October 22, 2008 - Volume 1, No. 11
When The Streets Belonged
When I returned home from carnival 2K8, I was elated by the wonderful time I had while liming with some of my old friends from up the Hill and upper Nelson Street. I enjoyed every walking moment of the carnival season. I visited the old places that I remembered as a child. While I was liming with my Nelsonian friend and mentor Audra Preddie, he told me that there was a lot of steelbands on the streets for the Emancipation Day celebrations. He invited me to return. That knowledge raised my panjumbie sensibilities. I spoke to my other friends Carlo, Fran and Tracy and they encouraged me to think about the cultural mix with the steelbands. So, I decided to return to the homeland once more in 2K8 for the Emancipation Day celebrations. As I sat on the plane I remembered the many Africans who marched and died back in 1970 to get this holiday. We wanted to ensure that no one would forget the African holocaust that resulted from the European enslavement of African peoples.
The Emancipation Day official holiday is celebrated on August 1 to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved Africans. On August 1, 1834 the British colonial enslavers issued a proclamation freeing their enslaved Africans. On August 1, 1985, one hundred and fifty one years later Trinbago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Trinbago. Today, Trinbago is still the only country in the Diaspora that declared its Emancipation Day a national holiday. Trinbago also celebrates Indian Arrival Day as a national holiday. So, now the nation’s two largest groups each have a holiday proclaiming their freedom, one from slavery and the other from indenture.
I was excited to see the homeland outside of the carnival season. What better time to do so than for Emancipation Day? The main celebrations were held under the leadership of the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) led by its chairman Khafra Kambon. ESC arranged free (yes I said free) events for the public every night, except for one night at the Jean Pierre Complex. For Thursday night, they had the Lion King presentation and the public had to pay $200.00 for up front seats and $100.00 for back seats. There were dancers from Africa, Canada and Columbia. Ella Andall performed. The Orisha princess sang her heart out. She is indeed a lady of substance. Clive Zanda did his jumbie performance with the steelpan. The old lion still has the fire. The upcoming panist Earl La Pierre Jr. (son of the famous Earl La Pierre, Sr.) was refreshing with his style of soloing. Indeed, a chip of the old block. There were vendors selling local food and their wares in the Emancipation village under tents provided at a cost. They sold jewelry, ear rings, African dresses, sandals and dashikis. ESC must be complimented for producing a magnificent product, in spite of a limited budget and voluntary workers who extended themselves to pull it off.
The last Wednesday night was pan night. Steelbands like Phase II, Renegades, Desperadoes, Exodus, Joylanders, Scherzando and Laventille Sound Specialists performed. Each band played about five or six tunes. Boogsie was his usual skillful self as he played all the front line pans in Phase II steel orchestra while the band provided back up. Renegades had the crowd jumping on their feet. Desperadoes steel orchestra was its usual self as it brought back memories with its rendition of what has become its signature tune ‘Rebecca’. All the events started after 6pm and went till midnight.
On Thursday night, the main event was the Lion King Show. It was marvelous. The dancers and singers did a magnificent job. On Sunday afternoon, City Sun Valley Steel Orchestra (formerly of Prince Street behind Richmond’s Bar) and now situated on Border Street, performed five of their top tunes. Some of the original Sun Valley steelband members were Witty Patron (captain), Eddie King, Andy, Rupert Alexander, Allowsingh and Edward Lane. A few of the Elder members of the new Sun Valley: June Tesheira, Fitzroy ‘Popo’, Desmond Marcel (captain) and Keith ‘Zolup’ McCollin were present. Nelsonians and Witty can be proud of the new band. I wish them all the best.
During the day time of the ESC celebrations, I walked the streets of Port of Spain observing the denizens as they went about their business. I must confess that the landscape of Port of Spain has changed dramatically. There are no longer any residents living on Charlotte, Henry, Pembroke, Abercrombie, St. Vincent and Edward streets. In the past, there was a mixture of Africans and local whites who resided on those streets. All those streets now have only businesses. Some of the businesses have become creative and kept a few of the house’s facade and refurbished them for their uses. One notable building was the former ‘Rosemary Pancake House’ at the top of Dundonald Street. The building has been converted to a business. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the pancake house was a small restaurant and bar reputedly owned by Rosemary Stone. Every Sunday morning, limers were entertained there with brunch and jazz music by Clive Zanda, Clive Bradley and other local musicians.
Next, I walked on Edward Street. I was very disappointed to see how old and dingy Empire Flats looked. From the outside it looked like it was not maintained at all. I remember when only the middle class were permitted to live there. Another changed building was the famous Queen’s Park Hotel. It is now housed by a petrol business. They kept the front fašade and it is still beautiful as it looks out to the savannah with its white and green paint.
As I walked down west Tragarete Road I passed Laperouse cemetery. I was amazed at the hot temperature which seemed to transcend the cool air coming from the sea. Most of the buildings no longer carried awnings or shelters which used to protect walkers from the burning heat. As a result, walkers are exposed to the burning heat of the sun. It is the same on Ariapita Avenue. The Diaries is no longer on Phillips Street. Instead, the building is now a car show place. The ice factory building is still there. Someone told me that it still produces ice. Cipriani Boulevard is still filled with large green trees hanging over the boulevard and sprawled from the savannah to Tragarete Road. There is a new hotel in one of the houses. Shay Shay Tien is still there on the boulevard at Warner Street. It is not as popular as it was in the 1960s when lovers used to steal away from work to go there for lunch and a quick rendezvous. Cyril’s parlor is still on Tragarete Road in front of Silver Stars panyard. Today, it is his children and grandchildren that run the place. They no longer sell his famous mauby and sweet bread. I noticed that the counter is now very near to the door with only standing room. It is a reflection of the times Trinbagonians face where security is paramount. Strand cinema is being rented out as a calypso tent during the carnival season. Globe Theatre is still open and with a new face lift. It is the only cinema remaining in Port of Spain. All the other cinemas like Royal, Pyramid, Rex, Starlite, Rialto, Astor, Odeon, Olympic and Deluxe are now defunct. Deluxe is now Zen Club while Odeon is a church and Royal is a car park. Pyramid is closed up.
As I strolled through Belmont, the heat became worse on Norfolk Street where many of the houses were dismantled and replaced with businesses. Soon, Port of Spain will be only businesses as the government completes its new urban policy. I heard that the plan is to make Port of Spain a commercial area. But, the problem may be Belmont, Gonzales and behind the bridge. What to do with those residents? The old local small shops, parlors and bars are already gone. Suzy Q on Park Street, where you bought your great tasting hot dogs and peanut punch is gone. Cosmos on upper Abercrombie Street where you bought your seamoss is gone. The famous Norville bakery on Norfolk Street and St. Margaret’s Lane is now closed. I took a picture for memory’s sake. No one limes in front of the bakery anymore. The shades of beautiful trees that existed on Cadiz Road, Jermingham Avenue and Belmont Circular Road are gone. So, walkers are now exposed to the bright, burning sun which could be scorching at times.
The famous Hill Land Hall is now a shell of its former self. The building is old and needs painting and some repairs. The Hall was famous for its parties, fetes, birthday functions, christenings and weddings. I remember those Sunday afternoons that were party time at the Hall. Most people may not remember that Hilland Hall was a Friendly Society founded in the 1950s by middle class Africans in Trinidad. Two of its famous members were Mr. Lambert (President) from Gloster Lodge Road and Mr. Clark (Secretary). I recall three other Friendly societies: Woodbrook at the corners of Tragarete Road and Gatacre Street; another society was located near Lord Harris square and the other was at Lodge Place. I am sure there were more all over the island and in Tobago.
The society’s main purpose was to provide insurance coverage for its poor and middle class African members in the community. Members paid monthly dues and from those dues they received sick, death and hospital benefits. At the end of the year there was the famous Hilland Hall Christmas and Old Year’s parties for everyone. Most of the societies became defunct in the 1980s. Most of the members are dead. Their children did not carry on the legacy as some of the vestiges of colonialism were removed by the new government after independence. After 1970, people were able to get insurance coverage from the companies as most of the colonials died or returned to their mother land. It was no longer feasible or profitable to exclude locals from joining insurance companies.
As I continued my sojourn through the city I noticed that there was a new addition attached to many people’s attire as they walked the streets. It was the umbrella. Many people traveled with it to protect their bodies from the blazing sun. Some of the old places like Leo’s Grill that used to be on Observatory Street was now closed. Leo’s children now use the space to house their mas costumes. The children have become a major creator of mas costumes for different band throughout the country and extending to Brooklyn, Miami, London and Toronto.
Another popular place that no longer existed was Earl’s bread and shark parlor which was next to Leo’s Grill. I remember how Earl caused quite a stir when he challenged Leo and opened his bread and shark parlor next door. Leo was upset because Earl attracted most of his customers. Earl, being the younger of the two soon expanded to a Restaurant & Bar near Argyle Street. Soon, Earl became a victim to young women and gambling which ended his entrepreneur career. The lime on Gloster Lodge Road near Gloster Lodge School, no longer exists. For many years, that was Mauve Lange’s spot where many of Belmont’s saga boys and girls used to lime. It was also the place to find Old Oak Regulars and Bighead Hoyt. That area used to be busy with young people liming. Today, it is empty as passers-by hurry to get home before dark.
Next, I walked down Tragarete Road. The heat was immeasurable. As a child, I remembered walking along the Tragarete Road route four times every day to and from my high school in Woodbrook, including lunch time. Every morning from Monday to Friday, I walked from my home at the top of Duke Street down to St. Vincent Street where I made a right turn up to Tragarete Road and then made a left turn and walked down Tragarete Road. At lunch time I walked the same distance to go home for lunch and then walked back after lunch. It was never that hot. And, there was always a little shade on the right side (going West) of the street. The hottest day of the week was Sunday when most people were home resting. Children were not allowed to go outside to play. You had to go Church early in the morning. Then, there was Sunday school around 2pm. After that you were sent to sleep for an hour or more. If you were well behaved that week, you were permitted to a 4:30 movie at one of the neighboring cinemas. Other times, in the evening you may be permitted to look out the window. Around 8pm, it was bed time because your parents wanted you to get up early for school on Monday. Every school day, my grandmother woke up around 6am and the first thing she did was to wake me up with a heavy shaking. If I continued to sleep it would be a dash of cold water to let me know what next was coming. That was enough to get me up. After that, I took a cold shower and then ate breakfast which usually consisted of hot tea or cocoa and bread with either butter or cheese. That was such an innocent and simple time.
The update for behind the bridge is still dismal and gloomy. It is getting worse as residents there adjust to the senseless murderous environment. Imagine the people living in Pitchery Lane cannot go to Mango Rose because there is a gang war going on. And, there is a police unit stationed right in the front of Mango Rose. There is also a gang war between Quarry Street and La Coupe Harp buildings. Be reminded that Quarry Street and the Harp are just a few yards apart. If you are standing on Quarry Street and you cross the street you are in the Harp. There is even talk about a gang war between Upper Nelson Street and Down Nelson Street; Duncan Street and George Street. It is a very stressful life to live when you have to be on your guard daily or nightly for fear of being killed.
I noticed that every afternoon around 4:00 pm commuters gather on Piccadilly, Duke and Nelson Streets waiting for taxis to get home. By 5 or 6pm those streets are clear, except for the ice-cream man at the corner of Nelson and Duke Street. Also, in the day time, it is crowded on Charlotte, Henry and Park Streets. But, come 5:30 pm those streets are lonely as the stores close and all the people disappear. By 6pm, it is lonely on Frederick Street between Park Street and Independence Square. No one is on the streets. All the stores are closed. The streets look lonelier and frightful as the stores now have iron gates to cover their show cases after closing. At closing time, the iron gates are pulled down leaving steel for onlookers to stare at. The window shopping era is a thing of the past. Chubby snackette is now a grocery store. The owner got tired of the dangers and rented it.
The days and nights of liming on the bridge on Duke Street have disappeared. During the 1960s the bridge was famous for limers who were known to deconstruct every panorama or steelband festival. At night you could hear panjumbies talking about past panoramas and festivals. Who won or should have won? But, that era is dead. While I was there, I never saw anyone sitting on the bridge. People now gather there to wait for a taxi to get home safely. The only places where you could still see people liming are on upper Nelson Street where former members of Grissom soccer team gather or in All Stars, Casablanca and Renegades panyards. While liming on Nelson Street, I saw a new development taking place. People who lived on the ground floor in the Planning painted all their windows in white. I was told that it was done to prevent anyone from seeing inside their apartment. This is a safety measure residents developed due to the crime and murder situation facing Nelsonians. Everyone is suspicious of strangers who are scrutinized properly. As one Nelsonian said, ‘We don’t know when they coming for us so we ain’t taking no chances.’ While his use of the triple negative caught my attention, I understood what he meant as I remembered a time when the streets belonged to us.
As a result, upper Nelson Street seems darker than usual at night. Such is the fear of Nelsonians. Limers, who many years ago lived for the corner, now no longer feel safe to chance liming on the corners of Port of Spain. I visited All Stars, Renegades and Casablanca panyards. There, I saw three of the old badjohns, One-man in Casablanca panyard; Little Axe and Tampico in Renegades panyard liming and drinking beers. How things changed. Now badjohns seek solace and comfort in the panyards as the crime and murders have curtailed their movements. There was a time in the 1960s when gangs like Lawbreakers, Applejackers, Sikhats, Navarone and Thunderbirds reigned supreme. They used to live a comfortable life and dressed well. They gambled and ran women and always seem to have money. Their communities gave them respect and they were feared. Today, the young guns do not know what is a badjohn and they have no fear for any authority or person but the gun. The old badjohns no longer hold any sway. As a result, they feel safer in the panyards where they sit, old talk and drink beer all day. They no longer feel protected by the community to be on the streets. Many have not aged well.
As I made my journey through the city, I walked up Observatory, Norfolk, Quarry and Pelham Streets. There was no one liming on those streets. People were always moving, either going home or going out. There was no one sitting in their verandas or galleries relaxing as in years gone by. Now, people build steel fences around the verandas and galleries to protect themselves and their family from the possibility of being shot or killed if they dare to sit there. Across Belgrade Street it was a ghost town as the street was empty. It was scary. The street was clear of people. The houses were old and broken down. The galvanized roofs were rusty and rotting. Belgrade Street used to be a bright street where young people limed on the corner at Laventille Road, Duke Street, Siparia Hill or Quarry Street. Today, the Elders in the community who travel outside now lime in bars and restaurants down town. From around 10 am you can see elders and retirees sitting in the four or five bars and restaurants on Duke Street liming and drinking. Most of them remember me. The others look at me suspiciously, especially if I ask for someone. But, they were kind.
Today, Port of Spain is buzzing with new buildings (condos, businesses and stores) going up, especially in the western region (Woodbrook, St. James and Diego Martin) of the city. For some people buildings are development. Everywhere you look there is a new building being build. I did not see a plan. Transportation is still a major problem. So, what you have now is a mix of new buildings with old ones still around. Norfolk and Observatory Streets are examples of this. I still believe that if there was a plan, places like Belmont could be saved. It has not yet reached the decadent level like up the Hill or Nelson Street. Also, some of the houses are still maintained properly. But, it is dying slowly as more and more people struggle to maintain their homes but are failing due to the high price of materials. The Belmont police station is rebuilt and looking good but empty. I don’t know when the police will move in. There are lots of young people on the streets in the day time. They are not in school or employed.
There is an increase of cars all over the country. I believe that it stems from the fact that the crime, murder and kidnapping are responsible for today’s increase in cars. Also, young people today have more disposable income; women don’t want to walk the streets at night and it is difficult to get a taxi at night if you going to out or coming in or live in Belmont, Gonzalez or any of the murder areas. And, you really playing with your life if you are walking on the streets of Port of Spain late at night. If you don’t own or have access to a car it could determine your decision about being outside late in the night. As a result, people feel a sense of safety by having a car as it provides mobility at night. That doesn’t mean that having a car guarantees your life. It just lessens the odds. And yet, places like St. James, Woodbrook and in the East are lively in the night time.
I remembered when the streets belonged to us. People went about their daily activity without fear. After work, people gathered on the corners of their community liming. Sometimes you would see a football match in the road. Frederick Street was the fashion street. All the saga boys limed in front of the stores, some old talking or waiting for their girl friends. Others waited to meet girls who may become their girl friends. Style and finesse were the hallmarks of the saga boys. It was a time when tailors and other artisans were tops at their craft and had demanding customers. Today, everyone is seeking to reside in a gated community where they feel safer and secure. But, what is to be done by those who cannot afford to live in a gated community?
The malaise in which Trinbago finds itself must be addressed from all fronts. But, the main responsibility lies with the government who are elected to provide security to its citizens at all costs, especially those that are the most vulnerable like seniors and children. The government holds the reigns of power to effect any changes. But, there is a lack of leadership. There is a divide between government and most of its citizens, especially in the poor areas. There is little maintenance for buildings that costs millions of dollars. An example of this lack of maintenance is the Jean Pierre Complex. There were floods of rain on two nights at the complex during the emancipation celebrations. The roof leaked like a river leaving people scattering looking for shelter. They could have built a sliding roof so that when the rain fell it could be drawn giving patrons some protection from the rain. Why didn’t someone think of that? I understand that Halsey Crawford stadium has no roof cover at all. You could see the lack of maintenance in the wear and tear of government buildings throughout the city. And, in this age of computer technology some civil servants are still writing things down in books. Why isn’t Trinbago properly wired for computers? Why isn’t all government records put on computers for public access? They are public documents.
However, in spite of this dismal portrayal of some parts of Port of Spain, there are people in the homeland enjoying life. Some are retirees who returned and living the good life in areas like Diego Martin, St. James, Woodbrook and in the East. Of course, they are not exempt from the wavering crime and murders taking place almost daily now. But, many live quite comfortably outside the areas affected by this cancer on the society. I found that the best time to visit Trinbago is: Carnival, Borough Day, We Beat Day and Emancipation Day. Those four festivities attract large crowds and visitors from abroad. Also, it is the perfect time for liming as the visitors travel to different communities and there are activities every day and night. Of course, there are many steelbands playing on the roads. Thus, you could always see someone you know from abroad.
Although I was lucky that I did not encounter any violence, I can say that the crime and murder situation in the homeland can only get worse. This is because the people in charge of eradicating crime and the murders don’t seem to have a clue as to what they can do. I saw many young people on the streets in the areas affected by the murders roaming the streets with nothing to do. They have given up on life. There are no community projects like sports to occupy their time. The only community project is the archaic ‘ten days’ that was instituted in the old PNM era under the late Dr. Eric Williams leadership. That project has outlived its time and purpose as it is now one of the main causes for the gang wars. It is also one of the two sources of income in those communities for the unskilled, uneducated and poor. I saw a hopelessness that I never saw in my childhood. The nihilism was frightening.
I enjoyed the Emancipation Day celebrations. Soon, the people, places and buildings that I know will disappear. So, each year I visit I intend to document for my readers my memories of them all. I would like to suggest to ESC that, for next year celebrations and continuing, they should include a student component and arrange for all schools to participate. Each school should be required to provide a presentation in keeping with the history of emancipation in the homeland. Awards should be given to the school that provides the best presentation. Also, ESC should have their complete celebration schedule up on the internet by the month of May so that visitors can plan their trip in a timely and proper fashion. Oh, there should be more books for sale at the celebrations.
P.S. If readers don’t understand any of the
carnival or steelband terms used here, please go
Port of Pan ABC at pan-jumbie-com.
Otherwise you may contact this writer. Thanks.