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Preserving San Fernando’s heritage

Published: 
Saturday, March 25, 2017
San Fernando City Hall.

Members of the newly launched San Fernando Heritage Trust—the group set up to promote the preservation of San Fernando’s historic sites with a view to generating income for the city—have great motivation to succeed, to do even better than the 16-year-old National Trust: Protection of the city’s built heritage was one of Angelo Bissessarsingh’s biggest desires.

Bissessarsingh, a history enthusiast who established the popular Facebook page Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad & Tobago, died last month at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer.

A collector of artefacts and historical documents, Bissessarsingh spent the last two years of his life struggling through pain and chemo treatments to do what he could to leave a legacy that would advance the work he started when he was alive.

“Angelo suffered a tremendous anguish when buildings were demolished. He was severely affected by the demolition of the Greyfriars Church,” said Michele Celestine, a preservation activist who’s secretary of the San Fernando Trust. She, like many others, got to know Bissessarsingh through the Virtual Museum page.

In 2014, the 176-year-old Greyfriars Church in Port-of-Spain was demolished by the businessman who owned it. Celestine, then secretary of Citizens for Conservation, along with other members of the group, tried unsuccessfully to stop the building’s destruction.

“Angelo was fiercely Trinidadian. He loved our country. He himself was a complete blend of Trinidad and Tobago culture,” said Celestine.

“My heart is in this city,” Bissessarsingh said in June last year as he was presented with the key to the city by then mayor Kazim Hosein. Bissessarsingh was born in the city, went to school at Naparima College in San Fernando, and worked for a time with the city corporation.

“The richness of San Fernando’s architecture was always something that was fascinating to me,” he told journalist Vernon Ramesar in a 2013 television interview. He went on to bemoan the degradation of the city’s built landscape.

“When I was at Naparima College and you looked out over San Fernando you could see dozens of old gingerbread houses,” he said. “I went back up to my school about two months ago and stood up at the same I spot I always had and looked out, and I saw maybe a handful remaining. Almost all are gone.

“And it is changing the landscape of the city and not changing it for the better,” he added. “Because these concrete and glass monstrosities that they’re putting up willy-nilly all over the place, they have no heritage value and no architectural value.”

It’s not clear where the idea for the trust originated, but Bissessarsingh lent his influential voice to it. When Hosein set up the trust last year, Bissessarsingh was named a special adviser.

Celestine said she visited Bissessarsingh a week before his death to pray and give moral support, but he wanted to know about the trust and how it was doing.

“He wanted an assurance that everything was moving along,” said Celestine, recalling parts of the hour-long visit. “He said the trust has to happen. He wants it to be a success. He wants it to be a model for heritage tourism. He wants the (Carnegie Free) library to be reopened because he wants to dedicate his collection of papers there.”

Incredulous laughter entered her voice as she added: “And then he told us we must come the following week and update him!” Another meeting never happened of course.

“This was Angelo,” Celestine continued. “He was dying. But anytime Angelo spoke about heritage and preserving the heritage, he got new life. Angelo fought that cancer just to be able to see his work come to life.”

Bissessarsingh’s expectations put additional importance on the trust’s work.

“Now we’re more compelled to do it,” said Celestine. “Because if we don’t get this done he would be looking from up above, and I don’t want that weight of answering to him, ‘Well, it’s not happening.’ We have to fulfil his deathbed wish. We have to.”

The list of the trust’s priorities includes setting up a museum to display the city’s artefacts and share its history. The trust would like to mark out an “historic district” focused on Harris Promenade that would include City Hall, the Carnegie Free Library, the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches and other relevant old structures. The trust would like to develop a map of the district and organise tours.

The trust would also like to further develop the San Fernando Hill.

They would like to have the activities of the trust financed the way heritage preservation projects are in England: through the earnings from the national lottery and donations from private entities.

“A lot of the efforts regarding historical preservation have ground to a halt because of lack of support and funding,” said trust chairman Terrence Honore. “With the option of approaching the National Lottery and other corporate groups, I think we’re very optimistic about taking this thing forward.”

“What we’re trying to do in San Fernando is almost groundbreaking,” he said. “It’s a model we could use for Port-of-Spain and other areas.”