TRUE confession: “sentimental reasons” shape the disposition toward welcoming the Red House back to full service, after years of its standing there as a rebuke to failed fulfilment. The 1940s jazz ballad, “Sentimental Reasons”, will do for a throwback even farther to 1897, when Port of Spain people affectionately nicknamed the red-painted government structures.
Some of us can’t begrudge the $441 million spent on restoring the Red House. This is money that, Jack Warner and one-time UNC partners grouse, should have been spent on welfare, and/or military vessels and aircraft. But people with sentimental and other feeling for “Town” can’t imagine the capital without the Red House, and not as just the crumbling relic that, until now, it had long looked like.
It’s back, and the neighbourhood is hopefully set to be revitalised. Woodford Square has received its statuary and fountain fixings, and Trinity Cathedral on Hart Street is prayerfully targeted for earthquake damage repair. On Frederick Street, Greyfriars is gone; north on Knox Street, the City Hall facade has been redone. But, next door, stalled renovation work has left the Public Library somewhere in between going and gone through.
It was the (later) legendary poet and professor Cecil Gray who, back in 1956, had marshalled boys of the Fifth Standard class he taught, all the way from Nelson Street, to sign up and receive cards for borrowing Public Library books. Reading habits thereby created remained long, and helpfully so, with those boys. The following year, about a dozen of such “bright” boys won “exhibitions”, a 19th century term for scholarships (free books, free tuition), to attend the then exalted secondary colleges—St Mary’s, QRC, and Fatima.
For doing assigned homework and other reading, some such students, lacking comparable facilities at home, made use of the Library’s upstairs reference room and lecture hall. It was a clean, well-lighted place, frequented by teenage students, cooled by ceiling fans, under supervision of staff librarians. Today, the Library, under threat of unkempt overgrowth, represents some failed government promise of development and maintenance.
News and other stories over the last week brought back memories of a Port of Spain once haunted by those seeking an incomparable experience, and offerings for long-time hospitality and enjoyments. Reports of fire at D’Bocas stirred troubling realisation that the Independence Square restaurant counts as maybe the last of downtown, sit-down, eating places with at least ambition for upscale recognition.
Shopping centre “food courts” count as the best available in this regard, now that plastic cutlery and styrofoam tableware make for standard offerings. City people striding sidewalks between workplace and wherever, holding lunch-bearing plastic bags with boxed food containers, signal present-day practices, and also their implications for overwhelming waste.
The 2020 Red House has gone the distance to incorporate what used to be a strip of Knox Street.
In 1992, under the Patrick Manning administration, the most infamously memorable touch to the Red House was the dead-of-night removal of the winged dragon sculpture from the steeple wind vane. The new version of the now-hallowed structure has also thrust a walkway across to connect with the Cabildo building. Will it lead the way, setting the example for classy appearances, accommodation, service, and a sense of prideful fitness for this capital city?
Just now being laid down, a large-scale carpark will consume a high-end block encompassing Independence Square, St Vincent and Abercromby Streets, and South Quay. City-centre areas seem set to deliver a new, and not necessarily improved, ambience.
The Salvatori Building, once iconically celebrated by Sparrow as “big and blue and higher than a mountain”, has given way, permanently, it seems, to a car park. At Duncan and Marine Square North, two other State-owned structures, one multi-storied, have apparently been left to ruin and vagrant possession.
Back in 1960, VS Naipaul had to have won an Island Scholar “exhibition” to Oxford, to have grown into an acclaimed author, and come back home, to call to attention that “Maraval Road is one of the architectural wonders of the world”.
The Keith Rowley administration has bitten the financial bullets to restore the “odd Moorish-Corsican” Whitehall; the “palace…with a strong oriental flavour”; and the “blue and red PWD Italianate of QRC, whose clock has Big Ben chimes”. Those Naipaullian descriptions of Maraval Road buildings come from his book, The Middle Passage. Only from such a publication would we have known to celebrate vistas that “round-the-Savannah” offers. To its further credit, the Rowley government also brought back to visual eminence the President’s House on Queen’s Park Savannah North.
It must have been part of a mission to lift up national heads to matters way above endless potholed roads and chronic late pay that the Sandals project too was envisioned. To see Sandals as the way to go for, if only for Tobago tourism, is to encourage reaching for a standard higher than the T&T norm. With a Sandals-type development apparently exciting the imagination of nobody present in business and government, we have only that company’s TV ads to wonder, as the top soca song does: where T&T went wrong again?