Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Seaward, San Fernando

San Fernando is celebrating city status this month. Nothing to celebrate really. They called the place a city before making it one. Twenty-five years after that superficial upgrade, San Fernando is fundamentally as it was 50 years ago: small, choked and in many areas old, run-down, ramshackle. A city is dynamic and inspiring, with variety, opportunity, and a thriving cultural life. San Fernando is dull, with little to do but "lime''; no beauty to behold, no safe parks or promenades, an occasional play or concert, no monuments to remember, no sense of its past. It is a most uninspiring little place. No character whatsoever. No city certainly.

Two ideas could make San Fernando a city. One is cultural. The entire Independence Avenue, formerly Broadway, from the Naparima Bowl straight down to Charlie's Pudding where the avenue meets the Reinzi/Kirton Highway, should be transformed into a cultural stretch with small theatres, a museum, art galleries, an open air concert facility, appropriate monuments, restaurants, side-walk cafes and a park or garden if possible but vegetation certainly. The area should be largely pedestrianised. It is not to be a mere liming spot like Ariapita Avenue. Its character must be shaped by the town's history and the dignity of the Naparima Bowl, the cultural fountainhead. This public/private sector project should be done in phases, the first being from the Bowl entrance to Rushworth Street. It would spread its influence to Sutton and Keate streets and beyond and will transform San Fernando into the nation's cultural capital, a claim it sometimes makes with no justification whatsoever.

The other idea for San Fernando is structural and strategic. It is an old one. During the early 80s, the George Chambers administration commissioned a study by a Japanese firm on reclamation along the southern coastline from Mosquito Creek to Marabella. The assessment strongly recommended land recovery, pointing to the placid Gulf of Paria, its shallowness near the shore with silt being continuously deposited by the sea, very visible at low tide, in various areas like Aripero, Flat Rock and Marabella. As the member for San Fernando West in the early 90s, I revived this idea, supported by a few prominent citizens, but clearly did not get very far.

Seaward is the obvious way for this town. Not the mere waterfront upgrade that some politicians speak about. Reclamation would recover hundreds of thousands of acres from the sea. Unlike the present unplanned, haphazard San Fernando, you can have a new, carefully designed city several times larger, with space for all that makes fulfilling urban life: industry, commerce, residential areas, culture, education, sport, recreation and administration. A new shining city on the sea! Carefully crafted and easily established, given the flatness of the reclaimed space, San Fernando would become the envy of the Caribbean.

Its major asset would be the sea, the splendiferous Gulf of Paria, heaven's gift, so welcoming, often on mornings as calm as a smooth blue sheet for miles. This is on San Fernando's doorstep, but not used except as a dumping ground or partly, as a 1920s fishing port! Sacrilege! Having grown up virtually in the water at Columbus Bay, I remain bewildered by the absence of a relationship between San Fernandians and their sea whose breezes waft unacknowledged across the town. I feel it now through my window as I write this piece. This small, suffocating town has its back turned to the vast expanse of ocean right next to it. Tragic!

San Fernando never incorporated the sea unto itself; never embraced the ocean, never invited it within. Neither has Port of Spain for that matter. San Fernando has been the worse for it; impoverished in spirit, creativity and wealth. A seaside town with an inland mentality! Its poets have celebrated hot, sweaty, clumsy "library corner'' or the bar life on "The Coffee'' but none sang of the sea. There has been absolutely no relationship. Residents visit Mayaro, Maracas, Columbus or Tobago to enjoy the beach. There are no facilities in San Fernando. Along the sea are the ugliest places for human habitation in the town. Visit King's Wharf and the Old Train Line and you will see. But, you better not. It's not safe.

Reclamation will bring transformation. New land and the sea will drive development: a harbour for trade and visitors; a modern fishing industry; waterfront hotels for tourism; sea sports; esplanades for relaxation, contemplation and recreation; new industrial estates and residential areas; new cultural and sporting facilities. The sky is the limit. San Fernando's mind would grow and its spirit soar for the nation's nourishment. And imagine the national GDP growth! In addition to generating wealth by itself, this project will spur development further along the entire western coastline to Chatham, Cap-de-Ville, Granville and Cedros in the south and to Claxton Bay, Couva and Chaguanas, north of San Fernando. Here's your 21st century project Trinbago. Tell the government.

Ongoing reclamation should long have been national policy. The sea is constantly eroding land, particularly on the northern, eastern and southern coastlines. We must reclaim if we are to leave space for the future. Where would Port of Spain or Point Lisas be without it?

But the richest blessing is for the children. The nation's deeper connection with its surrounding waters would grow our young embracing the sea as their own space, their very self, giving them early, indelible intimations of their own intrinsic vastness. It is those generations who would save this place from the deepening decadence. A people nurtured by the waves' majestic roar gravitate to the greatness they hear.

So lead the way San Fernando. There lies the ocean, our salvation. Seaward now!

Ralph Maraj is a former

government minister.