“History changing in front of us,” someone said. “In years to come, we will be talking about Queen Street and the fact that it is now named for Penny, our queen.”
None is more deserving than the beautiful and gracious Janelle Commissiong. Her humility and appreciation for the smallest gesture, and her genuine desire to see her country succeed are some of the qualities of true royalty.
The renaming of Queen Street is indeed an exciting and significant time in the history of our city and our country. Research indicates that Queen Street was called Calle San Luis by the Spanish; the French translated this to Rue Saint Louis. After the conquering British forces took over Trinidad, naming the streets was an important aspect of solidifying their presence and identity. Port of Spain streets were named for their kings, queens and war heroes. The British had called the first east-west street King Street, so this second one they called Queen Street.
I have often wondered why Port of Spain has been so neglected, why no one in charge over the decades has articulated a vision and philosophy for our capital. When the streets still had Spanish names, they were paved with limestone from the Laventille hills. At other points in history, a drain ran down the centre of the town, dogs and pigs roamed freely and residents threw human waste out their windows shouting “Gadé liu!” to warn people walking below.
Naturally, before the procession to rename the street sign, frenzied cleaning and painting took place, but it is not good enough. Driving on our main streets is reminiscent of those early days, when the roads were so uneven. Homeless people defecate on the streets, while traders and business people are just as responsible for the rubbish as pedestrians.
Renaming the street is crucial to national identity. However, the historical features of the city must also be preserved. It is one of the ironies of history that a short distance away from the new sign honouring Penny is the empty lot on Frederick Street opposite Woodford Square where a church had stood for 100 years. The church was demolished by the businessman who purchased the “property,” despite protests by citizens and government representatives.
The only saving feature of this sad story is that the iconic Desperadoes steelband used this space as its base for Carnival. Maria Nunes, who documents our culture and heritage through photography, took a photo of the band through one of the gates of the original structure. As she describes it, the image is a sharp reminder of the ongoing conflict between the past and the present.
For me, the conflict is not necessary and would not exist if our leaders had a better sense of who we are, and what is important to our continued growth. Thus, the renaming of Queen Street is a bittersweet moment.
As we celebrate, I am reminded of the complex history of the city, with the bones of our First Peoples buried under the Red House, a statue to Columbus, places of worship from Muslim to Christian traditions, history, heritage and traditions all around us. In reality, our city has the potential to be transformed into a living, breathing institution of learning.
For now, we settle for the name. Shakespeare asked “what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” For Juliet, Romeo’s family name did not matter; she still loved him.
But as our nation searches for its sense of self, for us the name is essential.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN