With economic contraction in the nineteenth century and the crisis in the 1930’s came increasing urban immigration, people looking for economic opportunity. With racial segregation a cultural inevitability, people grouped according to a gravity of the familiar and according to what they could afford. Often these two gravitational forces overlapped in the colour of one’s skin. The growth of Kingston consequently presents a fascinating sequence of settlement and migration. The initial grid functioned on the one hand as a centripetal force for economic opportunity and on the other as a centrifugal force of acquired wealth which settled in ever widening concentric circles around the urban core. Land settlement patterns followed no plan but the contingencies of a market driven economy of supply and demand whereby the atrophy of the sugar trade caused plantation owners to off-load their land. The West of Kingston was the obvious, first and eternally-temporary resting place for the rural poor coming into the city. At the end of the road into the centre lies the largest market for rural produce in Kingston: Coronation Market. West Kingston today is one of the most troubled areas.
There are three further events which help to determine the image of the city today. The first is the economic emigration out of Jamaica starting during the economic depression of the thirties and culminating in the fifties. This process severely ruptured the ties of much family life creating a sizeable subculture of displaced and dislocated children growing up in the looser affiliation of secondary family ties.
The second is the development of New Kingston which started during the late 1960’s when a plan was launched to move the financial hub of the old city a mile northward, closer to the residential web of people it was meant to serve. These people consequently moved yet further away again, into Beverly Hills, Jack’s Hill, Red Hills etc.
A third element is the radical and racially motivated socialism introduced during the seventies under Michael Manley. He attempted to reverse the growth of the underprivileged class in Jamaica. Apart from instituting educational reforms and trying to widen the economic base, his party rather oversimplified the problem by openly declaring the people living in wealthy areas such as Beverly Hills to be “the enemy of the common man”. In a famous speech Manley told the people who were not happy with the impending new order that there were five planes a day to Miami. The emigration from Jamaica which had always had an economic motive was now made more complex by the ingredient of political expediency and fear. Many of the affluent middle class took his advice, especially as they felt threatened by the increasingly open resentment vented by those who were set to gain by this politics of change.
These three factors quite literally caused Kingston to explode, leaving a huge crater in the centre. The vacuum was quickly filled by rural immigrants still looking for opportunity but finding it had moved on. With many of the wealthier middle classes gone, so had money and the economic and managerial base for production. The economy declined rapidly. Pockets of desperation dotted the old inner city. Existing buildings, neglected by their owners, deteriorated, gashing the city open. A few were inhabited by squatters, while other residential properties were slowly transformed into hollow yards of unfathomable human density and squalor. Land tenure in the Downtown areas of Kingston became uncertain and as a consequence settlement of the land became subject uncontrollable mechanisms as many of the landowners ceased to collect rent altogether, either because of fear or because they were no longer in the country.
The radical socialism adopted by what was the former right wing of Jamaican Politics, the PNP, widened the gulf inherent in any two-party system, especially during election time. The economic slide induced by this process of radicalism, made winning elections a matter of extreme urgency for both parties. As a result of this urgency, the political agenda of each party became less well defined in terms of policy. Their common priorities to secure the popular vote gained an all -exclusive focus. A system of political patronage was set up within the constituencies of both parties to ensure that the popular vote went the right way. Extant divisions among groups, the culture of fierce loyalty and existing criminal gangs were mobilised to the cause. Guns were imported and the political parties became embodied in their slogans and party-colours. They demanded a tribal and unquestioning loyalty rather than a full belief in the political program. Good intentions were quickly hollowed out by expediency. As such the electoral history of Jamaica has created a surreal urban patchwork of antithetical areas in what should have been the heart of the city of Kingston.