September 22, 2008

Skyscrapers Do Not A First World City Make

City living is key to any developed country with a large workforce in its main commercial district. It helps curtail traffic if you can encourage people to work near where they live. A city is also more viable and productive if it is inhabited and buzzing 24/7 and doesn’t become a ghost town after working hours. City residents feed businesses, nightlife and a vibrant culture that can become in of itself a tourism attraction like the night life of London, Amsterdam, Madrid and New York.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have a sadly comical way of only seeing the outer trappings of first world grandeur and not the basic infrastructure and social foundation behind it.

The people of Toronto coined a wonderful description of their beloved city called, “The livable city”. What that means is that you can enjoy clean, wholesome, safe, convenient residential experience in the heart of Toronto. When you step outside your hotel, guest house or apartment, you are greeted by clean streets, well maintained store fronts, organised traffic, adequate pedestrian and cycling routes and public transportation that runs like clockwork. There are well maintained parks, green spaces clean farmers markets and of course all the shops, galleries, theatres, restaurants and clubs catering to every lifestyle and pocket, all within your reach, open late or twenty four seven and virtually crime-free.

Cities like this were not based on skyscrapers only but serious infrastructure, commerical and resident-friendly innovations and public services.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have a sadly comical way of only seeing the outer trappings of first world grandeur and not the basic infrastructure and social foundation behind it. I was in downtown Port of Spain a week ago when a cruise ship came in and I wanted to cry with shame. Every single block of Port of Spain the tourists cruised was inundated with vagrants in various stages of human decay. One unfortunate soul was hopping along on one leg, holding up his filth encrusted pants, another was cursing at top decibel level at whatever phantasm he was seeing in his head. Another lay naked, his reeking jewels on display. Off the corner of Chacon and Queen Street, a pile of human feces baked in the afternoon sun infecting the air along with the smell of rotting garbage and clogged drains.

Don't be fooled by our rising skyline. Beneath all this lies all the rank evidence of Third World squalor. A modern city is not just a pile of skyscrapers. The city life now enjoyed by people in Toronto, London, Tokyo or New York started with careful city planning from the ground up. Our government certainly does not understand this.

It was not only eau de Banana Republic stinking to high heaven but also the smell of truth. It screamed “Fake! Fake! Fake!” to the ugly, presumptuous skyscrapers and our government’s all style, no substance approach that makes them think it is a stroke of genius to build luxury residential high rises and hotels in the heart of a city rank with squalor, crime and disorganized infrastructure. It made it all the more clear to me that Vision 20/20 is just an empty PR moniker to be wielded selectively when certain people want to spend our tax payer money, oil and gas revenues on pork barrel projects.

I often picture the concierge’s welcome to guests at the Hyatt,
“Do enjoy the lovely view of the Lavantille slums to your north, the shantytown of Sea Lots overlooking noisome and toxic water of the Port to the east. Oh and that pungent aroma you smell when you open your window is the combination of Beetham incense, vagrant odour and stale piss. I am afraid the city is not safe for tourists after 5 pm. In fact, I cannot exactly guarantee its safe before 5 pm either, so just please stay in your hotel. If you need to go out for dining and entertainment, have a taxi take you into the outskirts of Port of Spain, there are more pleasant areas in St. Anns, Maraval,Woodbrook and Movie Towne. Have a wonderful stay and please ignore the gun shots you may hear from time to time, just a little light urban cleansing I’m afraid.”

Here are just some of the city attractions that await visitors off the cruise ships or outside the doors of the new overpriced Hyatt in Port of Spain:

Our vagrants out-stink, out-decay, out-filth any the world and they are EVERYWHERE, even outside of boutiques selling Rolex watches and Ralph Lauren's latest scent. No bench is safe and that's not just dog poop on the sidewalk.

Our lack of efficient city garbage disposal creates a wonderful symbiotic eco-system for the vagrants. Goodness knows, we have no social systems to feed, house or re-habilitate them. But unfortunately the garbage causes another problem....

If it rains in the city of Port of Spain for just one hour, prepare to bring out your watersports gear!

As you gaze outside your Hyatt penthouse suite, enjoy Sea Lots to the South East...

and the slums of Lavantille to the North East. At least they look pretty at night, if you can ignore the random gunshots.

Keep in mind the citizens have to protest just for basic policing, so when night falls in Port of Spain, stay in your hotel room or out of the heart of the city. This is not a night friendly city at all.

If you think a modern city is just a pile of skyscrapers think again! The city life now enjoyed by people in Toronto, London, Tokyo or New York started with careful city planning from the ground up. Our government certainly does not understand this. If Port of Spain is to be even close to a livable city, traffic must be re-routed around the downtown area with special permits given only to merchants and their delivery vehicles. Everything south of Oxford Street and between Charlotte and Richmond has to become a cobble stoned pedestrian area. Yes, pedestrian. If you live in a first world city you learn how to park and then walk! If you want parking within the city centre then you have to pay.

A strict No Vagrancy law has to be enacted and enforced. This means development of proper systems and facilities to remove and re-habilitate homeless men and women many of whom suffer from mental illness, natural or drug induced. Old commercial property and dilapidated residential property in Port of Spain must be demolished and turned into either green spaces, high end residential or commercial facilities that are aesthetically pleasing, and lift the overall morale of the city. I cannot emphasise how important it is for historic preservation of old structures. If we continue along this concrete and steel route our city will lose its soul and cultural identity. Urban art needs to be developed on a massive scale. It is hilarious that Brian Lara Promenade has no Brian Lara statue or artistic tribute of any kind to the man.

A clean, organised farmers and crafts flee market needs to be organised. Store owners must be liable to keep the area outside their stores clean. Public urination should be meted out with swift prosecution, so too should littering. To aid this there needs to be armed police patrol on every street and every corner with support of CCTV cameras and mobile stations. In addition, a regular bus system has to give the public access to the city centre at key entry points and taxi services re-routed to the outskirts of the pedestrian areas.

Can you imagine city with a main vein at its heart, Brian Lara Promenade, lit up, clean, breezy, safe and abuzz with our music, art, food late into the night?

Visualise if you can, a day when you can take your family for a walk in downtown Port of Spain at night past coffee shops, all night roti restaurants and sidewalk caf├ęs serving Creole fare. Can you see yourself strolling with your date for an ice cream and watching live street performers on Brian Lara Promenade, then bouncing into old friends or colleagues from the office. Imagine the only smells in the air are spices, food, coffee and that new merchandise smell that wafts out of air-conditioned retail stores. Can you see yourself shopping, liming and partying in the multi-coloured glow of neon lights and sidewalk lamps until late at night in a city that is always alive, safe, bright and beautiful? Picture hoards of tourists roaming Port of Spain and you feeling so much pride as you observe them taking in your nation’s capital with delight instead of disgust. Now THAT is a glimpse of a first world city and it doesn’t even take a single skyscraper to make it so. The question my people is “Are you ready to believe that you truly deserve this?


Karen said...

Hi Jessica,
This is not a comment but an email to you. Love your work. I have a company Women Like Me in Toronto Canada with a women's web radio station Also our charity is doing a project called World Votes US to show our opinion of the American election. Would like to chat to you about both.
Karen Fraser

Guanaguanare said...

Thanks for this Jessica!

Some time ago, Gene Wilkes submitted a poem about San Fernando to my blog which voiced some of your concerns

I attempted then to express some of the thoughts that I have on the correlation between the quality of our living spaces and quality of life/being, whether at the level of the individual or at the level of the society.

Apart from you, are there any individuals or groups that present a consistent call for change or are already actively working towards solutions? Is it that there is no common ground on aesthetic matters, no money available to turn things around or simply no commitment (from the government and the business community) to approach and sustain a move to improve the life of the city?
Another great post!

Jessica said...

Again thank you for the encouragement. I am happy to say that yes indeed there are quite a few Trinbagonians who see beyond race, party politics and the crazy spending.

The problem is organising everyone and getting them to committ to creating change in the long run. But the web is a wonderful thing. You Tube, Facebook, Blogger, all of these are going to play a very useful role in rallying people.

Corrupt governments that thrive on misinformation and a disempowered populace cannot withstand this new era of virtual communities and free communication and information sharing. It is only a matter of time.

Jessica said...

Certainly karen.

You can e-mail me at