As we today commemorate Republic Day, it is a good moment to reflect on where we are as a nation and where we are going. One important part of this picture was highlighted on Friday by cultural icon and Miss Universe 1977 Janelle “Penny” Commissiong when she called for a revitalisation of Port-of-Spain.
A claim is sometimes made that by focusing on the city, we perpetuate a centuries-old pattern of bias in favour of it and its inhabitants. Yet, Port-of-Spain is not just any city. It is our capital. And the capital serves not only its residents and the residents of surrounding areas, but also the rest of the country. People from all over TT come to Port of Spain to work or do some sort of business every day.
Penny’s call for a revived city – with clean streets and preserved historical buildings – comes at a time when some of our capital’s most historic buildings and precincts are in great distress. The list includes the Magnificent Seven, President’s House and the Red House, which remain subject to seemingly never-ending renovations.
The lack of integration between communities, green spaces and the commercial business district speaks to a need to reconsider urban planning in the city as a whole. For now, the city is an imbalanced hodge-podge of old commercial entities, clothing stores, street vending, and banking, held together because it remains the capital and seat of Government.
To address this is not to engage in a frolic. Regenerating the capital will provide a boost to business and residents, especially in the area of tourism. East Port of Spain, which was once a vibrant residential area but is now a depressed inner city, can be part of this bright future.
It can be argued that the city never recovered from the damaging effects of the 1990 terrorist attack. If we are to recover from that stain on our democracy, we need to address the wound left behind.
While the city is in distress, there are some areas of vibrancy. The development of the International Waterfront Centre and Government Campus Plaza, as well as the Brian Lara Promenade, have the capacity to reshape the dynamics of the city. The promenade alone is a bustling central vein in the city that is always alive.
But these developments are weighed down by potholed streets, dilapidated buildings, empty lots and stagnated attempts at development. Nothing is happening at the Salvatori Building site, which is now a temporary car park. A key plot of land higher up on Frederick Street, which once housed a bank, has been empty for about a decade. City Gate is deteriorating as a transportation hub. Infrastructure too has to be upgraded. The flash floods every time it rains are a testament to this.
The historic Greyfriars Church on Frederick Street was demolished a few years ago, despite being earmarked for heritage preservation. The land upon which it was located has become a pan yard, but for how long only time will tell.
A major challenge moving forward is the issue of socially-displaced persons who reside on the city’s streets. In this regard, it is encouraging that the city plans to open a purpose-built shelter. Another major challenge is security.
Penny’s dream requires input from all stakeholders: the city’s merchants, banking interests, and most importantly those who live there.
While the State has a responsibility to ensure planning and infrastructure meet basic standards, regeneration need not be a top-down process involving the State alone. Civil society groups, too, have a role to play in revitalising the city. We all can make Port of Spain beautiful once again.