POINSETTIA sales may be dramatically down but that’s not the only thing that’s lost its sheen this Christmas. Take a look at the streets of our capital city at night and it’s clear things are not what they used to be. Gone are the days when entire families walked the length of Frederick Street gazing at window displays. You cannot help but think Port of Spain’s central business district has lost its shine; that the Grinch has won the war against Christmas.
Some say a capital city is a barometer of the overall well-being of a society. Look to a capital and you will understand a people’s energy, culture, achievements and ambition. There are many vibrant pockets in Port of Spain. But the central business district, which is the lifeblood of any urban centre, has lost its glow. What happened?
Over many decades Port of Spain has suffered from a lack of urban renewal. Poor planning, endless partisan bickering between various interest groups, the devastating after-effects of the 1990 terrorist attack by fundamentalists, and concerns about crime have all played key roles. But often overlooked is the depletion of the city’s middle class.
The nation as a whole has suffered from the grossly unequal distribution of wealth in our petrochemical-based economy.
Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis recently rebuffed Tabaquite MP Dr Suruj Rambachan for claiming 75 per cent of the population earns less than $6,000 per month. She said the real figure is 41 per cent. But even Robinson-Regis must admit 41 per cent is still substantial.
A diminished middle-class has consequences. That’s less people able to access standards of living that some take for granted. This includes less money for the things that lift up our lives: for leisure, recreation. And certainly less time for window-shopping. A lower appetite for spending then plays into a vicious cycle, discouraging the business needed to generate livelihoods. Add to this brain drain and a cyclical economy tied to global forces beyond our control, and you have a recipe for a long, painful decline.
Christmas is supposed to be the busiest time of the year for commerce. But for many, it is also a time of symbolic renewal; marking the birth of the Christ, a symbol of our human goodness. Now is a good time to reflect on measures to reinvigorate Port of Spain.
Yes, it is important to decentralise; to focus equally on development all over the country. But it is also important to understand the role of our urban centres when it comes to driving overall growth. Steps are already being taken to address the capital’s many problems relating to infrastructure, parking and traffic flows. Beautification of our parks is also, thankfully, back on the agenda. But these measures need to be intensified and supported by civic society if the capital is to blossom once more.