“It was well over two decades ago when Dennis Williams, better known as the Merchant, sang Pan In Danger. Wherever he is now, he must be smiling, because things are going to turn around.”
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A Tale of Two Cities
Recently I’ve found myself out of town late at night, covering political rallies in St Joseph and a place I still cannot pronounce in the Trini vernacular, Bourg Mulatresse. Which I later found out means, “town of the female mulattos,” “city of the light-skinned ooman,” or simply “sexy town,” depending on which person I spoke too.
Coming home I drove through San Juan, the junction of Saddle Road and Eastern Main Road.
Grimy, is a word one might use to describe the ambience at that time of night. I shunned the branch of KFC and the one in Barataria and continued into town.
While the provinces to the east were tinged with late-night dodginess—shady characters drinking shady liquor—nothing matched the grime of late-night downtown Port-of-Spain.
I circled around, went up Abercromby, across Knox and Prince and back down Charlotte Street.
At the bottom of “the boulevard”—a place bustling during the day with the sound of laughter and heckling—I felt like I had entered a zombie town.
In the darkness, the detritus of the day’s market still littered the road. Homeless men wearing rags sat amongst the rubbish sifting through it.
One man marched up the road shouting incomprehensible things over his shoulder.
Standing where the road turns into the square was a policeman holding a machine gun.
There didn’t seem to be gang activity in the area (maybe because of the armed officer), just destitute, drunken, high people, some with mental health problems.
Other than these people, sleeping or shuffling about clinging to their possessions, the place was deserted.
I work downtown. During the day, it’s a bustling commercial hub with every kind of business there. Except nice bars and restaurants. Those establishments all closed down from the mid-90s onwards, apparently.
Old timers tell me there was a time when the streets surrounding the Guardian building were lined with bars where people would lime after work.
Nobody limes downtown these days. People flee before nightfall, deserting in cars and taxis. Like reverse vampires, scarpering lest the moon turns them to dust. After dark, downtown becomes a ghost town.
It’s a tale of two cities, unrecognisably altered between night and day.
The fear of crime has frightened people away. Even though, research shows, fear of crime is disproportional to crime levels themselves.
I know people who’ve had phones snatched downtown, but most street-crime I hear about actually takes place in more affluent areas.
The question was asked this week: is Port-of-Spain a dying city?
I was concerned about how a headline like that might look like to outsiders.
Locals know that it refers to a specific area bordered by Piccadilly Street to the east, Richmond Street to the west, Park Street to the north and the City Gate to the south.
But outsiders might think it refers to the whole urban sprawl, including the pleasant residential and nightlife suburbs which are part of the metropolitan city area.
The Prime Minister was quoted as saying she will not let PoS die. Dismissing claims that investment was being diverted away from the capital she said urban development would continue unabated.
This will be music to the ears of PoS mayor Raymond Tim Kee, Bhoe Tewarie, Catherine Kumar, Lawrence Moses and Gregory Aboud, all of whom want to see development.
The opening of the Radisson hotel opposite the Hyatt, just this week, another five-star hotel at the other end of zombie town is a clear sign that things need to change or we will be left with a situation like in downtown San Francisco where tourists and businessmen leave plush hotels and walk straight into urban decay.
I don’t mean poverty should be swept under the carpet like in Vancouver, during the 2010 Winter Olympics when the city authorities tried to move thousands of drug-addicted vagrants from a downtown area so as not to spoil the scenery.
Poverty and decay needs to be addressed. Proper shelters, hostels, counselling, mental health and rehab centres must exist for the homeless.
This week I was up on the 17th floor of the Ministry of Finance, one of the twin towers opened in 1986. Twenty-eight years later, while they are still impressive, the view from up there (ship breakers yards, abandoned lots, concrete, unintentionally brutalist architecture, tired public squares) told me that parts of the city need to be torn down and built again from scratch. You can see what the designers intended, but it needs updating.
In London, if you leave for six months and return, in that space of time alone, brand new buildings have emerged and others have disappeared.
The investment in London’s infrastructure is phenomenal.
Money from foreign investment (Russian oligarchs and Gulf state Arabs) and government spending has pushed up property prices to levels so extortionate that it is said the indigenous Londoners have been “ethnically cleansed” into the surrounding more affordable counties of Essex and Hertfordshire. If PoS could build and market both high-end and affordable residential apartments above businesses it could re-energise the place.
Other parts of London, former ghettoes like Hackney, Brixton and Peckham, were places where growing up in the mid-90s you simply did not go to. Now, they are gentrified.
Very few parts of London could now be described as no-go areas.
The atrocious “sink” estates built by councils to house the urban poor after the war are being steadily demolished.
Most of them were eyesores that blighted communities.
Downtown PoS has its fair share of eyesores, mostly towards the east.
Pull down Riverside Plaza, a disgusting building overlooking the highway, and its multistorey car park, as well as the monstrosities that overlook Columbus Square. They are relics of the past in an otherwise glorious city.
Successive governments have managed to generate enormous revenue through construction projects. Why not construct a new heart for the capital?
It will take years and the city will be a tangle of scaffolding and cranes for years, but it will be worth it.
If you don’t believe me, look at Kings Cross in central London. For years the haunt of prostitutes and drug addicts, a wasteland of industrial estates, canals and railway arches.
After a seven-year redevelopment project it is now a swanky area combining residential housing, public squares, eateries, the Eurostar terminal connecting London to Paris and Brussels and the HQs of Google, the Guardian and the campus of the University of the Arts, a modern college converted from an old granary building along the canal.
Which goes to show, not everything needs to be ripped up. Some of history’s former glories can even be salvaged.