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The dying capital

Natalie Briggs Thursday, January 5 2017

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Old Port-of-Spain had an innocence and a glamour that is gone. This was the Port-of-Spain of Naipaul’s Miguel Street, where a boy could grow up and play in the streets. The Port-of-Spain of Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, where pretty mas and bad johns competed for space. The hodge- podge of architectural styles gave it a unique character. During the day, this was a bustling place of small traders and haberdashers, some of whom became the region’s biggest names in business. The Sabga family readily comes to mind. At night, the city came alive and entertainment could be found at any of its many nightclubs, restaurants and cinemas for locals and foreigners alike.

The Port-of-Spain that had room for residents, business and was cultural mecca is no more. What has replaced it is a sprawl of homogenous office complexes, housing mainly government employees, who are only too happy to head to their homes by the hundreds of thousands at the end of the day. By 6 pm, Port-of-Spain is a ghost town. For the most part, businesses in the capital city now serve the transient workforce and have no need to stay open once they are gone.

Nightlife has moved to the west of the main city centre to Woodbrook and Ariapita Avenue. Those who lived here have moved to suburbs in the west, to the north of Port-of-Spain, or have quit the country entirely. A recent US State Department report has warned its citizens to stay away from downtown Port-of-Spain at night. A drive through the town centre at this time will reveal padlocked doors and shuttered storefronts. If they need anything, people no longer come into the city to find it, preferring to go to shopping malls that open later and are closer to their homes, but which also provide a relatively safer shopping environment and parking. Charlotte Street, which still serves as a beacon for bargain hunters, may have this position challenged with the disappearance and the subsequent discovery of the body of 20-year-old Shannon Banfield at one of the street’s most well-known business establishments in December last year.

Everyone is running from the crime. The number of businesses in Port-of-Spain has declined from around 5,700 in 2000 to around 5,000 in 2011, according to the CSO’s 2011 Population and Housing Census Preliminary Count

But there is also a general environmental degradation that makes Port-of-Spain a hardsell. Increasing numbers of homeless wander the street. The capital is gridlocked at peak hours and is prone to flooding and near shutdown during the slightest rainfall. Several roads are pockmarked with potholes. The city is losing its green spaces and unique architecture.There is a sense that it feels less and less like the capital city as years go by.

Banfield’s murder has brought crime and safety in the city back to the forefront, but perhaps policy makers should be focusing on the deeper ramifications of this loss of life. One issue that comes to mind the question of whether or not Port-of-Spain a decaying, dying city.

According to the Union of International Associations (UIA) Encyclopedia of World Problems, it may be.

They define a decaying urban area as one:

“…where the concentration of the entire range of economic, financial, political and cultural activities is the greatest and the most complex. Traditionally

2011 census has listed Port-of-Spain’s number of residents declining from 46,021 in 2000 to 35,663 in 2011. Meanwhile, street dwellers have been increasing from 246 in 2000 to 307 in 2011. Port-of-Spain now has the highest number of street dwellers of any region, according to the census.

The UIA definition continues that decaying urban areas have:

“a high level of commercial specialisation, a large number of offices and a sizeable daytime population. ... The concentration of the service industries inevitably entails the replacement of traditional housing and shops by office blocks, the provision of basic utilities at the expense of civic amenities and the provision of major access roads which eat up urban space. The ensuing over-concentration of traffic has the inevitable consequences of air pollution... Structures of historic origin are often unable to meet modern requirements and, notwithstanding their value, frequently face demolition. Some of the future-oriented activities hitherto dominating central areas tend to abandon the stifled centre and look for more favourable locations.”

Does this sound like Port-of- Spain?

Business Day spoke with former Port-of-Spain mayor, Keron Valentine to get a sense of how hard it is to take the city back from the brink.

Valentine took over the mayorship from Raymond Tim Kee in what was supposed to be the last ten months of Tim Kee’s term.

As a major achievements, Valentine said he was able to address the homeless situation in some measure, getting the courts to pass bye laws in litigation by homeless people against the city. Now, he said, it is illegal for the homeless to loiter and to set up permanent dwellings in the city’s public parks, playgrounds and schools.

He said he also focused on improving physical infrastructure within the city, particularly parking and roadworks. However, gang land crime culture of East Port-of- Spain proved to be a serious deterrent to more work being done.

“Doing developmental work, like putting in exercise equipment or a play park in certain parts of the city was a major problem,” said Valentine. “We would have lost quite a number of employees to the whole ‘borderline’ phenomenon. It was a major issue in terms of staffing. When it came to scheduling and rostering workers, some of them would tell us that they could not go on this street, or they could not go further than this point.”

Next week, Business Day continues with former mayor Valentine’s assessment of the situation, other stakeholders contributions and what can be done to revitalize the city centre.



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