“When Port of Spain becomes, as it surely will, a great commercial city, and the slopes of Laventille, Belmont and St Ann’s, just above the gardens, are studded, as they surely will be, with the villas of rich merchants, then will the generous gift of English Governors be appreciated and used; and the Botanic Gardens will become a Tropic Garden of the Tuileries, alive, at five o’clock every evening, with human flowers of every hue.”
—Charles Kingsley, At last a Christmas in the West Indies, 1871.
“The most terrifying words in the English language,” said former US president Ronald Reagan, are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” This week the Government announced plans to “revitalise” Port of Spain, and if I lived in our capital city, I would now be running for the hills. Addressing an audience at the Hyatt on Monday, in what can only be described as some kind of Salvador Dali-inspired surrealist performance art, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley lamented just how awful the capital city is. Whilst simultaneously ignoring the reality that his political party has had complete control over the city for decades. I bet the Prime Minister also lets out a cry of “this damn government again” anytime his water gets cut off.
Anyone who has ever spent a day in Port of Spain, particularly Downtown, knows the city is rife with problems. Firstly, there is the horrendous traffic. Finding a parking spot in Port of Spain is harder than walking through Woodford Square without someone trying to sell you a Watchtower magazine. I find commuting to Port of Spain from Chaguanas so terrible that I have turned down job offers just to spare me that horror show. Just last week I made up an excuse to avoid meeting my Aunt Jackie, telling her I was in a jail cell having been charged with possession of cocaine. And she would regrettably have to find someone else to go to Port of Spain General to donate the blood she desperately needed.
Of course, if Port of Spain traffic doesn’t choke you to death, some stranger might. Just a few years ago, a Japanese tourist was found strangled in the Queen’s Park Savannah. Unperturbed by how such grisly events can affect a city’s tourism, or perception of safety or morale of its citizens, authorities have stoically chosen to not make solving it a priority. Then of course there are the almost daily accounts of violence in places like Sea Lots, Laventille and Piccadilly. Of course, I live in Chaguanas and it isn’t exactly that much safer there either. I once got robbed outside the Chaguanas Police Station. Considering why I was around that area at that time of night, I don’t complain about it that much.
The biggest turn-off Port of Spain has for me, though, is just how decrepit the entire place looks. I’m not a shallow person, Port of Spain doesn’t have to look beautiful like Priyanka Chopra. But you know it can at least make an effort. You know, maybe plant some more trees on the pavements, clean up the parks a bit, maybe even have a semi-usable public restroom here and there. In his address, Dr Rowley called Queen Street the “nation’s toilet”. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be that way if the City Corporation had an effective plan to deal with homelessness within the capital other than to attempt to corral street dwellers at Riverside Plaza. Many street dwellers suffer from mental health issues. City Corporation and Government officials, however, can’t use that excuse for their crappy policies.
At the risk of sounding like an unpatriotic cynic, here is why the Government’s sudden zeal to “rebirth” Port of Spain is likely to create more problems than it solves. Firstly, when the Government decided to restore historic buildings like the Red House, President’s House, and others, to the tune of millions of dollars, little or no thought was given as to how these legacy projects would leave a legacy in the surrounding area. The Hyatt hotel, for example, was built right next door to a slum, which has not seen any visible benefits from such a mega project just a stone’s throw or gunshot away. The Government’s new projects are likely to be no different.
Secondly, Port of Spain’s decline is not the result of little money or lack of government involvement, but rather too much of it. It is rampant government spending on CEPEP and other make-work projects over the decades in places like Laventille which has fuelled gang activity. This, in turn, drove up violent crime, which then drove away private investment and business, which then led to increased poverty rates. This vicious circle will continue as long as money and corruption are greasing the wheels.
Lastly, as my Form Three social studies teacher Miss Clarke once told me, civilisations are not defined by what they build, but by how they live. Given that there has been little to no public consultation to allow the people who live in Port of Spain to say what would make the capital more liveable, no real problems are likely to be solved.
Like the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Government loves mega projects—not because they are concerned about how people live, but rather that through grand monuments, they might live forever.
• Darryn Boodan is
a freelance writer