Taking up huge swathes of downtown, Kingston’s ghetto communities are the country’s urban nightmare. Bob Marley sang fondly of growing up in the “government yards in Trench Town”, but the contemporary reality is a huge underclass confined to crowded, makeshift homes enclosed by rusting, graffiti-daubed zinc, their communities bearing suitably conflicted names, from Dunkirk and Jungle to Tel Aviv and Zimbabwe.

In the city’s early years, downtown was a popular residential zone – well laid out and central. Trench Town’s government yards were planned communities that proudly boasted all the modern conveniences and for a time (despite their cramped nature) provided a desirable place to live for Jamaica’s working class. Before long, however, the combination of a high influx of rural job seekers, a soaring rate of unemployment and a lack of housing made downtown a grim place to live. Criminal elements were quick to take advantage of these conditions, recruiting and arming gang members from the ranks of the poor. The crime problem was exacerbated in the 1970s as politicians provided guns and favours for their supporters, asking them to intimidate – at the very least – opponents or drive them out of their “garrisons” or constituencies. The “PNP zone” or “JLP enter at your own risk” graffiti that you’ll still see plastered over downtown walls stand testament to the strong political allegiances of the communities, many of which remain divided along political lines.

While political violence still flares up at election times and army-enforced night-time curfews are sometimes in effect for months on end, the people of the ghettos of West Kingston have largely washed their hands of a political class that seems to have done them no long-term favours despite the years of promises. Instead, many now give their allegiance to high-profile “area leaders” or “dons”, who earn the favour of their communities as much as by staging free “fun days” for local people and doling out school books and cash to the needy as they do by “keeping the peace” through sheer fire-power and their publicly declared truces with rival areas. Over the years, various government-established anti-crime initiatives have led to several high-profile arrests – most notably that of Christopher “Dudus” Coke in 2010, a drug lord and leader of the violent Shower Posse gang which had controlled Western Kingston since the 1980s. But with continued profits from drug trafficking and protection rackets said to be worth millions, the government faces a seemingly insurmountable task of ever truly ridding the ghettos of dons and their gangs. These days it’s money, not party politics, that rules.

If you’re considering a visit to Trench Town, it’s worth keeping an ear out for reports of trouble in the area. Don’t carry too much money with you, and it’s also a good idea to start early, to avoid being here after dark. But you’ll be fine if you come for the night-time concert that’s staged here around the time of Bob Marley’s birthday – and there’s something very special about, in the words of Bob Marley himself, “grooving in Kingston 12”.

For more on the capital’s ghettos, Laurie Gunst’s book Born Fi Dead, David Howard’s Kingston and Orlando Patterson’s powerful novel Children of Sisyphus provide an interesting insiders’ view of life here. For a cinematic perspective, check out Third World Cop, while Perry Henzell’s seminal The Harder They Come, though released in the early 1970s, still has much relevance today.

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