Songs of Poverty & the picturesque: Shantytowns in Kingston
shan·ty (shàn¹tê) noun
Variant of chantey. Shanty
or Chanty, work songs of sailors
characterized by a marked rhythm and traditionally sung before the advent of
steamships by sailors on large sailing vessels and by dock workers. Such tunes
are commonly led by a leader, or shantyman, with choruses or refrains sung by
the whole group. Besides lightening the work and speeding the passage of time,
shanties served the practical purpose of rhythmically coordinating the
movements of working seamen, as when they hoisted a sail or heaved a capstan.
One of the best-known shanties is “Blow the Man Down.” Rhythmic songs similar
to shanties are used by loggers and by other workers.
shan·ty (shàn¹tê) noun
A roughly built, often
ramshackle cabin; a shack. [Probably from
Canadian French chantier, hut in a
lumber camp, from French, timberyard, from Old French, gantry, from Latin canthêrius, rafter, nag, from Greek kanthêlios, pack ass.]
Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco is an epic prose poem about the founding of a shantytown on the edges of Fort de France in Martinique. He traces its roots all the way back to the ways of the plantation economy through the accidents and purposes of the life of Marie-Sophie Laborieux. But history is not the book’s only purpose. Chamoiseau is a political animal. He introduces an urban planner into his story who, although hardly present in the novel, teaches us an alternative approach to the shantytown. This man, nicknamed Christ and only known by that name, comes to visit Texaco initially to assess the area, on behalf of the government, for complete erasure and urban renewal. Weary and wary of such people from “City” prowling about, one of the inhabitants of the shantytown throws a stone at him. The urban planner lies unconscious for a moment and is taken to the hut of Marie-Sophie Laborieux. She is the founder, battling Amazon and centre of gravity of Texaco. The rest of the book is taken up with her story, her Ruskinian sermon in straw, boxwood, corrugated iron, asbestos and concrete. The sermon is here and there interrupted with notes of the urban planner who slowly grows up in her words.
“People have only moaned about the insalubrity of Texaco and other such
quarters. But I want to listen to what these places have to tell. I hear them
spell out the other urban poem at a new, disconcerting rhythm which we must
decipher and even sing along…To take in their poetics without fear of dirtying
our hands in its mud. What barbarism, and what an unspeakable indifference it
would take to raze this process.”
“Urbanity is a violence. The town spreads with one violence after
another. Its equilibrium is violence. In the Creole city, the violence hits
harder than elsewhere. First because around her, murder (slavery, colonialism,
racism) prevails, but especially because this city, without the factories,
without the industries with which to absorb the new influx, is empty. It
attracts without proposing anything besides its resistance – like Fort de
France did after Saint Pierre was wiped out. The quarter of Texaco is born of
violence. So why be astonished at its scars, its warpaint? The Creole urban
planner must rise above the insalubrious, become a medium.”
The notes are all about his deepening understanding of the shantytown as a system, a growth, as a thing with a purpose, the purpose being to conquer city. Ultimately this shantytown becomes city: a non-city:
“Texaco. There I see cathedrals of shafts, arcades of scrap iron, pipes carrying poor dreams. A non-city of soil and of gas. The town, Fort de France, reproduces itself and spreads out here in a novel way. We have to understand this future, knotted like a poem before our illiterate eyes. We have to understand that this Creole town has been dreamt –I mean engendered- by its plantations, our plantations, by every [Great House] of our hills.”
Chamoiseau’s Texaco is part of a larger corpus of shantytown literature of which Patterson’s very earnest The Children of Sysiphus is another example. Where Chamoiseau differs from Patterson however, is not only in the use of his poetic and unpredictable language but also in the alignment of means and ends. Patterson’s purpose is to render an effective description of a stark reality according to the assumptions of a modern society. When describing the confrontation between the slightly romaniticised characters of his shantytown and those on the other side, the people of the City he is critical and scathing of their ways. It was a sign of the times. The book was written in 1964 and I think he knew himself too well to trust a more generous sympathy. Descriptions of beliefs and practices within the domestic space are presented as quaint and helpless anomalies on the stage of a deterministic progress, the forgive-them-for-they-know-not-what-they-do approach. The place and space of poverty is to all intents and purposes invisible in that it is painted only in the tones of abject horror. Harrowing events are treated with a journalistic purpose. Chamoiseau, although not quietitistic, is far more sympathetic to the situations and objects he encounters. He actually manages to enjoy what he encounters, manages to refine the rhetoric of blame and horror to the actions of people rather than to their nature. He does not deny myth and beauty its place in the shantytown, he does not present beliefs as quaint ways but as rich means of subsistence. He does not want to contort myth further by claiming to demythologise poverty and presenting it as a stark “reality” , as this kind of realism in the end always sentimentalises things, makes them operatic. And this is a charge Patterson cannot escape. Chamoiseau loves description, does not avoid sentiment, does not pretend to be doing anything other than what he is legibly doing, which is to enjoy describing his environment within the confines of the universal stories of mankind. He finds the qualities that can be enjoyed in every object presented to him and is determined to enjoy them in the face of ancient prejudice. In this sense he recreates the object in his description, makes it come to fruition as a legitimate thing to enjoy, rather than loving his description in its destruction of the object for rhetorical and political purposes. With Patterson the humanity of his characters could only emerge in the destruction of their environment, in the destruction of those on the other side. In Chamoiseau, everything has a place, he is more generous.
One quality that the shantytown has, in Chamoiseau’s keen observation, is its siege like stance towards the city. It is there to conquer the city. It is makeshift in its potential to be left at a moments notice. It is ephemeral and permanently ephemeral: it is quick to regenerate itself with every attempt to erase it through wind or raid, any kind of storm. It regenerates itself with every discovery of new material, of anything useful, and so makes itself. Its density and opacity are permeated by the sounds and movements of the rituals of daily life: a close and contingent network of thin walls and gaps. The Urban Planner’s deepening understanding gives rise to a Taoistic approach to the transformation of the shantytown, so unlike the abrasive energy and dapper certainty of the modern and progressive urban planner where the end justifies the means. Christ is there, taking stock, opening his eyes to a different aesthetic, a super-civilised aesthetic where the purpose is to dwell and conquer. He realises the extraordinary wealth of the shantytown as urban poem, as place where people live and make do. This is the story that is often forgotten.
Shantytowns, now home to a huge proportion of the world’s population, are inhabited not by monsters different from other people, a fact that is inconceivable to many, who are frightened by the abyss it represents to them, but by people with desires and wants and so forth. Do not take this as a given. It is a right these people need to reconquer with every listener and observer that visits them. They do not, as Fanon rightly says in another context, need to be loved in a delirium of sentimental generalisation. They have the capacity to exploit. We would do well to see them for what they are: a huge and unexplored asset to society in the creation of wealth. Much of that wealth is already there in creative and cultural terms. For it to transform into a medium of dignity for the people who live there is a next step.
Chamoiseau’s novel ends by Texaco being allowed, under the newly fashioned eye of Christ the urban planner, to develop on its own terms, exploring its own values. The shantytown is given the instruments of modern life: sewerage, electricity and schools. And is then allowed to get on with things, without the orthogonal prerequisites of a paternalistic sense of progress.
Where do we go from here? Shantytowns are laying siege to every major city in the developing world and the people within them do not want to be enemies. They are separate only in their effort to become part of things. As a result of this huge urban migration the developing world simply has to be the main challenge of this century. But to take on the challenge of the shantytowns, we need to address ourselves even more than the shantytowns. The developing world, as a concept is problematic. It collects myths and attitudes given shape by a narrow and specific way of measuring life: it is defined by a set of boundaries that no bird respects.
“The western urban planner sees Texaco as a tumour on the urban order. Incoherent. Insalubrious. A dynamic
contestation. A threat. It is denied any architectural or social value.
Political discourse negates it. In other words, it is a problem. But to
raze it is to send the problem elsewhere or worse: not to consider it. No, we
must dismiss the West and re-learn to read: learn to reinvent the city. Here
the urban planner must think Creole before he even thinks.”
That is all too easy. The West is itself a tortuous construction of myths, values and measurable wealth. If we throw it into existence as a category, it cannot be dismissed so easily as a homogenous and static thing. The West and the Third World are like semantic weather systems translated into a persistent, turbulent and yet intangible existence from meticulously and narrowly quantified entities that are in a continuous flux. That these are then transformed into subtle qualitative judgements is inevitable, but also problematic. Moreover The West is now infinitely enriched by the very wealth and minds of those who have made it their own, who have managed to conquer it during the New Colonialism.
The Caribbean is the place where, in modern history, groups and nationalities first fragmented and then dissolved into larger entities, super-nationalities. The fragmentation of groups is an opportunity to bind the world, now small enough because of its folding into cyberspace, into a single, diffuse and complex whole, where difference is not just tolerated but enjoyed and consumed with greed. Even so, Jamaica and many other Caribbean islands insist on sweeping together the fragments of their disparate being into something hard and solid, something unchangeable: a sense of nation, an area of mythical sameness that their continuous debate on identity tries to circumscribe and which is characterised by a decidedly modernist progressivism that is now merely reactionary.
There are those, and they are everywhere, who insist on trumpeting the loud and absurd song of nationalism with its forced marching rhythms. They insist on their well-wrapped tragedy, their otherness and their pride, which some of them are quite happy to empty of all substance. The world has become too small for that. Nationalism is now an emphatically segregating force, a village outlook in a huge metropolis, a nationalist outlook in a super-nationalist global village, something that hinders the new multiple and layered concentricity of belonging. Nationalism can no longer be defended as a way forward. Its rhetoric is the rhetoric of spectacle and orthogonal display. It is also what the shantytowns are trying to conquer.
The song of nationalism is the song that keeps the swelling shantytowns invisible. They are the periphery and they are chaotic and cannot help to instil the pride in straight lines that nationalism and its sense of progress demands. The way forward is to enlarge our conception of the world and to bring it into our own grasp, to place us firmly within the world as a single organism.
To do that, it is imperative that a locality digests the world for itself. To do that, it is imperative that in terms of architecture and urban development, we stop erasing the world that we feel was a mistake, that we feel is “unsuitable” but that instead we build upon it, build with it, build among it, to transform that world in our loving preservation of it, in our use.
Let the shantytowns develop from within. The fabric should be allowed to develop through a process of growth rather than through erasure. Our biggest mistake has been to imagine that the limited imagination of a committee or a single firm of architects can build a real city. This is where the disastrous low-cost housing schemes of the sixties, seventies and eighties came from. But even they should not be destroyed in the light of new wisdom. They should be allowed to transform through the supply and active maintenance of essential services and through imaginative insertions and interventions.
In this way, and I rather think that this is what Chamoiseau’s Urban Planner had in mind, a critical regionalism could still become an exciting way forward for Jamaica and for the Caribbean as a whole. It offers the possibility to look at the world as a whole and to place us within it, firmly. The Caribbean, rather than insisting on a separate identity should consider reassembling experience from their own viewpoint, on their own terms and according to their own values. It demands everyone to think the world into his or her Creolity. Especially, with regard to Caribbean architecture and Caribbean cities. Think Global act local, I believe the slogan is.
This brings us to the topic of shantytowns. Shantytowns have problems but they have an equal amount of wealth to give. It is by allowing this wealth to develop and to resist the urge to erase and eradicate that we might allow the problems to be addressed by those who face them. There are aspects of shantytowns that belong to what is best about the Caribbean. The poor are the poor countries’ greatest assets. Poor countries have to discover that aesthetically and then decide what it means politically. From an architectural and urban point of view, we need to address the cities housing the millions of poor. But not by pushing them further to the periphery, further away from gatherings like the city and economic opportunity and exchange. It needs an inclusive strategy with mutual benefits, the building of trust and a careful alignment of private and public purpose.
Precisely because of the potential of creating absurd juxtapositions, almost dadaist compositions, poverty in its efforts at reassembling the refuse of society, visually describes the modern condition of its chaotic nomads. However to become a tool for the enjoyment of difference without judgement needs a further assumption. Enjoying the visual texture of the shantytown requires us to assume an inclusive view of societal progress, in which the poor are seen as an asset and where economic poverty is not denied its right to express a cultural wealth.
We should find beauty wherever we can find it. The picturesque in the shantytown, could by nature of its intentions be distinguished as Shantyism, a visual song sung in the desire to conquer city. Its signs and images are banners of conquest and offers of surrender. To see beauty is an act of goodness. In sharing a sense of an object’s beauty we do not share intentions, we merely share the desire to enrich ourselves.
Can we look again at our shantytowns and become more sophisticated in their evaluation? Can we exploit their qualities for the increase of wealth? Frank Gehry and others have created their architectural shantytown-like statements. His own house in California was an act of rebellion against its surroundings, an explosion of shantytown materials used to shake up the bored suburban orgy taking place around it. More than that, there are many interior decorators, who exploit the ethnic, the “arte povere”, which the gatherers of the shantytowns bring forth.
We should not overburden ourselves with memory. We should be selective. But what memory should we preserve? The memory of things which will be useful to us to remember? Incontrovertible evidence of rightness is elusive and so we remember the past to live the enormity of things. Shantytowns are such enormities. They exist from the refuse discarded by consumption. They consume and re-create in refuse. They make their own laws and in their laws lies their dignity as often robbed and trampled as it is in any other part of society. The shanty town has memory about structure in the plans and lay out of the towns, their growth, their hidden cleanliness, their distance from refuse, their attempt to make their houses into books and manifestos. The Book never killed the cathedral as the dean of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame argued. It was the cathedral that no longer wanted to speak. It had become so much of an institution by the time the printed book had come along, its cryptic silence spoken in incomprehensible words could only be broken by the rage and semantic violence of the reformation, which then proceeded to undergo a similar process of ossification. The paradox of the shantytown lies in the nativity of Christ. There is no coincidence that Chamoiseau chose this name for his urban planner. In a humble manger in Bethlehem, according to Christian teaching, the Son of God was born. It was to be a lesson. On its site a huge cathedral has arisen. Now the priests of the Cathedral quarrel with the imams of Islam. They do not want to see a mosque being built in their vicinity. Monumentality is a symptom of assemblage, a gravity of identity and, as such a segregating force. Monumentality divides, distinguishes itself and in the case of the church separates itself from the very thing it tries to celebrate by becoming the very antithesis of godly space.
The shantytowns have now become the main vehicles of literature, of teaching. The houses teach and speak of things that they see, describe the problem succinctly, not indulgently. The house is small, it is as a treasure chest; and the real domestic plan of the house includes the yard. So that with many houses the outside becomes a decorated wall, part of the living room furniture.
The photographs accompanying this essay come from four shantytowns in Jamaica. The first is Trench Town, an area of Kingston immortalised by the births and lives of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and other famous Jamaicans. The part I am going to describe lies west of an area called Rema with its (South Africa Flats?). The houses are in the form of L-shaped barracks and two-storey houses with communal washing and cooking areas. Built in the early 1950’s by the Central Housing Authority to house people after a hurricane blasted the area and made many people homeless, the area was later called Wilton Gardens and Federal Gardens. The area was then surrounded by makeshift shantytowns collectively referred to as Trench Town. Nowadays, large areas of wasteland cleave the various built up areas: traditionally the confrontation lines between rival political gangs. Around the area are slightly newer developments such as Mexico, built by the architect Patrick Stanigar and awarded Governor General’s Award for Architecture, Rema & Arnett Gardens, Zimbabwe, Texas, Sunlight & Boys Town. Many of these developments are made up of the dreadful and soul destroying apartment blocks colloquially referred to as South Africa Flats. Further to the north is the older development of Jones Town. Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town are further to the east. Here we have, with the exception of Riverton City, and Grants Pen, the most talked about areas in Kingston, the very core of the violence, which has created the image of Kingston.
Walking through the streets of these shantytowns, one is stunned at the way people have made do. A rich “arte povere” has developed, which has gone beyond mere survival. Its use of materials, its use of colour and its use of literature, speaks of people whose primary concern is not just daily survival. It is the attempt to derive some dignity from their situation and to use their houses as vehicles of protest. More than that, it has beautiful places. It is exciting to walk around there and to admire what people have made of their surroundings, while the people living the South Africa Flats, have nothing. It is quite astonishing how much time a shantytown needs to overcome the devastating consequences of traditional development help.
Hellshire is a beach town, occupied by fishermen, but slowly overtaken my commercial enterprises from elsewhere. Again it is plain that survival is ensured through the making of place, the visible dwelling in a place, which becomes a record and inscription of mind and soul.
Riverton is a city on the city dump. It literally lives off the refuse of the city of Kingston. It precursor was “Back-o-Wall” now Tivoli Gardens and the subject of the novel by Orlando Patterson, called Children of Sisyphus. The living conditions are atrocious and yet the flotsam and jetsom of consurmerism has only to present itself for the house to transform into a celebration of life.
What are the qualities of shantytowns like Trench Town then? Simply put they are visual qualities. Pockets of care and humour, creative exploration of experience in a language which, once English, is being made their own, transformed to their own rules.
The positive aspects of the shantytowns are direct result of what the people have control over, and it is these qualities that can be looked at within the context of Kingston and from an architectural point of view. The non-orthogonal and seemingly chaotic or at least contingent arrangement of the spaces of the houses creates a coral-like way of being together that extends families and forges a community in the overcoming of constraints. Behaviour is completely determined by this spatial configuration and there is a lot of communal activity which usually only breaks down where the criminal elements of the city have realized what others have not yet realized, that the poor are their greatest asset and proceed to manipulate them. The building within is frequently no more than a treasure box as life is lived outside, and so also is the emphasis for decoration: the Albertian ordering of matter into mind happens on the outside. Buildings behave like books and diaries, recording the desires, the events, and concerns of their inhabitants. In this sense each desire is part of a social religion which is specially constructed to deal with the day to day.
In reading the language of the huts, one might make the mistake of laughing at the spelling of words and the strange grammar. But what you are laughing at is the turning of yourself to stone: here language is being appropriated, churned and ploughed, being used with a sense of mystery and real magic. These words are the formulas of a magic that in our society has been appropriated by the advertising industry and the political propaganda machines: language as a magic spell.
Then there are the colours and the wonderful dadaist juxtapositions: not chance but humour, a humour only forgotten by those who escape the misery of their shantytown, to plunge into the misery of social amnesia: the forgetting of one’s belonging in order to belong.
In Kingston the shantytowns are, with one or two exceptions all low in the bowl-shaped valley of the Liguanea plains. They look up to the wealth of others. And the hill is the Zion of Rastafarian belief; it is also the place where the plantation owner exercised the lordship of his eye in erecting his great house. Whatever its cause, the poor recreate a wealth with what comes to hand. They create and order an inscription of mind upon the refuse of the wealthy. Often it is the hand-reproduced image of the machine-created sign: machine art in the society of hand reproduction. The fact that it is architecture and not merely applied art or ornament is that the building is permeated by it. It penetrates the very existence of the building and creates the place.
There is the invisible order on the landscape where systems of power and etiquette re-arrange the landscape into convoluted routes, because the order of the city has failed them, ignores them. There the police are let loose and become animals because they believe they are dealing with animals. They have escaped their roots.
This however, is not architecture of power. It is architecture of dreaming of the other. Its outward domesticity means that the walls of the facades of the building become the walls of the living room, while the inside are like altars to achievement and desire.
Language is appropriated and transformed according to the metaphysical landscape of the shantytown. This in turn creates streets that are living rooms, with the corners given to special events and also to crime. Creativity is a loosely political thing, a manifestation of personal priorities. It employs an “arte povere”, not as a self referential means-as-end, but as a political and socio-economic means to an end, in which the purpose is consciously enhanced by the visual properties of the materials in compositions, rhythms, proportions, colour, texture, the contingent or deliberate humour in juxtapositions. That is not to say that each one would not immediately exchange what they ( they who?) have for a move up the economic scale. After all a shantytown is trying to conquer the city.
The real problems of shantytowns have nothing to do with the shantytowns themselves but with the priorities of those in power. Despite the myths and the splashing of newsworthy violence, the people who inhabit shantytowns are people, not monsters but people looking for economic opportunity. Their life needs to no maudlin description, their nature no sentimental generalisation. What is wrong in a shantytown is nothing that cannot be put right by political will power. Shantytowns are far from the hopeless holes that many people think they are. They are wonderful examples of what people can do to make do.
There are also things that are right with shantytown, things for which no one should feel ashamed about admiring these things that deserve the admiration. A purer worship of an unadulterated consumerism would allow the poor to exploit what they have just as they should be allowed to defend what dignity they have. Many Jamaicans hate having their photograph taken by those who do not ask. People are warned not to take pictures indiscriminately and a laconically taken picture, or a picture sneaked can cause real problems. That is their way to defend their dignity; they do not like their poverty exhibited for nothing; they do not want to lose either their dignity or their economic opportunity.
When one looks at the bad or negative aspects of shantytowns, we see that although the settlement of the earth gives a sense of community, the materials with which people have to build does not always allow for the creation of private spaces. Then there are the health problems simply due to the lack of sewerage, the bad drainage of the land and the inexplicable insistence by the governments and development organisations that communality should extend to sharing toilets.
And the education there is, is annulled by the lack of hope and purpose and trust. And there is no transport to economic opportunity.
So here is a solution: keep the shantytown, set in place the desperately needed infrastructure, make sure all possessions and forms are treated with respect, put in place the drainage and sewage, the transport, and, force the police to build a relationship of trust with the people. Give them economic opportunity by legislating conditions favourable to sustainable forms of economic growth within the area. Do not try to interfere with the ways of life they have developed, allow them to develop themselves. Treat their language with respect, learn it. Treat their shacks with respect, and integrate new building with old, amalgamate the old with the new, use the old to create the new. Make the new a conscious addition to the old. Encourage the recycling of materials by making it easy and safe. Never force those dreadful thin and meagre flats upon anybody anymore. If you want them to live in flats, make them sound, allow the families privacy, maintain them properly, take hygiene to the people, make it unavoidable and inevitable.
The city should now conquer the shantytown; realise its assets and allow the shantytowns to develop; help them in their development to treasure the best of its buildings; insert buildings which complement the achievement of these shantytowns; make them the focus of economic opportunity. Spending money on beauty within the shantytown is not wasted if that money is earned by the people themselves, if that beauty is theirs.
These shantytowns have offered their own solution simply by their methods of growth and development, by their willingness to make do, to change with every windfall, to regenerate themselves with every disaster. They are a fundamentally organic phenomenon. The improvement of the lot of their inhabitants requires an organic approach, with which I mean a gentle metabolism. Focus on the essential. Work with what there is. Leave the aesthetic to the people themselves in their quest for respect and dignity on their own terms. Aesthetics is essential to them, and it must be theirs. To us, those who belong to the city, it is more important that we make use of the poor, make them participate in the economy in a useful way. To do this, we should supply them with opportunity, with resources, with sewerage, with water, with schools and let them build their world, but from the existing fabric. Do not allow the fine distortions of a social aesthetic to determine development. Straight lines are not a priority in urban development. Quite the contrary, the spatial configuration of a shantytown, the placing of the houses relative to each other, the methods whereby inhabitants have developed ways to remain sane within the conditions imposed upon them is remarkable. That there is not more violence and rebellion is amazing and a tribute to those who maintain their sanity within the turmoil. But to impose the geometric norms of an insular middleclass upon habits so carefully crafted to cope with a particular world is simply stupid. These norms (should anyone want them) might be grown, but cannot be imposed.
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 From the notes of the Urban Planner to the Word Scratcher, File no. 6. Sheet XVIII, 1987, Schoelcher Library. In Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, (1991) p. 143.
 From the notes of the Urban Planner to the Word Scratcher, File no. 6. Sheet XVIII, 1987, Schoelcher Library. In Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, (1991) p. 148
 From the notes of the Urban Planner to the Word Scratcher, File no. 7. Sheet XII, 1987, Schoelcher Library. In Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, (1991) p. 115-116. The translators used the word Big Hutch which I have here substituted for Great House.
 From the notes of the Urban Planner to the Word Scratcher, File no. 36. Sheet X, 1987, Schoelcher Library. In Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, (1991) p. 269-70
 A similar argument and a very compelling one has been put forward with regard to the large estates by Francis Nordemann in his “”From Priority zones to Urban Community, the future of the 150 grands ensembles,” AD Profiles Des-Res Architecture, Vol. 69, no. ½, Jan-Feb. 1999, pp. 15-16. He argued that the fabric should essentially remain and be transformed slowly by interventions.
 C.f. Baudrillard’s “What shall we do after the orgy,” *
 During one of my visits to Trenchtown, a lady came up to me and began talking she was anxious for me to walk away with the idea that she and the people around her were not savages.