Downtown revival: make the rewards outstrip the risks

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.Downtown_Kingston “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,fromageB20130416GT 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.movie_kingstonparadise

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.

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.
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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.