Editorial | Ruining Spanish Town
At a meeting in China last month, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted to delist the English city of Liverpool as a World Heritage Site. Liverpool, the committee said, had suffered “irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property”.
During the late 1600s, up until the early 20th century, Liverpool was a great trading post, whose history included being a major port in the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas, up to the end of the slave trade in 1807. Many of those slaves came to Jamaica.
Liverpool’s iconic docks and supporting buildings were, as UNESCO put it in 2004, when it was granting the city heritage status, “an exceptional testimony to the development of maritime mercantile culture in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, contributing to the building of the British empire ... Its innovative techniques and types of docks, dock facilities and warehouse construction had worldwide influence”. The city’s public buildings, too, commanded attention.
But only eight years into Liverpool’s designation, UNESCO was warning that its cultural authenticity, and therefore its international heritage status, was being threatened. Several mixed-use developments on the city’s waterfront were under construction. Others were on the drawing board. Several have since been completed.
But the proverbial back-breaking feather, leading to last month’s development, was the city council’s approval, in February, of a 53,000-capacity stadium for the Everton Football Club. This development will require the destruction of an old coal-exporting dock, which operated for 148 years until its closure in 1988. Going ahead with the construction, a UNESCO heritage committee official was quoted as saying, it would have a “major adverse impact on the authenticity, integrity and outstanding universal value of the city as a heritage site”.
JAMAICA’S HERITAGE SITE
Jamaica has a single UNESCO-designated heritage site – a 26,000-hectare area of unique flora and fauna in the 48,000-hectare Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, in the east of the island. In the 18th century, runaway slaves found refuge in the region to sustain their wars against England’s colonial government.
The site, and a potential threat to its heritage status, became a matter of public concern a year ago when it emerged that Daryl Vaz, then the minister in charge of land, had attempted to lease several hectares within the site’s protected area’s buffer zone, on which to build tourist cottages. Happily, as the Liverpool development highlights, that plan was scuttled.
But Jamaica’s ambitions for UNESCO-recognised heritage sites do not end at the Blue and John Crow Mountains. Our governments have, for instance, long shopped the idea of Spanish Town, the former capital, with 19th-century Georgian brick architecture, being similarly designated.
UNESCO’s heritage status, however, should be required to validate Jamaica’s appreciation of the architectural, historical and cultural relevance of Spanish Town, which, before their 1655 displacement by the English, was also the administrative location for Spanish settlers. To be fair to the authorities, it did not. Not intellectually.
Too often, though, Jamaica has a problem of sustainability – which is what the architect and planning critic, Patricia Green, suggests is again overtaking Spanish Town. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, several of the buildings in the town’s administrative square were refurbished, in a project in which Ms Green was involved. As part of the facelift, utility cables were placed underground. The area was designated a no-traffic zone.
Writing in this newspaper on Monday, Ms Green said: “Historic buildings require reduced vibrations from motor vehicles and critically in climate change, less carbon emission from motors to minimise environmental acidic deterioration. Why are the authorities now permitting traffic to drive through the square?”
LARGELY A DUMP
That is a question that we, too, pose to the St Catherine municipal authority and the central government. While they are at it, they might also explain why other historic buildings in the town have not been refurbished and left to deteriorate. Indeed, the commercial section of Spanish Town, to the shame of its municipal officials and the central government, is largely a dump.
Indeed, our concerns for Spanish Town are similar to those we raised months ago about the many iconic Georgian-style railway stations across the island that have gone to rack and ruin.
New cities and towers of concrete, steel and glass and other shiny elements of modernity are welcome. But they do not obviate history and ought not to be, for the mere sake of it, a displacement thereof. An appreciation of the aesthetics of things past does not translate to being trapped in history. We can make rational choices about symbols from the past that should go. These buildings, however, should not be among them.