Port-of-Spain then and now - is sustainable infrastructure dependent on a people's mindset?

A friend from the US Information Services of Trinidad & Tobago sent these photos of Colonial Trinidad via e-mail. While the photos bring back nostalgia and patriotism, they also bring to my mind questions on sustainable infrastructure and the cultural aspects of such, in Port-of-Spain.

I have heard my elderly relatives say they wish Colonialism never ended in Trinidad. I would of course scoff at this (and still do), but now I understand a bit what they meant. The workable order in these photos of Independence Square and Frederick Street is astounding – I never in my wildest dreams could imagine such an orderly system in downtown Port of Spain!

I am highly utilitarian, and love things organized. I can only function best in a system which either 1. is workable or 2. in process of flow. Needless to say, the current situation of what has become modern Frederick Street feels uncontrollable. Freedom of movement has been distressed in downtown Port-of-Spain. Does business happen on Frederick Street? Of course. Is it possible to drive from one end to the other? Yes. But not without relentless congestion and narrow spaces.*

From what I’ve observed especially with developing countries, an infrastructure system is one which leaves the congested system as is, and forms a more modern system, not realizing that systems overlap. One would argue in the case of Trinidad that downtown Frederick Street is not unlike any other busy, teeming developing urban area. That’s correct, except that Trinidad does not fit into the typical third world developing bracket anymore. The situation may be akin to what metaphysics call “ghosting,” where one new layer of being has developed over the old without removing the latter’s psychic debris. Note here the solution is to remove the debris, not the “old” or the basic framework.

To me, urban/sub-urban Port-of-Spain, with the exception of Westmoorings, still has both English and French colonial format in building type, size, street & pavement formation. Increasing piles of business, people and cars provide an ill fit system-wise, which lends to naturally increased maintenance needed to uphold existing infrastructure. Port-of-Spain, as with other cities such as Chaguanas and San Fernando developed either as a structured system geared to facilitate colonial families and administration, or as ad hoc market trade hubs. In both cases, accelerated growth into strong commerce in all fields has left a huge infrastructure challenge for decision makers.

But what constitutes a workable system? Some may think one which gives wide open, sparse or dense space etc. All assumptions are correct, depending on the space and resources one has, and on the city’s historical architectural background. Specifically to Trinidad, I’m amazed and heartened that at one time a tram ran the length of Frederick Street, and who knows what other Port-of-Spain environs. For me, that means 1. It was once in the city’s culture to have such a system and 2. If it was done once, it is possible to achieve again.** Imagine the mercy a tram would bestow on all the service people who lack transport simply from uptown to downtown Port-of-Spain! Could this work?

This leads to my MOST pressing question; does the mindset of the people sustain the system, or should we re-build the system and “they will come.” For me, that is the key. This uncomfortable structure of downtown Port-of-Spain grew with the country’s independence, and now teems as part of the urban culture. Is this possible to change? Meaning, if the government makes a central location for car parking near to a newly re-introduced tram, paints the buildings, fixes the sidewalks, – would the people of Port-of-Spain and environs be comfortable with this? Could Trinidadian culture handle such orderly change?

This is a culture of paradox – Trinidadians strive for and attain acclaimed academic, financial and commercial success; however we as Trinidadian citizens have all grown comfortable with discomfort. Many of us seem to have no problem sitting on a sidewalk to lime (hang out), orlounge in a raggedy rum shop at any time, blasting the loudest music, because it is “we culture.” Hell, I have gone out for doubles (street food) near “Smokey & Bunty” (famous rumshop, not so clean area) with a near naked vagrant smoking a used cigarette butt next to me. So then, how does Trinidad clean up and create a workable system for, say, Frederick Street, if we as a people endorse aspects of disorder as culture? What are we as Trinidadians willing to…not forswear….but clean up, for true progress and workable systems?

Please, in no way do I equate non-working infrastructure with poverty.*** This could be the case, but it is not always so and for Trinidad, W.I. money is not the problem. Frankly I do not view sustainable infrastructure as a way to “eradicate poverty,” but as a means to create a workable order in society...a flow where different pieces of commerce and communications can have a tangible outlet.

This musing holds criticisms, but it holds hope, as Trinidad has progressed exponentially in the past decade. There was once a tram running through Frederick Street; there was once a workable system in downtown Port-of-Spain. I have hope that there can be such again, in line with the resources and space of the area. The key is for the people to gradually accept, and to MAINTAIN a new working system. The country as a whole may need to employ the Japanese concept of "kaizen" whereby one makes small constant improvements that eventually add up and make a radical difference. Maybe this issue of such disorder stemmed from a rebellion against the extreme isolated and elitist order of Colonialism. But that is a separate topic altogether.

NOTES of the NOTE:

* My first job in Trinidad upon my return abroad was located in Independence Square, and I had to walk down Frederick Street to get there. I had just left one of the cleanest, wealthiest working/living arrangements and now found myself walking (in three inch designer shoes) on cracked sidewalk littered with vagrants, especially one called “Fats” who always wanted my lunch. But me being me, I made good friends with my work team as well as many street and store vendors, which enriched my experience.

** For Trinidadians reading this, good examples of using existing building infrastructure are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the restaurants Chaud and Jenny’s on the Boulevard.

*** I do not understand the concept of equating non-working or underdeveloped infrastructure only with conditions of poverty. For me, this thinking actually creates poverty in what we call “third world countries” and exacerbates even minor communication problems. Governments may feel forced to please such thinking and so proceed to build centralized urban centersfor “modern infrastructure development” at the expense of simple can-do maintenance projects. I believe this “poverty” theory has caused large and small scale infrastructure projects to be mutually exclusive. THIS mindset held by many world economists needs to change.

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