Could Belmont's rich history and important landmarks promote cultural tourism in T&T? Conservationists and activists plan on coming together to brainstorm ways to develop the birthplace of T&T Carnival into a bustling and lucrative tourist destination, saving the area's historic sites in the process. The Freetown Foundation of Belmont, a group dedicated to the protection of the its legacy, along with Citizens for Conservation, led a tour of the area last Wednesday to sensitise the public to its plans, which include building a Belmont museum and resource centre.
The morning's knowledgable tour guide and president of the foundation, Elton Scantlebury, educated a small group of reporters and activists about Belmont's history, pointing out a handful of landmarks that ought to be preserved. As the maxi drove along Belmont Circular Road, Scantlebury transformed into an animated, Belmont know-it-all, as he regaled the group with facts and interesting anecdotes about the town. "This piece of land here had one of the most...they had a silk cotton tree here that, you know, you had a lot of mysteries going on at the silk cotton tree."
This famous tree which stood at the corner at Belmont Circular Road and Queen's Park East was associated with obeah. "As a young man, I don't know what mysteries it held, because we used to run down to the silk cotton tree and get the five cents...and we gone by Louis and we go and buy mauby. "If it was obeah we took it as our obeah." The first stop on the trip was the home of the late world-renowned wrestler Cyril Cornelius Joseph, better known as Ray Apollon or the Golden Apollo in the wrestling ring. His cousin Orville Joseph now occupies the simple, wooden home, filled with pieces of antique furniture. It was built in the 1800s by his great-grandfather, who was a carpenter. "I have the distinction of living where I was born," he boasted.
He said the house was expertly built, as it allowed constant, natural ventilation, eliminating the need for air-conditioning. He said that was forward thinking at its best, and T&T had lost its way in that regard. "We followed the illusion of progress and all we did was put up buildings without feeling. Concrete and glass and steel...We started to build houses instead of building homes."
Copper master Ken Morris's home and old workshop were also open to the group, as his son Glendon Morris entertained questions about the importance of preservation.
"During the years, everybody has been telling me don't break down the building. I have to restore it. It has a lot of history."
Surrounded by old Carnival relics and a cluttered work desk in his garage, where he is currently building the coat of arms for T&T's embassy in China, Morris said the grey, wooden house, which rests on slabs of concrete, was about 135 years old.
He said it had the potential to be a mini-museum, as already tourists would pass by to see where the original metalwork for Carnival costumes began.
Can cultural tourismmake money?
While the old-time architecture is beautiful and the call for its restoration and conservation is valid, the question of whether people would pay for an organised tour of Belmont was raised.
Independent fundraising consultant Joanne Butcher said, "Absolutely."
She said cultural tourists spend more time and money in an area, and so it was wise for the country to invest in making Belmont open and available to them in an organised way.
"Not everyone wants to go lie on the beach," she said vehemently.
Butcher, from Miami, has worked on the development of Miami Beach to make it much more than a party destination.
She said research showed the value of art, heritage, culture and cuisine as being beneficial to the county's economy. She cited statistics too, saying Miami-Dade county's arts and cultural industry makes about US$922 million every year, based on a study completed by the county's Department of Cultural Affairs.
Butcher, who was visiting family for a few days and was a part of the tour group, said cultural tourists were not interested in commercial shopping malls or chain stores, and looked forward to making connections to places they visited, which would bode well for their possible return.
"Cultural tourists want to go to a country and have a real experience. They will stay for four to five days. And because of the local culture attachment, they would be more likely to come back."
She said tourists who have no family roots in a country would not know where to visit unless guided.
"Without direction where would they go? Around the Queen's Park Savannah and what? Have TGIF?"
One stop along the three-hour tour that stood out to Butcher was a visit to the Rada compound and cemetery along Antoine Lane. Rada is a West African religion from Dahomey, now called Benin. It is a closed compound where annual ceremonies two weeks before Carnival occur, replete with traditional drumming, chanting and spirit possession.
She said: "I had never heard about that before. And I bought the book that was available to learn more. And that's exactly what I am talking about."
Scantlebury sold copies of A Rada Community in Trinidad by Andrew Carr to interested guests.
Morris said it was plain to see that Belmont had a rich past, and he supported any move to immortalise its heritage.
"Belmont is almost a forgotten city, but it could be something more. Something bigger."
Did you know?
The country's first President Sir Ellis Clarke was born in Belmont.
Belmont was included in the Port-of-Spain Borough in 1899.
It was the first area in Trinidad to be populated by former African slaves, who had worked the cocoa and coffee estates in the area. Because of this, Belmont used to be known as "Freetown."
Belmont Valley Road is commonly shortened by most residents to just "Valley Road." In other words, people will know you're from out of town if you say the former.
The Rada community, which practised the religion of the Dahomean people, settled in Valley Road in 1868. The community still exists, though it is much smaller. The majority of the community has migrated to Canada.
Abojevi Zahwenu, popularly known as Papa Nanee, the Dahomean man who started the Rada community, came to Trinidad as a liberated African, but was held to be made a slave. He was freed and taken to Freetown. He then bought the land in Valley Road and developed the compound.
Calypsonian Daniel Brown, aka Trinidad Rio, musician Roy Cape, and the boxer Gentle Daniel, were raised in the Belmont Orphanage, also known as the St Dominic's Home.
Calypsonians David Rudder and The Mighty Shadow were born in Belmont.