Brief Reflections on Kingston as a Visual and Cultural Space – Charles V. Carnegie

Sidney McLaren - King and Barry Street (1971), Collection: NGJ

Sidney McLaren – King and Barry Street (1971), Collection: NGJ

The Jamaican anthropologist Charles V. Carnegie, former head of the African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Memory Bank, has contributed to the following essay to the catalogue of Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, which opens on July 31:

For its first two-hundred-plus years as the island’s principal city—up until around the 1920s—much of Kingston’s population lived in close proximity to each other within or on the fringes of the city centre: an area just 1,080 acres in extent in 1890.  Rich and poor rode together on horse-drawn and, later, electric tramcars beginning in the 1870s.  Despite sharp legal distinctions between slave and free and marked divisions of class, color, and religion, people of different rank routinely crossed paths for work, worship, commerce, recreation, healthcare, and to bury their dead.  Beginning around the 1930s and gaining momentum in the following decades, the city’s elites dispersed themselves to increasingly distant suburbs.  A pattern of urban sprawl, similar to that in North America, took hold. What does it mean and why does it matter that for the most recent period of its history Kingston’s poor and the more well off come into direct contact so much more infrequently than they once did?  What’s been the impact, and can we now begin to assess the consequences, of residents of the city no longer trodding the same piece of ground day by day: not routinely encountering each other in the same space?

Parade, Downtown Kingston, on a Sunday

King Street, near Parade, Downtown Kingston, on a Sunday

In making my way about Kingston these days on foot and by bus, I am struck both by the cultural expressiveness, energy and imagination so evident in the streets, and the realization of how much of this is new and news to friends Uptown.  My accounts of the commonplace wonders of street life—those elegantly outfitted mannequins posed dramatically atop booming, four-foot high speaker boxes along the sidewalks on Orange Street, the cleverly improvised performances of male vendors of women’s lingerie, the welcome arrival of this or that fruit in season at Coronation Market—are received Uptown as reports from distant foreign shores.  Many Uptowners, I’ve discovered, have rarely if ever taken a bus in Kingston, almost never go downtown; don’t know the number or routes of buses that serve their own neighbourhoods; and see nothing amiss with their ignorance.  Sadly, automotivity and the physical retreat to the suburbs have reinforced a certain social disengagement: places close at hand have become as places far away, former neighbors now seen as people who scarcely matter.

David Pottinger - Snapper Time (1970), Collection: NGJ

David Pottinger – Snapper Time (1970), Collection: NGJ

Not that residential proximity in earlier times necessarily led to broad acknowledgement of the voice and imagination of the poor, or to greater mutual understanding across the social divide.  Even otherwise sympathetic accounts, such as the series of newspaper articles published over a thirty year period around the turn of the twentieth century urging state action and social reform on behalf of the poor, treated them primarily as objects of inquiry and concern whose poverty and deprivation needed redress: people largely to be spoken for rather than being allowed to speak for themselves.[1]

The distantiated stance on the part of Kingston’s elites towards the culturally vibrant working class majority population of the city has only become more marked over the past 70 years.  One effect of this disengagement (supported by misconceived programs of urban renewal undertaken elsewhere in the world) has been to create a mindset bent on effecting purely physical transformations and a remaking of the built environment.  Numerous, elaborate plans for the physical renovation of the city have been devised since the late 1950s by private and state interests, but without serious attempt to engage with or accommodate input from Downtown residents.  Creation of the revealingly named “New Kingston” beginning in the late 1950s, redevelopment of the waterfront in the 1960s and 70s, and the revitalization drive of the Kingston Restoration Company (KRC) starting in the 1980s, are just some of the incomplete results these efforts have yielded.  Surely, the paradoxical contrast between these stalled, atrophied grand schemes of redevelopment, on one hand, and the ceaseless, irrepressible vitality of Kingston’s dispossessed, on the other, is worth contemplating.

Parade, Downtown Kingston, on a Sunday

Parade, Downtown Kingston, on a Sunday

In varied ways, many of the artists represented in this show point us to an alternative starting point for thinking about the city, its past, and possible futures.  They offer perspectives grounded in a loving appreciation of Kingston’s cultural ethos, the aesthetics and tempo of its streets, the resourcefulness, worth, and sensibilities of its people.  This vantage point on the city, this perspectival shift, need not be the exclusive preserve of artists.  It remains very much accessible to all of us if we but seek to avail ourselves of it.


Charles V. Carnegie

Department of Anthropology

Bates College

[1]  Moore, Brian L. and Michele A. Johnson. “Squalid Kingston” 1890 – 1920: How the Poor Lived, Moved, and Had Their Being.  Kingston: The Social History Project, Department of History, University of the West Indies, Mona, 2000.


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