Franklin Knight: Of Dudus and building a better Kingston

Historian Franklin Knight, in his column for the Jamaica Observer, looks at the problems of a city that experienced too-rapid a process of urbanization.

Now that the excitement surrounding the arrest and extradition of Mr Christopher “Dudus” Coke appears to be receding, it is manifestly clear that the Coke affair was merely the symptom of a far more profound social and political disease in Jamaica. The endemic problem of violence in Kingston in particular and the Corporate Area in general will not be eliminated until the fundamental social and economic problems that produced Mr Coke are recognised and resolved.

The roots of those problems lie in the unguided history of the relatively rapid expansion of the city of Kingston during the first part of the 20th century, especially after the Second World War. From about 1930 to the 1970s the Jamaican population, much like the rest of the region, experienced an extraordinary expansion, roughly doubling itself every 17 years. At the same time, the economy began to move surreptitiously from an agricultural base to an industrial and service base. Kingston became the Mecca for an increasing number of those inadvertently expelled from the rural areas and those for whom foreign opportunities of employment were suddenly being closed. By the 1970s the Kingston and Saint Andrew Corporate Area had about 40 per cent of the island population and public policy would simply reinforce that demographic hegemony.

 Rapid urbanisation for Jamaica, as for so many other Latin American and Caribbean states was an entirely new experience. There were no guidelines to follow. Action was ad hoc. The various administrations did not plan for the profound social and economic consequences of a large urban population. It was not a simple matter of accommodating the new arrivals in new housing developments like Mona Heights, or Hope Pastures or Harbour View, although those helped. The changes required thoughtful long-term plans that integrated social and economic needs in a self-sustaining environment.

For a time it was easy to overlook the urgent needs of a comprehensive plan for the city of Kingston. Between about the late 1940s and the late 1960s, the island experienced an unprecedented economic boom. Wages increased faster than prices, producing a noticeable increase in the middle classes. These were the types who moved into the new housing developments and engaged in conspicuous consumption that generated an illusion that Jamaica was a prosperous land.

The superficiality of the prosperity and its transience might have been noted at the time. Some analysts certainly did. A young Edward Seaga described the situation as the “haves” and the “have-nots” and like Benjamin Disraeli in 19th century Great Britain, predicted doom and gloom if the contrast between rich and poor continued to diverge. Yet it continued. Signs of the gulf between the fortunate and the abandoned were all around. It could be deduced from the growing numbers of Jamaicans emigrating to Great Britain, Canada or the United States. It was visible in the restlessly expanding slums and other neglected urban areas like Back O Wall, later gentrified to become the Tivoli Gardens garrisoned community of Mr Coke. And it lay behind the organisation of the Reverend Claudius Henry and his Rastafari brethren in the late 1950s and the armed rebellion of his son, Ronald, in 1960.

Nevertheless, not much good is served by rehashing the unfortunate history of the changed political and economic climate or altered social culture that produced the various garrisoned communities like Tivoli Gardens with the political party tie-ins that now plague the present. Rather, what seems of paramount importance is a broad recognition that good societies derive not from chance but from deliberate action. If Jamaicans want a new and better Jamaica they will simply have to make the long-term sacrifices that produce their desired result. Equally important is the vital role that a comprehensively rebuilt Kingston must play in any new Jamaica.

One of the more disappointing consequences of the showdown between Jamaica and the United States (or between the people of Jamaica and their government) over the Dudus affair was the exaggerated concern for its impact on the tourist industry. No sane person denies that the tourist industry is exceedingly important to Jamaica. Nor would anyone deny that the potential economic impact would be negative and could be potentially disastrous to the national welfare.

The excessive preoccupation with reassuring would-be tourists appears quite misplaced. It should be clearly understood that Jamaica is far more than an island south of its north coast. Foreign tourists are important but Jamaicans should be far more important in their own country. So while it was comforting to hear that the government quickly decided to invest millions of dollars advertising in foreign countries to attract foreign visitors and to mitigate the fallout from adverse publicity it was extremely disappointing that parallel large-scale plans were not announced to ameliorate the conditions that created the problem in the first place. Such plans would have included the massive reconstruction of the city of Kingston to create a better and self-sustainable life for all its citizens. That should have been the highest priority.

The core idea of a total renovation of Kingston cannot be predicated on making it attractive for foreign tourists. The core idea should be to make a city that operates adequately for those who live and work there. If the city works for its residents then foreigners will be attracted. It is a variation of the old mantra, “If you build it they will come.” Planning for this new Kingston then should not begin with calculations of cruise ship arrivals or facilities for yacht clubs and marinas. It should begin with a serious concern about the vast marginalised population that cannot exist in any city designed for the fortunate few. Those must be brought into the mainstream of Jamaican society with steady jobs, comfortable homes, good education, affordable quality medical services and available facilities for their recreation.

Of course, the argument will be made that Jamaica is more than Kingston. Of that there is no doubt. But building a better Jamaica must begin with a better Kingston. On that there should be little disagreement.

For the original column go to

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