In the heart of the town of Castries, there is a small square with a long history dating back to the 18th century. It used to be the Place d’Armes when the island was under French control. In January 1893, it was rechristened Columbus Square in honor of the discoverer who never set foot on the island. One hundred years later—to the date-it was renamed to honor Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Prize for literature. It has become, to judge by the number of cruise ship passengers that flock there every day, the second most popular tourist attraction in St. Lucia (after the duty-free shops). Across the street is the beautiful and simple Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, its altar and interior walls luminously painted by Walcott’s childhood friend Dunstan St. Omer. Across its west gate-now permanently closed, except when it opens to allow Walcott in-there is the pink Carnegie-built public Library. Those of the brightly painted gingerbread buildings that survived the fire of 1948 that devastated Castries flank the square to the north and south. The cenotaph to St. Lucia’s war dead is now eclipsed by matching busts of Walcott and his fellow Lucian Nobel Prize winner Sir Arthur Lewis (1979, Economics). The park boasts a 400-year-old samaan tree (the caretaker claims its 543 years old). He also claimed to have made earrings from the tree’s dead branches, which he offered for sale. We were quite dubious about this, but bought some anyway.
We met the gardener and caretaker of the square, Aruba, after he had finished scolding a tourist for stepping into the grass (not allowed). His hand painted signs explaining the “don’ts” in the square are quaintly placed here and there. No stepping on the grass and, most definitely, not interfering with any of the plants, to whom Aruba claims to speak daily and lovingly, reminding them of the honor that has been bestowed on them by being allowed to beautify such a dignified space. The square used to be a space of recreation for the inhabitants of Castries. Now it has more of the feel of one of those city squares reserved for lucky residents of the neighborhood that we find in London and, increasingly, in New York City. Many of the residents of Castries we spoke to resent the new incarnation of the square as hallowed space they rarely enter, as the gates close at 3pm, after the cruise passengers are on their way back to the ship. The wooden benches where they would sit with their lunch or ice cream have been removed.
Aruba is quite a character. He is understandably proud of his work. The square is kept meticulously clean and its trees, bushes, and flowers attest to the care-and words-he has lavished on them. Recognizing that our interest went beyond the brief paragraph in the guidebook, he took us on a slow and detailed tour. Allowed onto the grass, we heard the story, age, and condition of every planting. We were honored to be introduced to his three pets (we were not to call them chickens, as that would make us think of having them for lunch): Marcus, Linda, and Joseph. He insisted we all had our photographs taken with him. We did. We also heard of his complaints against the Castries Town Board, which had just reduced his salary. He was warm in praise of Walcott, who comes occasionally to visit and often accompanies friends who come to admire his square.
It is his job, Aruba claims, to make sure his square reflects the glory of Walcott’s work.