EIGHTEEN years ago, when what is now known as Oropune Gardens was sugar cane, residents relocated to make way for the Piarco International Airport. Back then they could leave their doors open, valuables were untouched and gunshots were only heard in the movies. Now, they believed their once quiet community is degenerating into another crime hot spot.
Sunday Newsday met with Sudesh Ramsaran and Lal Ramsawak both residents of Oropune Village, which was relocated to make way for the airport in the 1990s. They along with 148 other families were given the first set of Housing Development Corporation (HDC) homes in the area along with financial compensation as part of their packages. At the time they all received what the men referred to as “two bedroom starter homes”. Now many of those homes are twice the size they once were, and the sense of safety, no longer existent.
“Hear nah, long time you could have leave your door open and your stuff outside and go and come back now that not happening, Oropune is a very dangerous place to live now,” 66-year-old Ramsawak said.
Ramsaran, 50, leader of the village council, added that there are bandits who climb trees and jump out of them when people are passing and robbing them, stealing one time $12 for a secondary school student. Old and young are not spared from the thieves. The men said when the Patrick Manning administration decided to expand the area, in 2007, they did so “in a rush”.
For years there was no taxi service in and out of the area with some drivers charging as much as $20 to transport home-owners. The area was backfilled, Ramsaran said, however, the extension with the apartment buildings and townhouses were not so fortunate resulting in flooding in some parts.
The men said the crime began when residents of Trou Macaque, Laventille were relocated following a fire at an HDC apartment complex in 2011. In that fire, four people including a 10-month-old child died. Some 20 families were relocated. Two years later, another fire on Duncan Street, Port of Spain claimed the life of six-year-old Ronase Osbourne. Again residents were relocated to Oropune Gardens. Then in 2017, another fire at a Duncan Street apartment building forced HDC to relocate residents to Oropune. In that fire, Jameel Allamby, 37, who used a wheelchair, died. With the influx of residents from east Port of Spain – known for gang activity – Oropune residents believe the resettlement was a reason for increased crime.
Too many murders
A resident who lives in an apartment building, now dubbed Nelson Street as it was given to Nelson Street residents, said the Oropune is now just as bad as Enterprise, Chaguanas during the height of the war between the Unruly Isis gang and now deceased Selwyn “Robocop” Alexis. That war forced the intervention of the then national security minister Edmund Dillon who along with the leaders of the arms of the National Security toured the Central community in a bid to quell increasing gun violence.
Buildings in Oropune that were given assigned numbers by HDC are now renamed by the residents that were relocated there through tragedy. With the unofficial name change came the stereotypical behaviour associated with it.
“Colleen have plenty support because people living here don’t like what is happening. The majority of people don’t like what is happening here because is just a minority who doing wrong,” Ramsaran said.
He was speaking of resident Colleen Holder, who is now the face and voice of Oropune Gardens residents seeking to curb escalating criminality in the area. Holder, a former journalist and now media relations officer for the Office of the Parliament, has been outspoken about escalating crime following two murders within a month.
In a response to Holder’s request for a safer community, HDC, in a media statement said: "Those which are within the control and remit of the HDC, such as the provision of certificates of character before the allocation of any residence and the eviction of illegal occupants in tandem with the TTPS are on-going. However, the HDC cannot be held solely responsible for all of Oropune Gardens’ issues. The TTPS remains the sole entity responsible for the investigation of criminal activity."
On July 4, Calvin Straker, 28, was gunned down outside Building 4A Oropune Gardens, Piarco. Almost a month prior, disc-jockey Kadeem “DJ Kiddo” Johnson, 18, was also murdered outside Building 4A. On July 6, Holder held a media briefing detailing how HDC failed in their duties to keep residents safe. Since then she reported that her life has been threatened and both Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith and National Security Minister became involved. She has vowed not to give up the fight against the criminals.
While speaking with Ramsawak and Ramsaran at Ramsawak’s fruit stall along Oropune Boulevard, other residents stopped and gave their input on the increasing crime. One resident said the first time she heard a gunshot was when she moving into the area five years ago. Only after being told about a murder, she realised what she heard.
“I grew up not hearing those things. At first it was cool but then certain people came and it was the loud music, the friends that came to visit and stayed, the occasional cussout on mornings. It just different that is why now I just stay inside” she said.
Ramsaran said the area lacks community spirit. There is no community meeting area and those relocated from the “old Oropune” hardly, if ever, venture into the housing scheme. He called for more lights and cameras. He and another resident disagreed that there is need for a police post but both were adamant that an increased police presence is needed.
Don't blame me
One man, thrust in the middle of the community rift and saddled with the blame of being the genesis of crime in the community, Anthony “One Foot” Knights, declined to speak to Sunday Newsday last week.
Knights had three businesses which he operated illegally and they were torn down by HDC earlier this month.
In an interview on July 6, Knights denied he was involved in criminality or was a criminal. He said then that with cameras around his property, no one dared to engage in crime near his businesses. On more than one occasion, police searched his home and businesses but never found anything illegal.
Knights has said he would discuss the matter with his attorney and since the accusations were made he has felt uneasy about his safety, and has made a report to the police.
The birth of Oropune
The Oropune Housing Development sits on 60.7 hectares with 1,418 housing units including the 150 homes built for relocated residents several years ago. The project was initiated as a result of the need to relocate 150 families from Oropune to facilitate the construction of the new terminal building at the Piarco International Airport by the Urban Development Corporation. The families were relocated to site one which is located on the eastern section of the development.
In January 2007, HDC awarded the first of three contracts to NH International Caribbean Limited. The 1,268 units include: 664 apartments; 142 single family units; 38 townhouse duplex units; 66 townhouse triplex units; 340 townhouse quadplex units; 18 townhouse sixplex units.