Editorial | Kingston was once clean!
There was a time when downtown Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, was in pristine condition. For a generation of Jamaicans, that picture may be impossible to visualise. However, there is a viral video making the social media circuit showing downtown in the 1960s - clean streets, roads nicely paved, no potholes, buildings in good condition, and uninterrupted access of pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists as they traverse familiar streets.
The video also features a traffic policeman operating from a vintage booth on King Street. With deft movement of hands, he is controlling the flow of traffic. Apart from the fact that electronic lights have replaced the traffic policemen in booths, the narrator remarked that this would be impossible today, for he would surely be killed by some reckless motorist charging into the booth.
The same video features modern-day Kingston. What follows is a disturbing picture of sidewalks choked with garbage comprising boxes, barrels and other discarded waste. While vendors have taken over the sidewalks, shoppers and other pedestrians are forced into the streets, competing with motorists, cyclists and handcart operators. In a word, chaos.
Street vending has become an integral part of the culture and surely adds vibrancy to the city. Yet, the debate about how to put order into vending has raged for years. During the 1980s, then Prime Minister Edward Seaga focused a lot of attention on making the city more beautiful and orderly. Indeed, his actions ensured that Constant Spring Road was not transformed into a roofless bazaar. But that focus was diminished when the Jamaica Labour Party left office.
In later years, sometimes the authorities reacted with the big-stick approach, choosing harsh policing, which included destruction of stalls and seizure of goods. However, things quickly returned to normal after vendors and advocates of street vending raised their voices in protest. As the arguments go, the urban poor cannot find work and so they have to create their own employment to support their families. It was seen as an attack on low-income people trying to survive.
As urbanisation grew, so did the ranks of the poor swell, and many, calling themselves hustlers, found enterprising activities on the streets. A little counterfeiting, some smuggling and bits of drug peddling all come under the umbrella of vending, and the players create a virtual nightmare for law and order.
Even though the issue is receiving less media attention these days, the need to restore order in the commercial areas of the city has been a constant refrain.
The downtown of the 1960s existed before there was an islandwide organisation charged with the responsibility of taking care of the country’s solid waste, and before there was an anti-litter law. Somehow, the authorities managed to keep the city clean and beautiful even then.
In stark contrast, Kingston in 2023 is a huge garbage dump. The rot has spread from downtown to Cross Roads, Half-Way Tree, Papine and various other areas.
We are not here advocating vendor exclusion as part of a grand urban plan. Instead, we are calling for greater vendor management. Street vending should be done in prescribed areas and vendors should be held responsible for the garbage they generate, and failure to dispose of it in a proper manner should result in harsh punishment.
No one viewing this video can be proud of what the nation’s capital has become. We hope that any member of the city’s management who sees this video will take it as a stinging rebuke of how the municipality has handled vending in the city. Hopefully, it will motivate them to do something to address the problem.