Time to end downtown’s downpression

I have a strong belief that Jamaican policy makers have made major development mistakes over the years since Independence. I say this from the comfortable position of someone who has never had to run for elected political office. I was never politically ambitious, but have run to be president in organizations and I’ve been in the position of trying to build an idea into something real and convince other people to back me and that idea. But, that biographical aspect is an aside.

One reason for my view on development policies is the folly that has been the dereliction of downtown Kingston.

I walked briefly around Parade yesterday with a friend, and felt the energy that still surges through what is, in my opinion, the city’s heart. It is a bustling market place. Vendors line the streets with carts and wares laid out on the street and sidewalks.

People walked in search of ordinary goods to buy: clothes, small electronic items, footwear, stationery. Shoppers headed to Coronation Market for fruit and vegetables.

The physical space is filled with voices and music: some melodious old-time tunes which would have fitted well decades ago, some modern dance hall throbbing and thumping. The smells are mixed: essence of patties, fried chicken and hamburgers tinged with the fragrances of spices and herbs 🙂

The modern economic activity shows plenty of signs of Jamaicans’ love of imports, with ‘made in China’ very evident. Prices seemed cheaper than in either Midtown, say Half Way Tree, or Uptown.

The evidence of human energy and enterprise is clear, even if all that it shows is people’s willingness to survive. Everyone was trying to get by: good value seemed more important than brands. Cash is king: that’s no big thing in Jamaica. Don’t expect a receipt. Grab your goods in their bags and move on.

Decades ago, we might have seen charcoal sellers, people selling fabric to make clothes, tradespeople like shoemakers or seamstresses, sellers in front of shops might have been onselling items provided by shopkeepers who were happy to get sales inside or on the streets.

In many developed countries, this central area would have probably been part of a concerted effort to build an area that was friendly to pedestrians. Such transformations are often seeded by public funds but made viable by large amounts of private financing.

Kingston is not London’s Covent Garden or Manhattan’s Garment District–areas whose main economic purpose was dying out or moved and were given new life with new activities, modernised and cleaned but architecturally mostly unchanged. Nor is Kingston like a European city centre that was destroyed by war and offered opportunities to rebuild.

Downtown Kingston has suffered severe urban blight with characteristics similar to some inner city ghettoes of the USA, where race riots provided the backdrop for looting and arson and the destruction of much of the fabric of areas that were already on the margins. It is also like many urban areas where foreign migtants cluster. It shows clear evidence of flight by the previous residents, with those in stable jobs, with decent income, and aspirations to improve their lives ‘heading to the hills’, literally. The homes and business premises they left behind were inhabited by new entrants to ‘town’, often coming on farm trucks from ‘country’, and trying to build better lives in what seemed like a more vigorous and prosperous economic area.

Public sector priming of downtown activity has failed. By that, I mean it has not been an effective catalyst of sustained change. Bank of Jamaica and the Stock Exchange have been joined by some financial institutions, but they have only created a small buzz.

Nonfinancial private enterprises who have invested in downtown have also not found their efforts successful in building momentum and drawing in other investment, which would transform the larger area.

So, these efforts have produced a waterfront area that looks attractive but feels sterile. I don’t know if that is because somehow the companies there haven’t linked well with the existing economic activities. That would be understandable if the fear of ‘contamination’ leads to real or perceived barriers being created. It reminds me of London’s South Bank, which took a long time to blend the arts and its lovers with the immediate neighbourhoods.

That may be the next challenge for downtown, to get some organic change underway.

I can’t rewrite the development emphases of the past. I wonder how things might have gone if the government had decided on a well-articulated strategic plan for downtown to be financed by a bond flotation. It’s an approach that would have needed more political and public buy-in than Jamaica often has and perhaps would have tested real commitment to development in a way that was never possible given the traditional political tribalism.

I don’t understand the processes that led to the current messy state of affairs in Kingston, but I know that better must come. I know people who want to put their time and energy into reviving the area and that’s a good start.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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