Living In a’ Kingston. Beauty and Struggle in Jamaica’s Metropolis.

by Inilek Wilmot

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Sunset over Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: Ishack Wilmot.

Soon after the rich and wicked city of Port Royal sank into the sea in a biblical 1692 disaster that reads like a latter day Sodom and Gomorrah, the town of Kingston rose from the ashes. Before Port Royal was destroyed, the Liguanea Plain upon which Kingston was built was farmland with fishing shacks dotted along its coastline.

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After Port Royal’s destruction, many surviving land owners from the wicked city were allowed to rebuild along the shore of the broad Liguanea Plain – across the vast harbor from old Port Royal. The government of the day did not intend for Kingston to be any larger than Port Royal and a stipulation was made that the transplanted land owners could not purchase more land than they had owned before. But how things would change.

The small town of refugees that sprung up was destined for greatness because of the geographical gem it was perched atop. Kingston Harbor is the seventh largest natural harbor in the world and is located smack in the center of the western hemisphere. This was two hundred years before the Wright Brothers tasted the success of 59 seconds of flight, when international travel was solely by sea. Unlike Port Royal, which was built on a tiny slice of unstable land, Kingston had room to grow and accommodate industry. Its maritime advantage would be the cornerstone of its success, and it continues to be a major feature of the city into present day.

A Nat Geo crew rediscovers the pirate tavern where the Captain Morgan likely sipped his rum. 

After two hundred years of inevitable evolution, the desperate settlement of refuge seekers became the Capital of Jamaica and a regional economic center and arguably the most important cultural hub in the Caribbean.

From the time Kingston took roots along the sea, to the present, its population has been a mix of income classes. The poor flocked to a town that was evolving into a city for work, establishing low income communities, while those with wealth invested in the gem and grew even more wealthy. They added a touch of lavish to the landscape with exquisitely beautiful architecture. These groups co-existed in a lopsided mutualistic relationship, establishing a precedent for every generation to come.

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Photo: Ishack Wilmot.

Living in’a Kingston has been colored with the diverse overtones of Jamaican culture and agitated by Jamaican politics. However, there are two fundamental truths of life here; survival and money. The poorest are constantly striving to survive and the rich are constantly striving to make more money. There is also a middle class in the mix, who are managing to survive and striving to maybe save a ‘likkle’ money along the way.

The dance of the people that shaped the city.

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Photo: Ishack Wilmot.

Jamaica may be known by the larger world for its laid back ‘soon come’ pace, but the Kingston is a place of hustle and movement on different scales.

At the small scale, people move; in pulses at rush hour and on market days. Kingston is a transportation hub and is also home to the country’s largest fresh produce market. The surges of humanity at rush hour and on market days is the main source of sustenance for many in the inner-city communities. The poorest make a living by swimming and selling among the stream of bodies through the streets. Through this ebb and flow, they try to earn a little money – a very little at a time.

The city’s more affluent move along different routes to the north of Kingston’s heart, where the bustling rush hour does not involve rubbing shoulders with familiar strangers. Where fresh produce is sold in air conditioned stores and luxury vehicles dominate the routes through northern St Andrew and New Kingston. Though the up-scaled part of town is less than five kilometers from the heart of Downtown, it is a completely different world.

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Looking south onto Kingston Harbor. Photo: Ishack Wilmot.

On the larger scale, Kingston has been steadily morphing and expanding since its founding in the late 17th century. It has grown steadily north into the verdant, beautiful hills of St Andrew – where houses can run into millions of U.S. dollars. This physical movement is a result of the migration and dynamics among the major income groups that make up the social landscape of Kingston. The push north has been funded by the wealthy, in a move to ensure their constant separation from the troubled poorer communities of the inner-city.

The poor and middle class followed the northern growth by filling in the communities vacated by the wealthy. The ranks of the poor and middle class were bolstered by the immigration of people from rural communities seeking opportunities in the capital.

The tensions between the classes, the hardships of everyday life, and the joy and love innate within the people have manifested through the years in another form of universal movement: music.

The political ism and schism.

We’re sick and tired of your ism schism… Bob Marley sings it live. 

“… the fight for scarce benefits and spoils carried on by hostile tribes that seem to be perpetually at war”. — P.J. Patterson, former Jamaican Prime Minister, on Jamaican politics.

Jamaica’s reputation for violence started as the facade of political turmoil in the bloody national elections of 1981. Violence was the currency, votes for the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) were the commodity. Communities with allegiance to two main political parties were armed and went about the business of terrorizing their rivals to the point that they would not go to the polls.

To the winners went the spoils and scarce benefits funded by the public coffers, while the losers would endure five years of hardship.

Originally armed by the politicians and the wealthy who sought political advantage, the gangs created by the ism and schism would eventually become self-funded by the gun and drug trade and would themselves become monsters – arguably more powerful than the political parties themselves. Gangs would become a force to rival the police and army. There is a feeling within the people that the communities in the heart of the town are seen by the security forces as pools of recruits for gangs, and the security forces are seen by these communities as Babylon – oppressors.

This perpetual war is merely the pieces falling into place, the prep work having been done by a poor education system, a virtual absence of social support, a lack of opportunities, and the allure of quick money to be made in any number of criminal activities.

But through all this, the people are beautiful.

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Photo: Ishack Wilmot.

The people of Kingston are beautiful. They are hard working and ambitious. They are creative, expressive and streetwise. When people have few possessions and limited social support, communities have to be close if they are to strive – and survive. Kingston is not a city of strangers. Despite a population of over a million, it is one of the only places in the world that I have experienced a web of unspoken casual relationships between random people on the streets who are otherwise unknown to each other.

“Living in Kingston,” by Inilek Wilmot’s Father Billy Wilmot and the Mystic Revealers.
From the album. Young Revolutionaries.

That is the One Love.

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