PORT OF SPAIN occupies a crucial place in T&T’s national psyche. It’s the hub of the republic’s booming economy, the home of government and the media, and the crucible of Trinidad’s rich cultural life, with legions of mas camps and panyards, art galleries and theatres. It was here that Carnival was first established in Trinidad, and – in the suburb of Laventille – that the steel pan was invented.
Spreading back from the Gulf of Paria and enclosed by crumpled green hills, Port of Spain has a dynamic, sophisticated feel that’s markedly different from the rest of the country. Some 128,000 inhabitants jostle for space in and around its compact centre, which displays a rather schizophrenic mix of the old and the new, with street traders selling cinnamon sticks or mauby bark as well as sleek new shopping malls bursting with international chains, and glinting high-rises overlooking colonial-era squares. The mishmash of architectural styles makes for an ugly first impression, especially downtown, with its traffic-choked streets and dusty commercial buildings. But there are many fine nineteenth-century buildings here, from dignified churches and state offices to quaint “gingerbread” houses, named for their decorative wooden fretwork, while grandiose mansions of colonial planters overlook the large open space of the Queen’s Park Savannah, which was created by enlightened town planners in the early nineteenth century and now affords the city some much-needed breathing room.
Stretching along the flat coastal plains to the west, the outlying districts of Woodbrook and St James are very much part of the city. Bars and restaurants line the after-dark hotspots of Ariapita Avenue and the Western Main Road, and costumes are created here at mas camps during the months preceding Carnival, when the city’s volatile mix of style, hedonism, creativity and joie de vivre explodes onto the streets as bands of fantastically arrayed revellers wind their way through downtown Port of Spain and Woodbrook to cross the Savannah stage. Spreading north and east into the Northern Range foothills, St Ann’s, Cascade, Belmont and Laventille are mostly residential, though the latter has a rather grim reputation for violent crime. North of the Savannah, leafy Maraval has some great places to eat, and is also the place to hop in a jeep taxi up to the friendly farming community of Paramin for heady city views and some welcome respite from the heat and bustle.
Port of Spain became Trinidad’s capital almost by accident. In 1757, a series of pirate attacks on the then capital St Joseph left the residence of the new Spanish governor, Don Pedro de la Moneda, uninhabitable, prompting him to move the seat of government to the more convenient location of Puerto de España (a port of Spain). Though the town consisted of no more than two streets with a few hundred residents and was built on swampy, flood-prone ground, it did have the great advantage of a fine natural harbour, and was quickly made the permanent capital.
The colonial era
As French Catholics flooded into Trinidad in the 1780s, Port of Spain’s economy boomed and the city spread. Land was reclaimed from the sea, and streets were built over the surrounding mangrove swamps and woods. The last Spanish governor, Don Maria José Chacon, greatly facilitated this expansion when, in 1787, he diverted the St Ann’s River to the outskirts of the town, along the foot of Laventille Hill, alleviating the floods that had often troubled central Port of Spain. Chacon was less effective, however, when it came to defending the city against the British, who invaded and took over the island in 1797. In 1808, a devastating fire led the British governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, to make a number of civic improvements, establishing the Queen’s Park Savannah and developing Woodford Square. Learning from Spanish mistakes, the British also improved the city’s defences by building Fort George and Fort Picton.
Emancipation and beyond
After emancipation in 1834, freed slaves left plantations to find work in the capital, settling in the hills to the east of the city where they established the suburbs of Laventille and Belmont. With a growing population of workers, traders and entrepreneurs, Port of Spain sprawled outwards into the old plantations of Maraval and St Ann’s. Indian immigrants brought to Trinidad under indentured labour schemes settled in St James, while the population was further swelled by migrants from China, Portugal, Venezuela and Syria. The descendants of these groups, and those of the French and Spanish communities, compose the cosmopolitan mix of peoples and cultures that make Port of Spain unique today.
As the nation’s capital, Port of Spain was naturally the focus for both the political turmoil and the growing prosperity that marked the country’s history during the twentieth century. From the water riots of 1903, through the independence movement of the 1950s down to the bloody 1990 coup attempt, Woodford Square has been an arena of political strife. The dredging of the city’s deep-water harbour in the 1930s made Port of Spain the leading port of the southern Caribbean, while the discovery of offshore oil in the 1970s funded the construction of the financial district, dominated by the imposing twin towers of the Central Bank.
Port of Spain today
Thanks to the expansionist dreams of former People’s National Party Prime Minister Patrick Manning, Port of Spain’s skyline now bristles with high-rise blocks, from sleek Nicholas Tower to the rash of new government buildings on Wrightson Road. The buoyant consumerism of the last twenty years or so has seen lavish developments springing up all over the city, from American-style luxury malls and exclusive gated communities to the futuristic National Academy for the Performing Arts on the Savannah and the slick new waterside promenade around the Hyatt Regency hotel. And though civic spending has contracted since the 2008 global economic collapse, with some of the high-rises still missing their interior finish and restoration of key public buildings such as the President’s House at a standstill, Port of Spain has endured, with its prettiest public squares restored again to vibrant meeting places and its outlying districts electrified by a slew of new restaurants and bars.