Financing creativity-a webinar, plus some further thoughts

I’m not a night owl, so when I was asked to do a webinar I was gungho till I heard it would start at 7.30pm ‘backstage’ and go live at 8pm. We seniors need our rest; I’m up before 5am most days. But, the hosts were so charming and when I had the run through with Kenia Mattis on Monday, I told myself to ‘man up’ and take an even longer nap so that I would not be all droopy eyed. Well, so much for the nap and my mind was racing all over the place as Parliament opened and bits of news filtered through about the latest shenanigans in the PNP.

Anyway, we got underway as scheduled, so watch the recording and I’ll be happy to field any questions or comments on what I had to offer.

As an economist, I see the ‘financing’ a bit differently from Gary Peart and Dahlia Harris, in that I think about what support needs to be in terms of its ultimate value. So, as I tried to explain, a person seeking support for a creative venture is seeking money as a means to an end, but may find life easier being direct about getting the support for the ‘end’, say the building of a workshop. So, a supporter who’s prepared to provide materials and labour is better in that this removes a layer of negotiating to get to the real objective. That’s just to stress that those demanding support need to be nimble in seeing what opportunities present themselves and not be fixated on that support being in monetary form.

My economics training helps me understand the importance of various forms of economic integration. Much of this happens spontaneously—I mentioned last night the clustering of car component firms in the metropolitan area around Hagley Park Road. Sometimes, it needs some help from the State or other interest support groups.

I think such integration is important going forward and see glimpses of it in Jamaica is the beginnings of ‘incubating’ communities, where creative people can integrate and build synergies. I mentioned communities known for being the homes of many creative spirits, such as Greenwich Village in New York City. But, the Village is the home of many ‘fringe’ elements, and is seen as ‘counter cultural’. I’d like to think of it as Bohemian, and think of places like Notting Hill, in west London, in a similar way. But, world-wide, creativity can originate anywhere, but it sometimes needs some clustering to be better nurtured.

There’s interesting literature on ‘creative clusters’ and the idea has useful pointers for generating economic growth and urban renewal. But, it’s not all upsides and can also be trigger for socioeconomic friction (as with gentrification, in general).

One of the features in many developed societies is for such clustering to be part of the resurgence of urban areas (aka ‘gentrification’). Though not really a feature in Jamaica or many developing countries, I’m looking at what groups like Jamaica Creatives are doing in downtown Kingston to see if it is planting such ‘green shoots’. The government now has a Cabinet minister in charge of urban renewal, so let’s see what he brings to the table.

That said, Jamaica’s cultural heritage is national and its rural roots and underpinning are as important and anything that happens in the capital and the metropolitan area.

Ambassadorial duties: A visit to Jamaica’s west

I’m lucky that I get to sample occasionally some of Jamaica’s offerings to tourists. I’m having a few days around Montego Bay, chilling and thinking. I wrote about the exchange rate the other day, and tourism is one part of the other side of the coin that many Jamaicans may not see, but matters. Simply, our declining J$ means that foreign visitors should find it cheaper to come to spend their money on our shores. Whether they spend more in local terms will always be a matter of debate, but the falling exchange rate offers them more chance of thinking they are getting ‘value for money’. Anyway, most of the foreign visitors I meet are so happy to be in Jamaica that I think they don’t factor in the exchange rate much. 

But, meeting them opens doors. I was trying to grab a very the makings of an early breakfast yesterday–a few sandwiches and fruit–ahead of a dawn round of golf, and met a family from Canada, with two lovely girls, who were too shy to speak to a stranger. Anyway, I complimented them on their straw-style hats, which I told them looked very Jamaican. As luck had it, the family sat adjacent to me this morning, when I was having my breakfast, so I renewed my conversation. The girls were still shy but I pointed out some things that I thought would make their visit a bit more interesting. 

I’d been joined by a small lizard while waiting to hit a shot yesterday, and as is my wont, I grabbed its picture, which I showed to the girls: nature is less intimidating in this way, and they looked fascinated.

“I’d stick with the driver, down the left side…” (Thanks to my new caddy.)
I talked to them about Jamaican fruit, which I hoped they’d tried: guavas (both pink and white) were on offer.
My lovely fruit plate for breakfast and ‘teaching moment’
Their mother knew guavas from a restaurant in their home in Toronto. I then got talking about golf courses, because the parents were interested, and I outlined what was nearby and worth trying out. They didn’t take much persuading. They planned to visit Dunn’s River Falls during their week-long stay. They asked about buying coffee: the mother said she needed to get for 70 people in her office. Buy, buy, buy! I pointed out that the Shoppes at Rose Hall had Blue Mountain coffee on sale, or the airport shops should also have. They were set for the day, and maybe the rest of their vacation.

Before that, I had been talking to a man, originally from Honduras, now living in Chicago, having migrated in his early teens, who’d asked me where I was from, and after that asked me about the language people spoke in Jamaica. I explained as best I could how Patois has an English base, but that wouldn’t really help understanding locals. He agreed, after overhearing conversations yesterday. I asked some of the waiting staff to give some examples of how Jamaicans would say “Good morning.” One young man said “Wha’ pree?” His female colleague said “Mawnin’!” I gave the Honduran a little insight to some other phrases that are not so hard to connect to English, but he understood that he needed to hang with a few Jamaicans for a while before getting very far. 

Both chance meetings settled on one point of agreement: this is a lovely island. That’s our selling point. 

But, contrast that to the surroundings, not far from the rarified world of the major hotels.

Last night, I went to visit a relative who lives in Montego Bay. I don’t know the city well, but never have much desire to get to know it, for all it’s constant mayhem, choked streets, and constant candidacy for ‘grimiest place on the island’.

The wildness of the west
Frankly, Montego Bay is an utter disgrace, given that it sits as a possible showcase for visitors to Jamaica. But, it’s a classic case of bad things Jamaican–unplanned, unruly, unkept, unloved.

As we drove through the city to do a school pick-up, a group of armed JDF soldiers was crossing the street, machine guns in hands.

Trying to control the uncontrallable?
This is part of the ‘boots on the ground’ approach to some of the escalating crime that has afflicted the area. Everyone was going about their own business: taxis loading and unloading, at will; pedestrians striding through traffic to make their way to wherever; hustlers with handcarts and just armed with cell phones jostling for space in and on the streets. Eventually, I got to my destination, one of the hills overlooking the harbour. I sat and chatted with my aunt, whom I’d not seen for too many years. She’s in her mid-80s and still in great health. We looked out at their neighbourhood. She spoke about the many small things that made life harder than it need be:

  • The scammers living adjacent, who could be heard making their ‘calls’ all day long, their being raided and taken by police, being bailed, resuming ‘business’, moving away. 
  • The commercial activities going on in plain sight in the middle of a residential area: sand and gravel works as your daily view is inexcusable. (But, the parish council friends of the sandman, sandbag the citizens.)
  • The potholed streets: taxis came and went, and people walked to their homes, dodging the craters that were all over the place.
  • The JPS light that works intermittently: we watched it go on and off at will. 

But, we tried to enjoy the setting sun as we looked west. It’s a beautiful island, sadly run by some less-than beautiful people who dont care enough to make life as nice as possible for citizens as they do for visitors. 

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.