Kingston – a portrait of decadence

Aloun Assamba, Minister of Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, wants Kingston to be a prime resort and business tourism area, with vibrant nightlife, culture and shopping.

This, according to an article in the October 10 edition of The Star. Too many times, we forget that Kingston is in fact one of the resort areas of Jamaica, and we have everything that a visitor could want when they go to a country, right here in Kingston, she is quoted as saying.

And, I asked myself, which Kingston? Is it the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation or that sprawling urban area of St. Andrew above Cross Roads that so many persons frequently refer to as Kingston?

I believe she meant the latter. For, in the article, she is quoted as saying: I am proud to say that when we have activities like the Emancipation Day celebrations on Knutsford Boulevard, there was no threat in New Kingston on Independence Day. There were thousands of persons there and I dont think we heard about one incident that needed to have us concern ourselves about security.

So, New Kingston and its environs should be a resort, but what is to become of the parish of Kingston, the forgotten pearl of the Caribbean?

Development and decline

Situated in the south-east section of the island, Kingston is built on the Liguanea Plains. After the destruction of Port Royal in 1692, Kingston was founded by Sir William Beeston, on June 24, 1692.

Since then, it has gone through many phases of development and decline. It has seen fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes, Colleen Yap, Ralph Brown, Marie Atkins and Desmond McKenzie as mayors.

But, it sizzled and bustled, rivalling any city in the Caribbean. It was a jewel in Britain’s crown. It outgrew itself, and St. Andrew, which surrounds her, has been strangling her for quite some time now.

Successive governments have pledged to resuscitate her, but politics was to assist in tightening the grip around her neck. Her face tells the tale.

Gingerbread houses are in ruin, some totally destroyed; others are still occupied, but are falling apart; wrought-iron decorations on abandoned buildings say much about the creativity of those who have gone before us; black, green and brown waters run along the road, and settle in holes to quench the thirst of bulimic dogs and anorexic cats.

High-rise, dilapidated tenements are the refuge for the low morale of the occupants. Slums have replaced former well-to-do communities.

Vacant lots are now filled with garbage; some are de facto toilets. Rusting metal fences enclose big yards and overcrowded shacks. The drama of life unfolds within.

Theatres, where many a romance once bloomed, are now massive shells of emptiness. Those along Windward Road are homes to goats, pigs and mad people.

The Ward Theatre, the ‘Grand Old Lady of Parade’, has blended into the landscape of dereliction. Her ageing ornate facade tells the tales of rejection and melancholy. Her pasty white skin peels, and wrinkles have permanently etched themselves into her face.

Our heroes lie in eternal sleep in a park, which at night is the meeting place for some of us who are not so worthy.

St. William Grant Park, now the residence of the indigent and the dispossessed, was created in the 1980s as an oasis in the concrete jungle. Approximately two decades later, the four corners reek of overpowering odours, and the walls are washed with urine.

Sunday evening, and you want to find a long-lost relative; he might just be relaxing on the brown grass of his adopted home, or taking a bath in the water collected in the fountain.

Enter at own peril

The sprawling market area that extends from West Parade is the meeting place of farmers, vendors, hoodlums, hoi polloi, thieves, beggars, liars, and half-naked children selling ‘seasoning salt’.

You enter at your own peril, stepping over maggot-filled water running from the sores of abandonment. But, you go to get the variety, the bargains, the stories, the laughs – and the stabs.

If your nostrils are bombarded with fumes coming from fermenting fish guts; your pocket is picked, your big toe is run over by the wheels of a pushcart, grin and bear it. ‘Rat poison, rat poison, taste and buy!’

When Billie Holiday sings about covering the waterfront at night searching for her man, she certainly is not singing about the Kingston waterfront.

The bacteria-infested water looks good from the air at night, but when the cloak of darkness is gone and the shimmering lights go out, its oily face glistens in the Caribbean sun. The green grass and the few high-rise buildings across the road belie the rot within the city. Lurking in the dark lanes and alleys are all sorts of evil and guile.

Some of the tram lines of yesteryear, once covered with asphalt, are now exposed, telling the story of what life had been. Trains, having come to a screeching halt years ago, epitomise the full stop that has punctuated Kingston’s development.

So, with the parish wallowing in decay, and juxtaposed with her more affluent St. Andrew neighbour, what does the future hold for her? Who is ready to assume the mantle of leadership to transform her to her former glory?

Right now, she is not even a shadow of herself. She is brain dead. And, for those who are speaking of legacy, forget Kingston. She is a classic manifestation of governance gone awry, hardly a candidate for bequest.

A facelift will not do. She needs a rebirth, a new portrait.

Paul Williams is a Kingston-based educator.

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