Overwhelming and fascinating in equal measure, Kingston is quite unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. Overhung by the magnificent Blue Mountains to the north and lapped by a huge natural harbour to the south, the city holds as many pockets of opulence as it does zinc-fenced ghettos, and its wide boulevards see top-of-the-range SUVs fighting for space with pushcarts and the odd goat or cow. Nonetheless, in the 1950s, Ian Fleming called Kingston a “tough city”, and that still holds true today. Jamaica’s capital is rough and ready, a little uncompromising, but always exciting – and though its troubled reputation means that few tourists visit (it’s not, perhaps, a place for the faint-hearted), Kingston is infinitely more absorbing than any of the resorts.

With some 700,000 residents (22 percent of the island’s total population), Kingston seethes with life, noise and activity, the glitzy malls of uptown and the faded, rough charm of downtown revealing a side of Jamaica that couldn’t be more different to the north coast. As well as being the seat of government and the island’s administrative centre, Kingston is Jamaica’s cultural and historical heart, the city that spawned Bob Marley, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and countless other reggae stars, and the place where Marcus Garvey first preached his tenets of black empowerment. And, with a plethora of theatres and galleries, it’s one of the best places on the island to fully appreciate the country’s home-grown art, theatre and dance scenes.

If you do decide to visit – and it’s well worth the effort for anyone with even a passing interest in Jamaican culture – you’ll find that not only is it easy to steer clear of trouble, but that there’s none of the persistent harassment that bedevils parts of the north coast. In comparison to Ochi or Negril, the capital feels refreshingly real, with most Kingstonians far more interested in going about their business than trifling with a tourist. That’s not to say that city dwellers are unfriendly; in fact, it’s far easier to strike up a decent conversation here than in more conventional tourist honeypots, where every interaction can seem like a precursor to a sales pitch. The pulsating, live-for-today vitality of the place, combined with the urbane outlook of its citizens, injects a shot of adrenalin that often proves addictive, and the exuberant atmosphere is tempered by a cool elegance and a strong sense of national history. If you follow the herd and avoid the capital, you’ll have missed one of Jamaica’s undoubted highlights.

Brief history

Though the Spanish first settled in Jamaica in 1510, replaced by British colonists in 1655, there was little development in present-day Kingston until 1692. The area held just a small pig-rearing village, glamorously known as Colonel Beeston’s Hog Crawle, and a handful of fishing shacks. All of the action was across the harbour on the island of Port Royal, then Jamaica’s second city (after Spanish Town) and home to most of the country’s leading lights. In 1692, however, a violent earthquake devastated Port Royal; several thousand people died instantly and the rest went scurrying for a more hospitable place to live. The Hog Crawle was the obvious choice – on the mainland but beside the harbour – and the former citizens of Port Royal promptly snapped up two hundred acres of land there.

Within a few months of the earthquake, the plans for the new town had been drawn up. Newborn Kingston was named in honour of William of Orange, king of England from 1689 to 1702, and the town was laid out beside the water to take advantage of the existing sea trade. The road plan mostly followed a grid system (which remains largely intact today) with the big central square of the Parade left open in the heart of town.

Kingston develops

By the early eighteenth century, Kingston had become a major port for the transshipment of English goods and African slaves to the Spanish colonies of South America. Merchants, traders and brokers made rapid fortunes and began to build themselves ostentatious homes, while fresh waves of immigrants piled into the booming city – some from Europe, some from other Caribbean islands, some from other parts of Jamaica, all in search of opportunity.

With its swelling population and rising wealth, the city soon began to challenge for the role of the nation’s capital, though the authorities in Spanish Town – comfortably ensconced in their grand Georgian buildings – proved stubborn in handing over the title to their upstart neighbour. By 1872, when Kingston finally became Jamaica’s capital city, many wealthy families were already moving beyond the original town boundaries to the more genteel areas that today comprise uptown Kingston. Meanwhile, the less affluent huddled downtown and in the shanty towns that began to spring up on the outskirts of old Kingston, particularly west of the city, their ranks swollen by a tide of former slaves hoping to find prosperity beyond the sugar estates.

The twentieth century

Jamaica’s turn-of-the-century boom, engineered by tourism and agriculture, largely bypassed Kingston’s poor and helped to reinforce the divide between uptown and downtown. While the rich got richer and sequestered themselves in the new suburbs uptown, the downtown area continued to deteriorate. Those who could afford to do so continued to move out, leaving behind an increasingly destitute population that proved fertile recruitment ground for the Rastafari movement during the 1920s and 1930s.

There were major riots during the 1930s, with the city feeling the knock-on effects of an islandwide economic crisis sparked by the plunging price of key crops like bananas and sugar on world markets. The riots led to the development of local trade unions and political parties during the 1940s; these organizations spoke for the workers and the dispossessed, but improvements in working conditions and the physical infrastructure were slow in coming. Finally, in the 1960s, the city authorities began to show some interest in reversing the decay. Efforts were made to give the old downtown area a face-lift; redevelopment of the waterfront resulted in a much-needed expansion of the city’s port facility (still a vital part of the city’s commerce today) and a smartening-up of the harbour area with the introduction of shops, offices and even the island’s major art gallery.

A mini-tourist boom was sparked by the new-look Kingston (and by the growing popularity of Jamaican music abroad), with cruise ships arriving to inject a fresh air of hope into the city. Sadly, the optimism proved short-lived. For the people of downtown Kingston, the redevelopment of downtown was only cosmetic. Crime – an inevitable feature in the crowded ghettos – was getting out of control, sponsored by politicians who distributed weapons and patronage to their supporters. At election time (particularly in 1976 and 1980), hundreds of people were killed in bloody campaigns, many of them innocent bystanders. Tourists ran for cover, heading for the new beach resorts on the island’s north coast, and the city sank into a quagmire of unemployment, poverty and crime.

Kingston today

Today, Kingston remains a divided city. The wealthy have moved further and further into the suburbs, coming in to work in the downtown business district or the smart uptown area of New Kingston but rarely venturing downtown after dark; meanwhile, the ghettos remain firmly under the control of gangs, led by infamous characters euphemistically referred to as “area leaders”. Rays of hope are slowly breaking through the tough facade of downtown, with a cautious optimism suggesting that the status quo might be beginning to change.

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