disrespect for the environment and the needs of the people in it. It signifies utter contempt for our children. And it signifies a dangerous worship at the altar of private profit when every religion and philosophical tradition tells us loud and clear that money cannot buy happiness and health.

Pre-COVID-19, every weekend, Devon House, one of a very few green public spaces in Kingston, would be rammed to capacity because Kingstonians have nowhere to take their children for a cheap afternoon out. People long for a place that is peaceful and beautiful, where they can go to release the stress of the hustle. God knows, they can’t go to the beach. They have been locked out of most of those for decades. On weekends or holidays at Devon House, you would have to line up for hours to buy ice cream so big was the crowd looking for somewhere like that to go. Emancipation Park is the same. Hope Gardens – another historic park – has shrunk dramatically because pieces have been sold off. You can’t get into the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road because it costs too much. Who can afford to pay that admission for their kids? Even the church yards and cemeteries have become unkempt and inaccessible.

That old house on Seaview Avenue, like any of those that have been torn down, could have been another such site. It could have been an alternative. It was built around a central courtyard with interiors opening on to it. Every detail of the interior was carefully designed with the tasteful use of Jamaican hard wood and amazing ironwork. There could have been a shop selling ice cream and snacks, and there could have been places to sit under the cool shade of huge trees. It could have had a vegetable and herb garden. Everywhere else in the world is trying to get urban agriculture going. We who have long had a tradition of kitchen gardens seem to be ashamed or afraid of growing things these days.

There could have been housing, too, in a part of it. People could have lived there in affordable housing that would allow them to get to work easily without sweating and punishing in traffic for hours and cussing because our public transportation system is a four-letter word. It was a place that was easy to get to as many buses run up the Old Hope Road, and from there, you could look up into what is left of the (soon to be destroyed) Long Mountain and Blue Mountains.

I do not believe that the people of Jamaica would approve of what is happening to our city. But they haven’t been asked. Nobody asks. It’s all just a matter of “I’m gonna get mine and to hell with you!” That this could happen in one of the only suburbs of Kingston that has the possibility to offer centrally located and green public space is frightening. Why? Because this is a relatively rich suburb. While many of Kingston’s gentry have fled into the salubrious heights of the hills, this area is still home to people who should be able to make a difference. It is home to business leaders, owners of large corporations, as well as lawyers, architects, doctors, and other professionals.

SEEDS OF SOMETHING WONDERFUL

And it is also home to students and others who are not in the middle or upper-middle class. It has a housing trust scheme with affordable housing that was built long ago. It has small restaurants that sell the best soup in Kingston. As it is now, it still holds the seeds of something quite wonderful, if only we would get together and take it seriously and support it. And we can. But it will take nuff work.

My understanding is that there is a neighbourhood association, The Golden Triangle Neighbourhood Association, that has been quite vocal about what is happening in one part of the area. They have raised concerns about the development plan for the area and have made proposals for a vision of alternative development. Other citizens associations in the city have raised their voices. Concerns have been raised about the plan to expand Lady Musgrave Road, about developments in Trafalguar Park. (I won’t even mention the perpetual lack of a public water supply and other services in parts of downtown). Why is nobody listening? What is the role of the prime minister in this? Is he, listening to the voices that are speaking out? Where is NEPA in this and the NWA? Where is the minister who is supposed to see to the enforcement of regulations to protect our children from environmental collapse?

If this well-off suburb with its considerable concentration of capital can’t hold back the hand of the vulgar neoliberal pirates and guineagogs, what hope then for the rest of us? Will the next building to be crushed be the historic site of the foundation of the University of the West Indies at 62 Lady Musgrave? I can see the developers drooling now, their wallets throbbing in their trousers as they look at the green space around this building.

If we continue at this race, it’ll be all over, folks. Carbon and disease know not rank, and the hinges of hell will be cooler than our city if we can’t come up with an alternative to enjoying the age of me. The trees are being destroyed to make way for concrete structures, and the birds have already fled.

- Honor Ford-Smith is associate director of the Centre for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) and associate professor in Cultural and Artistic Practices for Environmental and Social Justice, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.