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The changing face of the capital city

Saturday, August 23, 2014

News of the sale of Greyfriars Presbyterian Church to Port-of-Spain businessman Alfred Galy was met with some minor uproar. The fate of the building seems clear even with Mr Galy’s half-hearted attempt at obfuscation. “I bought it for sentimental reasons...but I cannot guarantee that it will not be demolished.” This is the sort of altruism that is too-good-to-be-truism.

Then again who knows, he could be Bruce Wayne and we may all be in for a wonderful surprise. Many are quick to demonise him as the destroyer of heritage. It’s a legitimate fear, Port-of-Spain certainly doesn’t need any help looking more hideous. 

A few years ago I was standing at the Lady Young look-out with a visitor from France. Even as I looked more over my shoulders than at the view of the cityscape, my friend muttered that our city has the dull grey torpor of an Eastern Bloc country. I’d never considered it, but apart from a city drained of colour and life, much of the architecture is uninspired and quite a bit of it downright monstrous. 

As was pointed out in the T&T Guardian newspaper’s coverage, this church had been shuttered for at least eight years. The roof was collapsing and the building deemed unsafe. There are some unfortunate realities we must face. If Mr Galy didn’t purchase the building (from the congregation mind you) it may have sat there for another ten years before the entire roof fell in. Demolition seemed very much on the cards regardless of his intervention. 

In an effort to assuage public angst, the National Trust, the organisation charged with the responsibility of protecting heritage sites across the country, announced that the Greyfriars Church of Scotland is on the “Trust Inventory” and is soon to be listed. Listing of a heritage building affords legal protection preventing major alterations to the original aesthetic of the property. That’s all well and good, but listing is a notoriously slow process, further bogged down by our rust-seized bureaucratic machinery. 

It isn’t unlikely to imagine the Trust would be listing another six-dollar an hour car park by the time the convoluted process is completed. As I understand it, there is another important consideration for the listing of any building. It ought to bear as close a resemblance to its original incarnation. The Greyfriars Church, based on early photographs, has undergone significant transformation over the years. 

There is one thing very encouraging about this ongoing debate. Mr Galy seems fairly open about this entire affair, a rare trait among local businessmen. He explains the church may be demolished but at the moment there are no immediate plans. The structure will have to be thoroughly inspected to determine what, if any of it, can be preserved. One idea he appears to be mulling over is retaining the church and constructing apartments on the property. He is quoted as having said “Port-of-Spain needs to bring more people in.” 

The idea is at once insane and romantic. The days of human beings living in the capital city (excluding those camped on the streets) seem at an end. Gentrification has however succeeded in parts of the UK where it was predicted that failure was assured. Brixton, a tough South London neighbourhood is undergoing a dramatic transformation, pulling in new money and increasing property values.

While that may seem a stretch for our grimy capital city, the future is not ours to see, but to dream. In my lifetime, Independence Square was a warren of vendors’ shacks and menacing maxi-touts.

This issue has generated enough public outrage whereas in the past the vitriol would only flash over after a demolition. It’s precisely what Citizen’s for Conservation has been working towards for several years, increasing public awareness and handing the responsibility of heritage preservation to the people. 

Typically we are always in a hurry to bulldoze buildings because they are old-fashioned. In my visits to most Caribbean islands there seems a subconscious attachment to old stone-block buildings or quaint colonial structures, making their small towns and cities distinctive in appearance. In T&T we prefer the illusion of being “big” even though we are small, particularly in the mentality department.

Even if not as breath-taking as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Greyfriars is an incredibly important edifice in a city rapidly losing all identity and aesthetic harmony. This old church should not be viewed in isolation, but as part of a whole, a crumbling whole. The few classic structures that remain are wedged between monotone monoliths or overshadowed by crass third-world chest-thumpings of false wealth (Napa and the National museum come to mind).

The National Trust ought to invite the new owner to discuss the future of the property, bearing in mind that Mr Galy has the right to do with it as he pleases. The central issue here is the continued extirpation of our architectural heritage. With each historical building lost, we tear out chapters from the history books widening the gap between our past and understanding who we are.


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