Downtown Kingston: Has Its Revival Time Finally Come?

December 7th, 2016

Last week, I was at the official opening of UN House (where all the UN offices in Jamaica will shortly be residing, under one roof) at the International Seabed Authority Building. A sight glimpsed through an empty office window really moved me. Beyond rows of corrugated roofs, barbed wire and satellite dishes and flanked by cell phone towers rose the Ward Theatre, like a dignified elderly lady. She shone white in the evening sun, but even from a distance I could see the peeling paint.

The Ward Theatre is crumbling, literally. We can't even manage to give it a coat of paint. (Photo: Norman Grindley, Gleaner)

The Ward Theatre is crumbling, literally. We can’t even manage to give it a coat of paint. (Photo: Norman Grindley, Gleaner)

This month marks 104 years since the Ward Theatre was presented to the Mayor and Council of the City of Kingston by then Custos of Kingston, Charles James Ward. On its stage many great performers – Jamaican and overseas-based – have played, sung, danced, acted, made people laugh, sigh and applaud. Jazz bands and dance troupes and flamenco groups and concert pianists…The list is long. How many standing ovations have echoed round its now dark walls? According to the Gleaner of July 20, 1911, the Ward Theatre was…

“designed by a Jamaican, the work was done by Jamaicans under the supervision of Jamaicans; the cornerstone was laid by a Jamaican, with a trowel designed and made by a Jamaican, and the building itself was the gift of a Jamaican…for Jamaicans.”

So, the Ward can lay claim to real Jamaican-ness; it is not just an ugly old relic of colonialism that we can well do without. The Ward Theatre is crumbling, and will require at least US$7 million to be refurbished, inside and out. The Ward Theatre Foundation still exists (I believe; there is still a website) and thankfully, the roof was repaired in 2009; once the roof is gone, then the interior of any building will quickly deteriorate. Where on earth, though, would all that money come from? There is a plaintive request for donations on the website – but it would take a major injection of cash to revive the Ward, not the odd individual donation here and there, welcome as that would be.

The Ward Theatre is perhaps symbolic of downtown Kingston, where many fine old buildings of character and grace are ignored, vandalized, abused and in the end allowed to simply fall down, slowly and with as much dignity as they can muster. There are such buildings on every street. One whose sad decline I wrote about and photographed, four years ago now, is the magnificent (and huge) Wesley Church on Tower Street. There are many others.

And yet a city is not just about buildings. It is about people, and people need decent infrastructure. So, I am very much in favor of any efforts by Government and by the private sector (a nod of thanks and congratulations to Digicel) to build or “develop” downtown. Downtown needs to live and breathe again, and to overcome its bad reputation as a desolate gangland, where you shouldn’t be found after dark. Now GraceKennedy is building a new headquarters, and I have heard (I may be wrong on this) that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade may eventually make downtown Kingston its home, in the same area where the old Myrtle Bank Hotel once stood. Every large building where people work will bring much-needed funds into the area; everyone will benefit from the presence of more people with a little money in their pockets, especially small business. Perhaps someone will buy an old building, convert it into a restaurant. If the Methodist Church doesn’t want the Wesley Church any more, it could be converted into a wonderful theatre. Old warehouses could be turned into cool apartments or artists’ studios.

I know. We have all talked about this so many times before, and it has never quite happened. But perhaps – with a cruise ship making a stop downtown this week (albeit unscheduled) – there is hope for life to return to the waterfront area (we could start there). Cultural events such as craft fairs, concerts, Sunday openings at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the New Year fireworks all help with some “good vibes.”

But downtown needs more. The waterfront needs to be beautiful. The Harbour needs to be cleaned up, so it no longer stinks when you get close to the water. The sewage systems need to be fixed. Buildings, infrastructure…people. And how about some “greening”? Tree planting and renewable energy would certainly give downtown a fresh and different dynamic.

Has the time come for a downtown revival? I sincerely hope so.

Perhaps one could say: “Let’s make downtown great again!”



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