BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large, Western Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
MONTEGO BAY, St James - CANTERBURY'S violent past may increasingly look like history, but former Mayor of Montego Bay Cecil Donaldson is calling for the relocation of the inner-city community, pointing to the numerous social and economic challenges that continue beset the depressed area.
"I would like to see the community completely removed off the map and the people relocated because Canterbury is an eyesore to humanity and even to the people living there," Donaldson told the Observer West. "The people deserve to live in a structured community; they deserve nothing less."
But Member of Parliament for the area Lloyd B Smith is not in favour of relocating the roughly 3,000 residents from the community.
"Relocation could be very costly. What we really need to do is to improve the human element and give the place a facelift," said Smith, who has been the elected political representative for the area since December last year.
He argued that if the residents are relocated, many of them may not be able to afford mortgages and other costs associated with the relocation.
But Donaldson, who served as mayor of Montego Bay from 1966 to 1969 and 1975 to 1981, is contending that despite the tight fiscal constraints, "if the Government has the will to do it, it can be done".
"With the National Housing Trust having vast sums of money, and with the willingness of the people to be relocated, it is possible," he stressed. "The Government can call the people together and say to them 'we have some money and so many acres of land and we will put in the infrastructure so you (the residents) will have to provide the labour'. It must be done because Canterbury needs to get off the map."
One of Montego Bay's 19 squatter settlements, the densely populated community consists mostly of flimsy board houses crammed together.
Canterbury's image as a slum is not helped by outsiders who are reluctant to enter the community, a section of which is nestled in a deep valley surrounded by hilly terrain.
Although there is only one entrance and exit by road, there are many footpaths that are often used by those who wish to elude the police since the community, which sits on roughly three acres of land, is not accessible by vehicular traffic.
According to a socio-economic survey conducted by the Social Development Commission in the community just over two years ago, 55 per cent of the houses are made from board a similar percentage of the residents' garbage are picked up by truck. The other 45 per cent, the report indicated, are disposed of "by other means".
Additionally, almost 80 per cent of household members have no academic qualification while there are high levels of unemployment in the area.
The community, which has a history of internal gang warfare, grabbed the nation's attention in the 1970s, and again in October 2003 when armed men engaged members of the security forces in a nine-hour gun battle.
When the dust settled, three policemen were injured and three men, believed to be gunmen, fatally shot. Five high-powered weapons, three handguns and more than 1,000 assorted rounds of ammunition were seized after the incident and more than 24 persons detained for questioning, the police said then.
Months after the bloody incident, a number of social organisations as well as the Peace Management Initiative went into the community offering to provide much needed social intervention.
But residents told the Observer West earlier this week that nothing tangible has so far been done to uplift the community.
"A bag of promises was all that the community got from the so-called intervention. They came into the community and we told them what we need, and they said that they were going to provide training for us; clean up the place; and organise youth clubs. But nothing was done," said Marjorie Mitchell, a 46-year-old area resident.
Mitchell, too, is opposed to the relocation of the community.
"The place now is quiet; the crime thing not here again so what we need now is a proper drainage system; improvements to the pathways; the replacement of utility poles; the removal of the zinc fences; training for the youths; and proper housing and wi nice," she added.
The police — without any supporting statistics — have attested to a reduction in crime in the community over the last few years.
Smith, who represents the governing People's National Party (PNP), told the Observer West that in the short term, he plans to create a cleaner and more attractive environment for the community.
His short-term plans include the construction of a basketball court and a stage where persons "can come and enjoy themselves", financial support for the elderly, as well as to develop cottage industries, in an effort to create employment.
The large number of dilapidated houses in the community, he said, will be addressed in the long term.
Smith's view is similar to that of his predecessor Dr Horace Chang, the sitting Member of Parliament for North West St James (JLP), who represented the community from 2002-2011 when the area was a part of the North West St James constituency.
"It will be difficult to relocate the community. What needs to be done is to reduce the population density," he said.
"Some people might have to be relocated so that proper houses can be built and proper infrastructure put in, but if you take out everybody, people are going to return there to live," added Chang, who has served as Jamaica's minister of housing and the environment.