Wed | Aug 12, 2020

David Salmon | A Jamaican tale of two cities

Published:Sunday | June 21, 2020 | 12:32 AM

Aerial view of New Kingston.
Aerial view of New Kingston.

In many ways, Kingston embodies the spirit of Jamaica. It is the hub of commerce, a centre of creativity, and the nexus of public administration. It is also a fact that our nation’s capital is a microcosm of society as within this urban space exist not one, but two cities that have become inextricably intertwined.

One is a celestial city on a hill that is the crowning achievement for those who experience social mobility. Still, in the shadow of the glistening hill lies the forgotten city that is present in the crevices we do not see, the communities we pass through, and in the shelters we visit. This is the dual society that Phillip Curtin (1968) describes as the “two Jamaicas”.

While the country has made remarkable progress in reducing the divide among these two cities, there is still much work to be done. For instance, Jamaica ranked 96 out of 157 countries on the 2018 Commitment to Reducing Inequality Report. This study measures the commitment of governments worldwide to reduce the wealth gap within their societies. Jamaica’s performance not only puts it in the bottom half of the list, but also makes it one of the worst-performing countries in the region. Thus, we are reminded of the existing chasm between the two cities.

Within one city, residents awaken to fresh air, the sound of birds, and the cool, peaceful environment. These inhabitants normally benefit from security afforded to them in the gilded city on a hill. For example, students study with consistent Internet, water, and electricity while those in the other city are awakened by gunshots or provocative music meant to produce a “cool” community atmosphere.

RESIDENCE

Inhabitants from one city pay property taxes while those in the other are unable to even rent housing. They eke out a living squatting or just getting by while suffocating in tightly packed too-modest dwellings. These lodgings possess limited resources available for comfort, with Internet being a luxury, water a rarity, and consistent electricity a novelty.

The only way light is shone on these residents is if they are an “obstacle” to potential investments to be made. This is axiomatic as an informal settlement will remain undisturbed for years if it is not located on lands earmarked for development. The establishment of slums in the island’s resplendent tourism belt exemplifies this observation. Ironically, these slums developed due to inadequate housing for hotel workers, whose responsibility it is to provide comfort for residents of the other Jamaica.

While commercial lending institutions are eager to provide capital for entrepreneurs from one city, business persons from the other are unable to qualify for a loan. As a result, they distrust formal economic institutions and would rather operate in the shadows. It is estimated that the informal economy employs over half of the country’s labour force. As The University of the West Indies professor Eris Schoburgh (2007) notes, the prevalence of Jamaica’s expansive informal economy highlights the limited ability of the Government to manage the respective economic sectors of the nation. Therefore, the informal sector reflects this societal duality.

IMPACT OF COVID-19

Moreover, many participants in the informal economy operate small businesses, so naturally, the protracted impact of COVID-19 would adversely affect these entrepreneurs. In the past, migration has been able to relieve local internal economic pressures. However, this pandemic has also adversely affected the US economy, resulting in fewer opportunities for persons to live the “American Dream”. Yet, as we know, all dreams come to an end, and even before the pandemic, wages in the US grew at their slowest rate in decades.

Additionally, increasing anti-immigration rhetoric is only expected to limit immigration even further, resulting in reduced opportunities for Jamaicans to experience social upliftment. Even this example perpetuates the division between the two cities. Residents from one city have easier access and are encouraged to travel, while members of the other city are limited in their ability to realise their economic aspirations.

With a decline in remittances, fewer opportunities to participate in work and travel programmes or other options for social improvement, Jamaica is now at a crucial juncture of its economic development. The recent protest movement taking place across the United States is a timely reminder of the existence of societal inequality. Although it is hypocritical for Jamaicans to protest against social injustice in the United States without considering the social inequity locally. Where is the militancy for Noel Chambers, Jasmine Dean, or the nameless others forgotten in society?

It is often said that “if the Unites States sneezes, Jamaica catches a cold.” Therefore, time will tell if this age-old adage is true for local social injustice. Till then, the dreams and aspirations of children in one city will continue to be realised. On the other hand, the perpetual glass ceiling will continue to stymie the economic ambitions of those from our other often-forgotten city.

- David Salmon is a first-year public policy and management student at The University of the West Indies and a member of the National Youth Parliament of Jamaica (NYPJ). Send feedback email to davidsalmon@live.com or follow him on Twitter @DavidSalmonJA.