tHE GARRISON cOMMUNITY, Trenchtown
The increasing numbers of urban poor and the need to secure their vote made housing an area both of genuine social concern and political potential. The Garrison community is the architectural type created by that process. The geometries of movement, settlement, social friction and so forth all were redrawn according the political poles within a neighbourhood. Low income housing schemes, sometimes given cynical nicknames like Angola, or Pegasus, the pathos of which will be explained below, were populated through covert systems of political patronage by people willing to declare their loyalty to a particular party. It is important to note that this system was part of the grass root level of politics where small doses of administrative power were effective personal weapons within the war for scarce benefits and spoils perpetuated by political tribes. The resulting political “simplification” of an area duly resulted in the geographical polarisation of communities into garrisons, areas overtly defined by their political allegiance.
Trenchtown, a particularly potent example of a garrison community, is a desolate place, true to the omen in the name, even though the area was harmlessly named after a Lady Trench. In this area, the birthplace of BobMarley, the geometry of confrontation takes on a dramatic simplicity. A broad no-man’s land circumscribes the entrenched communities. Precariously situated on the edge of one of them is a lonely police station. Before it was built bullets used to fly freely across the divide, especially during the more frolicsome evenings. Aimed only vaguely in the right direction, the kill was an arbitrary piece of luck; the victim’s identity not important. It was enough that the victim be one of them: PNP or JLP. To prevent the main road being used by opposing posse’s, a roundabout was blocked by a house built over the road. The urban haemorrhage was treated by the creation of an urban thrombosis.
The no-mans’ land is still punctuated here and there by the ruins of past acts of futile good-will and foreign aid. A cinema lies in ruins. Community centres are places to plunder building materials. Health clinics disintegrate under the immense and insupportable weight of the problem. The result is a desolation which achieves a brutal poetry echoed by the harsh words and provocative movements of Dance Hall Culture. Further development is discouraged by the people who live in these areas. They just want out. To them Trenchtown is a bad place; the thing they crave above all: jobs and respect, lie beyond its boundaries.
As a result they have internalised their houses. The interiors scream of a desire for normality: photographs of pretty babies plaster the walls, what-nots and shiny ornaments make John Soane’s Museum look like an empty railway station. But outside, young, empty men sit, nothing to do, on fences, smoking the weed and bearing their extraordinary typology of scars as marks of respect and identification.
Many now realise that the social housing schemes of the seventies and eighties merely concentrated on alleviating the symptoms. High rise “Government Yards” were built at minimal cost in the naive but understandable belief that they were better than the self-build shanty towns they were meant to replace. The one called Pegasus, mentioned earlier, was given that nick-name because it lies on axis with a luxury Hotel of that name visible above the scarred landscape in the fantastically distant north of New Kingston. I think that contrast explains the problem. The popular opinion is that “Jamaicans don’t like living in high rise apartments” Looking at a government yard one can hardly be surprised! Surely it is not the high-rise as a generic solution which is meant here, but this specific kind of high-rise: a dire concrete shell designed to alienate by the inadvertent evil of good intentions.
Social housing policies globally have continually given in to the prevailing wisdom that ever lower costs, built by people with ever fewer skills at ever minimal standards would solve a problem for the moment: At least they have something was the argument, it is better than nothing. Research has borne out that that is not quite so. In fact these schemes created their own problems. Short term cheapness has an awful long-term cost. The need for unskilled labour prerequisite to this cheapness becomes the social depository of a paradox. Social Housing needs cheap people to build cheap houses for people with little money. In the process, the building industry has created, or at least failed to discourage the formation of a class of people without the means to their own dignity.
pATHS AND POLITICS
The political climate is changing, becoming more pragmatic and economically opportunistic. The system of political patronage is being dismantled. Even so there is still an exclusive focus on winning elections. The recent past is still a prime determinant of the geometric description in zinc and concrete of the urban rituals of Jamaica today. The landscape of Kingston remains divided into a complex pattern of antithetical areas connected by an absurdly convoluted network of paths. To each city dweller the city presents itself as a customised patchwork of familiar fragments linked by corridors intersecting large blank areas, usually lined with zinc and inhabited only by hearsay and its mythological creatures. The boundaries of these patches in the politically more sensitive areas are marked clearly by the colour and signs of that community’s forcefully homogenised political affiliation. Countless deaths are still caused by a Romeo persisting in his love for a Juliet and crossing the line that has come to divide them.(7)
The area of Southside is infamous for its complex partitioning into areas of a tribal loyalty for which the overt justification is political affiliation. The place is a labyrinth of imperative detours. People on their daily trek to the shops or to work are living proof that the shortest efficient distance between two points is seldom a straight line.