Digicel organized its second annual nighttime 5k run/walk in downtown Kingston this past weekend. My daughter and I were among the 7200 participants who walked or ran, after paying our J$1000 entry fee. The number of entrants was some 2000 than the year before. The money goes towards funding 11 charities through The Digicel Foundation. People love supporting good causes.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how a major challenge for Jamaica would be to get organic change happening in downtown Kingston. Digicel is a clear leader in trying to help revitalize this part of Jamaica, and it’s part of a clear corporate strategy to help its brand be associated with positive developments, which includes athletes, musicians, sports events, and more. It’s good business and it’s good for business. It’s also a good cause that needs much support.
For many people, being in the 5k gave them a chance to see what downtown Kingston is like, without having to deal with any of the usual day-to-day issues that may seem or be unpleasant. Parade was full of people at 8pm, and many of the daytime scenes were still evident, including a busload of people from country, packed like sardines, with bags in the back of the bus, on the top of the bus, with just enough space for a few passengers on the roof too.
The run through downtown should also have given some people an idea of what this part of the capital could be like. I had a discussion with a fellow participant yesterday, and we talked about how easy it was to see that rehabilitation was a better and seemingly easier option than to tear down, with so much of the basic architecture still in place and the grid structure of the area giving a certain integrity to the space. “Gentrification” may not yet be part of the Jamaican vocabulary in terms of what is happening in its economic and social development, and it may not be a word that inspires positive reactions. However, I believe that it has to be something that is put clearly on the agenda of things to push. My partner in conversation quickly went to the fact that tax incentives may be the answer, to help defray the heavy costs that will be involved in rehabilitating such a large area.
Companies like Digicel have clearly put their money where their mouths are. So, too, have a small number of newer enterprises which are presently closely associated with middle class life styles, leisure and pleasure, such as Cannonball Cafe.
Let’s not pretend that changing the perception and face of downtown will be easy. As I wrote before, there are many tensions at work, and one of the major obstacles will be to get those who do not have much and want to obtain some of what they see those who have enjoying to accept the changes that may start working. Jobs wont come out of thin air or suddenly be plentiful. People who are making their lives on the streets, begging, hustling, making furniture, robbing, selling, etc. may find themselves under pressure to stop those activities. But, that’s their livelihood and getting out of one set of activities into another will take more than wishing, including training and repositioning of attitudes.
Those who want to venture into downtown have many things to deal with, but one of the largest blocks to move will be fear. The image is that the area is dangerous. News reports of violent crime will dominate people’s thoughts and be hard to displace. Stories of little glimmers of change and pleasant developments will be blips and not something that will alter the overwhelmingly negative impressions.
Downtown is not ‘cool’ and certainly not ‘swanky’. It’s seedy. It smells bad. It’s dirty. It’s a mess. No critical mass of things that are the opposite of those impression exists in a large space, besides the developments along Ocean Boulevard. People with money to spend wont choose to go downtown just to ‘look good’. They have little to attract them there or make them stay there after a visit to do some errands. Let’s not paint it rosy when it’s black. If, out of thin air, downtown was awash with sidewalk cafes, nice-looking eating places and bars, sounds of soft music, and some fashionable clothes stores, then it would be clear that it had changed. But, they wont come out of thin air. The change has to come because enough people feel the ‘risks’ are going to be outweighed by the ‘rewards’.
It will be one step at a time, but it needs to happen. It’s potentially one of the better pieces of economic and social policy the country can develop. People having hope can do a lot to ward off the dangers of hopelessness.
Digicel opened the eyes of at least 7000 people, and I would estimate that nearly as many were there to look on and experience without too many concerns. If their target of 20,000 participants is to be realized soon, then it could be the spur that some need to try to be part of a movement that wants to put shape and heart back into the city centre. That means positioning early.
If my supposition is right, and downtown land and rental prices are under valued, that may well be what can drive the change to happen a little faster. Would a tax break help? It probably wont hurt.