Who determines our heritage? The Government? The National Trust? The protestors? When does a building move from being functional to being symbolic? How do we assess the historic worth of a structure, when our history is still being written? These are some of the simmering issues laid bare by the current controversy over the premises at 9 Mary Street, St Clair, in the nation’s capital.
At the very least, the situation calls for a reassessment of our systems relating to heritage preservation and land use. Additionally, the State must be forthright over its plans and be responsive to feedback from the population.
The house in question has a long history. It was previously occupied by Speakers of the House of Representative, though it has been abandoned for a few years. But it is most famous – or infamous depending on your views – for being the scene of the house arrest of House Speaker Occah Seepaul who fell out of favour with the Patrick Manning administration.
From August 5 to August 8, 1995, Seepaul was confined for allegedly attempting to usurp his Government’s authority in the Parliament. It was full extreme: Manning invoked a state of emergency to facilitate this action.
Only with time will it be clear which of the two figures stood on the right side of history. For now, however, an argument can be made stating that actions which undermine the will of a democratically-elected government should not be turned into monuments. On the other hand, it can also be said that whether Seepaul is on the wrong side of history or not, the incident is a vital part of that history. She was the first female speaker.
There is a legislative framework in place to deal with the determination of heritage sites. The question is, how effective is this framework? The house resides in a district earmarked for preservation. It is not yet formally listed. While an intention to list should pre-empt any action to demolish by State actors, such an intention amounts to little protection once the property is in the hands of a private owner. That is what happened with the Greyfriars Church, which is now a parking lot, almost in the heart of downtown Port of Spain.
Why, then, has the State dragged its foot on the matter of formally protecting heritage sites? Given the conflicting reports, the State must say what its plans for this site are. Is it to be handed over to a government ministry? Or is it due to be sold to a private entity, as also claimed? Clearly the State knows how to preserve and protect sites that are deemed of value. The Heritage Library refurbishment on Knox Street in Port-of-Spain is a shining example. The question is, should the same standards apply to 9 Mary Street? There is a case that they should.