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One intriguing aspect of the informality that characterizes Jamaican economic and social life is housing. If you’ve visited the island and not noticed the galvanized zinc/corrugated iron surroundings for some communities, and the plyboard sidings for many homes, which mark shanty towns, then you were asleep or not paying attention. If you’ve missed them, then drive near some of the gullies on lower ground in Kingston, or alongside rivers around the island.

“I would tear them down,” I heard someone utter last night as we approached Kingston from the west, along Washington Boulevard. “Then what would you do?” I asked. Unsightly, they may be, but important they are, too. They display very clearly some of the strains put on a nation as it develops. Poor people looking for work and new opportunities far outstripping available housing. With a large enough housing stock, one could see more rooms to let absorbing most of the newcomers, if they were able to afford rents. When Caribbean migrants went to the UK, USA, and Canada, after the mid-1940s, that’s what many found, and they did not need to make shanty towns. They often lived in substandard and overcrowded conditions, at least, initially.

Shanty dwellings or similar are not new, historically or geographically, especially as urban areas developed and people left the land to find work in larger towns and cities.

Estimates put squatter populations at about 1 billion, worldwide, about 1/6 of world total. Other estimates put the number of squatters in Jamaica at about 1 million, about a third of the total population. Poor services, limited amenities, high-density living, drugs, crime, diseases–all are part of daily squatter life.

Those squatters, despite their parlous and shambolic housing, often mean votes. They certainly do in Jamaica. Who’d want to dislodge voters from their homes? Keeping people in such circumstances, however, keeps the embers burning under a possible tinderbox, so, periodic social explosions should not come as a surprise. These communities can also be the source of many vibrant and creative social elements, as people claw and scrape to rise from the slums.

Last year, sociologist Peter Espuit wrote an article about Jamaica’s housing challenges. It explained much of the social and economic origin of the migration from rural areas to urban ones, especially Kingston. He also focused on the inequalities to which housing added. Importantly, he looked at the political significance of squatter and low-income communities in the tribal cauldron of Jamaican politics.

Maybe, if you have no constituents or no national links then you can talk glibly about tearing down the zinc. I don’t see any spanking new housing sprouting up to take any of the shanty dwellers. Clearing the areas without any provision for the new homeless is tantamount to insanity.

Perhaps, it was propitious that today’s Daily Observer included an article about Digicel’s role in revitalizing downtown Kingston. By bringing business activity back into the long-rundown waterfront area, hopes have been raised. Digicel added to life by investing in rehabilitating Coronation Market. Interesting, revitalizing housing downtown doesn’t get much mention. Poor people adjacent to budding business areas often sit awkwardly. Think about the City of London or Wall Street.

However, for life to be brought back into downtown housing, which now has swathes of slum housing in what were once good housing areas, one would need something like gentrification to occur. Is that likely? This phenomenon, common in developed countries, has featured little in developing nations, including the Caribbean. Developing countries have focused more on new housing rather than rehabilitation of existing housing.20130825-141804.jpgJamaica may not have a substantial enough cohort of identified gentrification types for that to be a realistic trend, near-term–affluent singles or childless couples, homosexuals, and artists or ‘Bohemian’ types.

Enough Jamaicans know what it is to live in poor housing, or to have limited services. I know many who drive past the shanty dwellings and think back to either childhood days or life in deep rural communities, if not their own, then for someone close. Go, ahead! Think about tearing them down.

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