In those days, and up until the 1980s, mainly poor English and ne’er-can-do immigrants and West Indians inhabited Notting Hill. It was where race riots happened in 1958, where that Trini smart man Michael X, who finally was hung in Port-of-Spain, exploited Caribbean immigrants, collecting inflated rents for the unheated, rat-ridden rundown dwellings they occupied. That experience of migration has been immortalised in Samuel Selvon’s masterpiece, The Lonely Londoners. Cash strapped Naipaul lived there too before he made his name as a writer. Another Trini, Claudia Jones, helped a few homesick masqueraders to start the famous Carnival there. Now the Notting Hill Carnival, championed by people like Crichlow, is the largest street party in Europe with well over a million people crowding out Notting Hill’s wide and not so wide tree-lined streets every year.
Notting Hill is one of those curious places where enormous change has occurred almost organically. The area in the West of the city was once home to the very wealthy, as the large pale coloured stucco-fronted houses bear witness to. Those buildings, mostly erected in the 1800s when East London was considered undesirable because of the poor air quality, have seen several incarnations. They have gone from rich man’s castle, to poor man’s hovel, and back to being one of the most expensive areas of London, although many of the enormous houses have been divided up into sought-after apartments.
In the interim it had become, as Margaret Busby put it in her Crichlow obituary, “the UK’s black culture capital” and somehow, it has maintained its place as the meeting point for artists, intellectuals and liberals of all races and economic brackets, ordinary community life mixing easily with patronage of some of the most chic restaurants, bars, bookshops, antique shops, designer salons and art galleries, and the countless tourists pulled in by the Saturday Portobello street market. The drug dealers still ply their trade and the police still get heavy with the newer waves of immigrants who now live in comfortable, publicly funded accommodation, but Notting Hill and other areas of London are examples of how urban decay can be arrested.
Cities live and mutate all the time, some better than others. Take Port-of-Spain, where the focal point of the capital has shifted from east to west, abandoning the area behind the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was once at the city’s heart. What is now Independence Square was once lined with romantic New Orleans style buildings with overhanging galleries and intricate ironwork. Houses in Frederick, Henry, Charlotte and other streets north of Park afforded their residents spacious and elegant living. Today, few would choose to live there because so many buildings have become business places.
But, the fact that commerce and government have remained in downtown PoS, and also the continued existence of the Charlotte Street market and the transport hubs of South Quay and Broadway have kept PoS a vibrant city. It is a shame, however, that so much of the city looks like a bombsite. I remember, until quite recently, interesting depot style buildings lining Broadway and South Quay, which in other countries have been restored instead of pulled down. Hats off to Maraj the Jewellers who have modernised their building that shines like a diamond in the midst of terrible dereliction.
I see the new Government has plans to revitalise eastern Port-of-Spain as a heritage site, making misguided comparisons with old San Juan in Puerto Rico and Havana, the most architecturally magnificent city in the Caribbean. What those two cities have in common with Notting Hill and our own Woodbrook, is a rich and distinctive architectural stock. Would that we were in the same position as the Jamaicans of having a virtually untouched old capital just waiting to be rejuvenated. But all is not lost. There are enough relics that could be saved and PoS has a pulse that could be made to beat faster by exploiting the talent of our people. It is people who make a place live and our capital has a culture and communities where, once the worst aspects of poverty are eradicated, we could indeed have a splendid downtown PoS that all Trinis and visitors would flock to.