WALK the streets of our capital city and you are bound to encounter a site of great historical or cultural significance. Seemingly nondescript lanes and alleyways are often studded with buildings that tell stories – many of them known, many unknown – about the very fabric of our country. Consider the Gingerbread House around the Savannah. Or the buildings that that housed the Naipaul family in St James and Woodbrook. Or any of the many structures that are unmarked or have no special identifying signage that once belonged to or housed an icon of our time.
Despite such riches, however, there’s long been a disconnect between the city as a cultural and economic centre and the physical environment that encases it.
Plans to beautify the capital, put forward by councillor Abena Hartley of the Port of Spain City Corporation on Wednesday at City Hall, are therefore not only welcome, but long overdue.
They provide an opportunity to rectify the disjunction between the idea of the city and its somewhat tarnished reality.
That reality is hard to understand, given the modernisation that has happened all over the world when it comes to managing urban centres. While other countries have invested a great deal of resources into organising and beautifying urban spaces, our city, as it stands, tells a story of, at best, hodgepodge development and, at worst, neglect.
On the one hand, there are many green spaces and various aesthetic interventions scattered throughout the city. On the other hand, maintenance of these green spaces is inconsistent.
There is also the overwhelming feeling that the city is not user-friendly: flash flooding, a scattershot public transport “system,” a lack of shady areas and trees, and traffic add to this impression.
A sense of stagnation since the events of 1990, which left downtown devastated, has lingered. It has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, despite efforts by the State to kickstart revitalisation through strategic restoration.
The Government would do well to heed the warnings of businessmen who, on Wednesday, called for more attention to addressing basic problems in the city, such as crime, before focusing on beautification.
And while Ms Hartley called for the city’s business community to invest in it by improving the façades of their premises, that cannot be the full extent of the “redevelopment” thrust.
The State needs to do more than merely make the city feel safe. It must make the city feel welcoming and actively pleasant, not a place that people endure while they do what they have to do in the city before escaping. This means at the least things like better infrastructure (cleanliness, drainage and security, for instance), better traffic management and more green spaces.
There is no reason why the capital city cannot be the jewel it was meant to be.