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.

Top image © Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

Accommodation

Most of Kingston’s hotels and guesthouses are in and around the small uptown district of New Kingston, convenient for sightseeing and close to most of the restaurants, theatres, cinemas and clubs. Only a few of the city’s accommodation options cater specifically to the tourist trade, relying instead on a steady stream of Jamaican and international business visitors, though finding a room here is rarely a problem. Unless otherwise stated, all rooms have air conditioning, cable TV, wi-fi and phone and include breakfast as part of their rates.

Carnival

If you’re in Kingston between January and April, you can take in Jamaica’s Carnival. Adopted from the Trinidadian event, Carnival is on a smaller scale here and focused more on all-inclusive parties and outdoor street jams, though it does culminate with an early-hours Jouvert (a body-paint-spattered street parade) and a traditional-style costume parade through New Kingston. Though there’s plenty of soca, dancehall is inevitably a big part of Carnival here, and you’ll see lots of DJs and bands (including local stalwarts Byron Lee and the Dragonaires) as well as big stars from Trinidad and the Eastern Caribbean – such as Alison Hinds, Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin. Events are widely publicized on the radio and in the press, and you can also contact the JTB (929 9200) or visit bacchanaljamaica.com.

Downtown

Flattened by an earthquake in 1907, downtown Kingston has lost most of its grand eighteenth-century architecture, and much of what remains is slowly crumbling into dereliction. Nevertheless, numerous historic buildings can still be found along Rum Lane, Water Lane and King Street, and if you peer into the most unlikely yards you can often find evidence of the intricate structures that used to proliferate here, with their fancy ironwork, marble floors, red-brick facades and wrap-around verandas. In recent years, government tax incentives have been created to encourage redevelopment of the area, although it is alleged that much of downtown has since been bought up by speculators, and the only evident development spawned from these incentives was the building of telecom giant Digicel’s flagship headquarters on the waterfront; their foundation also spent US$1 million restoring the famous Coronation Market to its former glory.

Though many locals still hesitate to walk the downtown streets, you’ll find that exploring on foot is not only the best way to get the full flavour of the area but also feels surprisingly safe. The usual common-sense rules apply, of course, but unless the violence that habitually breaks out in the surrounding ghettos spills over into downtown’s central commercial streets, there’s no reason to expect any problems. It’s not advisable to walk the streets at night in any part of the city; most Kingstonians don’t.

The National Gallery

The pleasantly air-conditioned National Gallery – opened in 1974 – is one of the highlights of a visit to Kingston. The permanent collection here is superb, ranging from delicate woodcarvings to flamboyant religious paintings, while the temporary exhibitions (up to four annually), including the Biennial, showcase the best of contemporary Jamaican art from the new vanguard of Jamaican painters, sculptors and mixed-media artists. Guided tours of the gallery are well worth taking, providing essential background to, and interpretation of, the works on show, and can be tailored to personal tastes.

The permanent collection consists of ten chronological galleries housed on the first floor, representing the Jamaican School, 1922 to the present. Dominating the earlier rooms are works by artists deemed to have been the forerunners of the art movement in Jamaica, including Edna Manley, John Dunkley, Albert Huie and David Pottinger. Later galleries feature the prolific work of Carl Abrahams and show a move towards abstraction which was capped by Colin Garland and David Boxer (a longtime curator of the gallery). Realism returned later with Barrington Watson, Kay Brown and Dawn Scott, whose A Cultural Object is a particularly unique and powerful re-creation of a Kingston ghetto and not to be missed. Look out for colourful, spiritual works by Everald Brown, Karl Parboosingh, Gloria Escoffery and Ralph Campbell. There is also an entire room that houses the Larry Wirth Collection of African-style sculpture and paintings by Revivalist Shepherd Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, as well as a slew of beautiful wood sculptures.

Jamaican art

Although the Tainos left paintings on cave walls and visiting British artists captured the colonial era on canvas, Jamaican art really only came into its own in the twentieth century. The island’s modern art movement was led by Edna Manley (1900–87), an English sculptor who had married prime-minister-to-be Norman Manley and moved to Jamaica in 1921, and whose arresting work has come to be seen as a turning point in Jamaican art. In 1939, she led a group of artists who stormed the annual meeting at the Institute of Jamaica to demand an end to the domination of Anglophile attitudes to art, and the replacement of the colonial portraits that hung in the galleries with works by local artists. Though more symbolic than revolutionary, their gesture did galvanize Jamaican painters and sculptors, and Manley’s classes at the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), which she co-founded, helped give direction to a new wave of local artists.

There were two distinct artistic styles in the work of this new crop of Jamaican artists. Most studied in England at one time or another and followed a classical European approach. Albert Huie (1920–2010) and Barrington Watson (born 1931) used natural forms and landscapes as reference points, incorporating the lives of black Jamaicans into their work for the first time, while Gloria Escoffery (1923–2002) played with abstract themes, depicting a range of subjects, from quiet pastoral scenes to the traditional Saturday market.

The paintings of the self-taught artists, known as “intuitives”, were perhaps more distinctive. The prodigious John Dunkley (1891–1947) made his name by covering every inch of his Kingston barber shop with pictures of trees, vines and flowers; his later paintings (now much sought after) continued his obsession with dark, brooding scenes from nature. Many intuitive artists focused their work around religious imagery. Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds (1911–89), the shepherd (head) of a Revivalist group in Kingston, became the first self-taught Jamaican painter to be fully accepted by local and foreign audiences, and is still seen as the island’s foremost intuitive sculptor and painter. Other artists such as Albert Artwell (born 1942) and Everald Brown (1917–2002) – a priest in the Ethiopian Coptic Church – concentrate on Rasta beliefs.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaican art became more experimental, most noticeably in the surrealism represented by the work of David Boxer (born 1946) and Australian-born Colin Garland (1935–2007). Today, Jamaica’s art scene continues its diversity. At the bottom end, it’s dominated by the huge carving and painting industry that has grown up around mass tourism, and although much of it is relentlessly mediocre, there is some decent art at the craft markets in Kingston and across the north coast, and in Kingston’s clutch of galleries. The establishment of the National Gallery in 1974 gave the art scene an important institutional infrastructure, and the regular exhibits of Jamaican art continue to encourage the development of young painters and sculptors, as witnessed by the proliferation of studios and galleries islandwide. You can also see the best of contemporary Jamaican art during the annual Kingston on the Edge arts festival.

East of Kingston

The main route east out of the city, Windward Road follows the coastline out of Kingston, scything through an industrial zone of oil tanks and a cement works that towers over the ruined defensive bastion of Fort Rock, now the Rockfort Mineral Baths. If the scenery looks familiar, you may be recalling the classic scene in the James Bond movie Dr No, in which Bond leaves Norman Manley Airport in a nifty red Sunbeam Alpine. A kilometre or so further on, turning right at the roundabout takes you onto the Palisadoes, a narrow sixteen-kilometre spit of land that leads out past the international airport to the ancient city of Port Royal, from where it’s a short hop to the tiny island of Lime Cay.

Jamaica on film

From Dr No to the Blue Lagoon, with Club Paradise and The Mighty Quinn in between, Hollywood has long used Jamaica as a tropical backdrop against which tales of international adventure and romance are set. Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll find a solid tradition of Jamaican film-making. The island’s best-known and best-loved movie is Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, which tells the story of Ivan (played by Jimmy Cliff) as he strives to make a better life for himself in Kingston. Pulling no punches in its gritty depiction of life in 1970s Jamaica, it offers a unique window into the life of the “sufferer”, and has rightly become a cult classic. Equally realistic but with a dollop of humour, Smile Orange (1974) features Ringo, a head waiter in a resort hotel, played by Carl Bradshaw, who uses all his guile and wit on tourists to overcome the harsh economic realities of contemporary Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, it still has plenty of relevance today, and is well worth seeking out despite the often poor audio quality.

The man who brought Bob Marley to the attention of the world, Jamaican impresario Chris Blackwell, also had a hand in classic Jamaican films. As well as acting as location scout on Dr No in 1962 and releasing the soundtrack of The Harder They Come on his Island label, he established Island Pictures in 1982 with the production of Countryman, a gorgeous tale woven around a scheme operated by corrupt government officials to discredit their opposition through the framing of two innocent American tourists as CIA gunrunners, and with a killer soundtrack to boot. Island were also behind The Lunatic, adapted by Jamaican author Anthony Winkler from his novel. An engaging, achingly funny mixture of burlesque humour, folklore and satirical comment on the sexual tourism prevalent in Jamaica, it stars Paul Campbell as the insane Aloysius. Campbell also starred in both Dancehall Queen (1997) and Third World Cop (1999), which together defined modern Jamaican cinema. The former tracks the fortunes of Marcia (played by Audrey Reid) as she struggles to support her family by way of being crowned dancehall queen; its underlying themes of incest and the exploitation of women generated plenty of controversy in Jamaica, and it still makes for a gripping watch. Third World Cop, meanwhile, takes the stock characters, action sequences and narrative cliché associated with the modern Hollywood action thriller and fleshes them out with distinctively Jamaican motivations and language, with Campbell playing the truly sinister baddie, Capone.

A Jamaican take on the classic gangster movie, Shottas (2002) mines the same vein of violence, albeit much more graphically, with Kymani Marley and DJ Spragga Benz playing two Kingston boys who take their life of crime from Jamaica to the US. Released in 2005, the sweet and delightful One Love represents a departure from the action genre; producer Sheelagh Farrell deliberately avoided focusing on the drugs-and-guns Jamaica, instead choosing to concentrate on the social tensions created when a pastor’s daughter falls controversially in love with a Rasta musician. Other recent films include Ghetta Life from veteran director (of Third World Cop and Dancehall Queen fame) Chris Browne, and Better Mus Come from emerging film-maker Storm Saulter, both of which revisit the theme of bridging the great divide of warring ghettos and political strife through self-empowerment and star-crossed romance.

Port Royal

PORT ROYAL, a short drive from downtown Kingston, once captured the spirit of early colonial adventure. For several decades in the late seventeenth century, Port Royal was a riotous town – the notorious haunt of cut-throats and buccaneers, and condemned by the church as the “the wickedest city in the world”. Little of that past remains, and it’s now a pleasant and hospitable little town, home to the base of the Jamaica Defence Force Coastguard and a small fishing and tourism industry. Most people who visit come for the seafood at famous Glorias, while others use the area as a launch pad for day-trips to nearby Lime Cay, a small sandy spot that offers lovely swimming and snorkelling.

Brief history

In 1655, when the English sailed into what is now Kingston harbour, they passed a cay known as “cayo de carena”, as it was where the Spanish careened their vessels to clean and caulk them. Having captured Spanish Town, the invaders set about fortifying this point, eventually building five separate forts to defend the inner harbour (the world’s seventh largest) and the town, soon to be called Port Royal, that grew up within. Over the next fifteen years, Port Royal grew through trade and was enriched by the booty of the buccaneers armed with royal commissions. It was recognized that its location at the entrance to the harbour of what became Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston, needed to be strengthened, and several fortifications were built in the tumultuous period between 1655 and 1692, the year of the catastrophic earthquake, which swallowed two-thirds of the landmass. Port Royal never recovered its mercantile prominence, although it remained the western Caribbean headquarters of the Royal Navy for two centuries.

Lime Cay and around

Just fifteen minutes from Port Royal, Lime Cay is a tiny uninhabited island with white sand, blue water and easy snorkelling. It was here that Ivanhoe (“Rhygin”) Martin – the cop-killing gangster and folk hero immortalized in the classic Jamaican movie The Harder They Come – met his demise in 1948. Though you’ll often find the beach deserted on weekdays (bring your own refreshments), it’s a very different story at the weekends, when hordes of Kingstonians descend to display their latest designer swimwear and relax with friends, and music blares from the stalls selling cooked meals and cold beers.

Pirates and buccaneers

To assist with the defence of their new Caribbean colonies, English, French and Dutch governors turned to the buccaneers, who were more than willing to plunder Spain’s towns in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The earliest buccaneers were a ragged assortment of deserters, fugitives and even runaway slaves who banded together on the island of Tortuga on the Atlantic coast of present-day Haiti. They lived by hunting wild pigs and cattle (brought to the island by European settlers), smoking their meat on a wooden frame over a pit known as a boucan (hence the name boucaniers). When the game became scarce they took to the open sea to prey on shipping, especially Spanish.

As their numbers and their skills increased, the buccaneers became a serious fighting force under resourceful leaders like Henry Morgan, who had arrived with the English army. Morgan’s successful sack of the city of Panama with three thousand men in 1671 coincided with the conclusion of a peace treaty between England and Spain. After a brief incarceration in the Tower of London to appease the Spanish, Morgan returned to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor with a mandate to eradicate what was now deemed piracy.

Reminders of the era of piracy at Port Royal include Gallows Point at the end of the promontory and, offshore, Rackham’s Cay where “Calico JackRackham, after being executed, was squeezed into a cage and hung in the air as a warning to others. His two accomplices, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, escaped punishment by declaring themselves pregnant.

Eating

After the sun goes down and the heat lifts, the Kingston area is hard to beat for eating. Particularly uptown – which is where you’ll want to be in the evenings – you’ll find a wider choice of restaurants than anywhere else in Jamaica and an excellent standard of food. Most places offer variations on traditional Jamaican fare, from tiny jerk bars to exquisite local seafood establishments, but there’s also good Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as a good spread of vegetarian restaurants.

Exploring Kingston

Kingston’s main sights are divided between the area known as “downtown”, which stretches north from the waterfront to the busy traffic junction of Cross Roads, and “uptown”, spreading up into the ritzy suburbs of Jack’s Hill and Cherry Gardens at the base of the mountains with the division lying roughly at Half Way Tree. It’ll take you a couple of days to check out the main sights downtown, and about the same amount of time to catch those uptown. Downtown is the city’s industrial centre, its factories and all-important port providing most of the city’s blue-collar employment; the law firms, stock exchange and the Bank of Jamaica are also prominent features. Uptown is different, and you may be surprised at how attractive and easy-going it feels, as suited businessmen and office workers go about their daily routines. Most of Kingston’s hotels, restaurants, clubs and shopping centres are here, and it’s where you’ll spend most of your time.

Finding your way around Kingston is pretty straightforward. Downtown uses a grid system, while uptown is defined by a handful of major roads. You’ll quickly get used to the main landmarks, and as a reliable fallback, the mountains to the northeast and the high-rises of New Kingston serve as good compass references should you lose your way, while locals are invariably helpful with directions.

Portmore and the Hellshire Hills

Southwest of Kingston, off Marcus Garvey Drive, a causeway connects the city to the bland but booming dormitory town of PORTMORE. Home to an estimated 200,000 people (and built to accommodate far fewer, as the recent strain on the sewerage system illustrates), Portmore itself has nothing much of interest save its racecourse and a few shopping malls. But Port Henderson, a brief detour away, has a handful of colonial-era relics and fine views across Kingston harbour. Below Portmore, the road cuts across the eastern fringe of the Hellshire Hills – a vast and scrubby limestone expanse – and down to Hellshire’s white-sand beaches.

Caymanas Park

In its heyday Caymanas Park Racetrack was one of the best racetracks in the Caribbean, with its gorgeous backdrop of the Blue Mountains and Kingston shimmering across the harbour. Now under the ownership of the government, the course and facilities are in decline, showing years of wear and tear without any real indication or inclination from the government of future improvement. Still, it has the potential to be a great day out and shouldn’t be overlooked, if only for the commentary and cursing from racegoers making for a colourful scene, though it’s best visited with a tour guide. You can sit either in the air-conditioned North Stand or, for a lot less, in the Grand Stand or outdoor bleachers, a more raucous affair with plenty of catcalls and shrieks of encouragement from the punters. Race meetings are held most Wednesdays and Saturdays (call ahead to check).

The Hellshire Hills

Covered in low, dense scrub and towering cacti, the arid Hellshire Hills extend for around 160 square kilometres west of Kingston. From Port Henderson, the signposted road to the Hellshire beaches runs under the flanks of the Hellshire Hills, passing a huge scar in the mountainside gouged out to provide marl for the construction of Portmore’s homes. Just before the quarry stands an abandoned high-rise building, formerly the Forum Hotel, built by the government in an unsuccessful attempt to entice tourists to the area. Past here, the road hits the coast again beside the Great Salt Pond. An old Taino fishing spot, the pond is a site of ecological significance that continues to be polluted by excesses from Portmore’s woefully inadequate sewerage system.

Fort Clarence beach

Owned by the Urban Development Company (UDC), Fort Clarence beach is often used as a venue for dancehall stageshows and pay parties, but it’s also the preferred choice for Kingstonians seeking a less harassing, slightly more upscale venue to have a beach day (rather than Hellshire Beach). It’s a decent place for a swim, with clean changing rooms and toilets and a bar/restaurant where you can order up delicious fried fish. Busy particularly on the weekends and especially (almost to the point of avoiding) on public holidays. Lifeguards are on duty during opening hours.

Hellshire Beach

Much more atmospheric than its just-across-the-reef counterpart, Hellshire beach has been a day-trip destination for Kingstonians since as far back as anyone can remember. With its maze of zinc shacks, salty fishermen, hustlers, higglers, herds of roaming goats and piping hot white sand, guests come here as much for the sights, sounds and sea as they do for the famous Hellshire fried fish, best eaten with festival and vinegary home-made escovitch sauce, which is utterly delicious. Bring towels to spread on the beach or get there early enough to nab one of the wooden loungers set up under the shady eaves of the area’s multiple fish joints – delightfully ramshackle and wholeheartedly Jamaican affairs which compete to sell the freshest fish, lobster and festival. Hellshire is buzzing at the weekends, with sound systems (particularly on a Sunday) and a party atmosphere. Also present at the weekends are watersports operators touting jet skis and snorkelling equipment, while horses (wearing fetching eye-gear to protect against flying sand grains) parade up and down giving children rides. If parking, be aware of hustlers offering to “watch your car” – in itself not a bad idea although you should never leave any valuables in sight – with the unspoken understanding that when you leave you’ll provide a small tip (at your discretion) for the service.

Safety and harassment

The pestering of tourists, irritatingly widespread on the north coast, is refreshingly uncommon in Kingston. Nevertheless, Kingston’s crime statistics are undeniably ugly and, as with any big city, there are some places that you should steer clear of. There is serious poverty in the eastern and western residential areas of downtown Kingston – these ghettos are not places for casual sightseeing and, with the exception of visiting the Trench Town Culture Yard for example, there is no reason to venture into them. If you are unlucky enough to be the victim of an attempted robbery, do not, under any circumstances, resist your assailant – hand over whatever they’re asking for, and get away as quickly as possible.

The more central part of downtown, covered in this guide, has its share of impoverished enclaves, and violence occasionally spills over from the surrounding ghettos to the core commercial streets described in this book, but if you use your common sense and don’t flash cash, jewellery or fancy cameras, you’re unlikely to have any problems during the day. However, once the area’s office workers have departed – around 5.30pm – there is little reason to linger.

During the day, the uptown area feels fine, particularly once you’re familiar with the main roads. At night, you’re best off getting a taxi if you’re travelling any distance. If you’re driving late at night, be aware that some local drivers may not stop at traffic lights to prevent potential robberies; whether or not you choose to follow suit, it’s wise to slow down and look each way at junctions even when you have a green light.

Shopping

As you’d expect, reggae fans are in shopping heaven in Kingston with downtown’s Orange Street having some of the last remaining record shops and pressing plants on the island. Art and crafts also make great souvenirs, with more authentic pieces available here than on the north coast.

Spanish Town

Spanish Town, which was called St Jago de la Vega when it was founded by the Spanish in 1534, remained the island’s capital under the English until 1872. It sits nineteen kilometres west of Kingston and these days contains only vestigial traces of its former glory. The town itself lies west of the Rio Cobre, with Burke Road, the main highway from Kingston, running across its southern end, fifteen minutes’ walk from the central square. Once here, the main sights can easily be explored on foot, as the city is still laid out on its original neat grid system. Although it has its volatile hotspots, and attracts few tourists, it’s still worth a half-day visit, preferably however with a tour guide.

When leaving Spanish Town, it’s possible to pass the old Iron Bridge that spans the Rio Cobre on the eastern end of town, just up the road from the Prison Oval on Burke Road. No longer in use for vehicular traffic, the bridge was cast in England by British engineer Thomas Wilson at a cost of £4,000 and erected after the prefabricated parts were shipped to Jamaica in 1802. At 25 metres long and 4.5 metres wide, standing on a cut stone abutment, it was the first of its kind in the western hemipshere and now, because of its state of disrepair is on the UNESCO endangered monuments list.

Street dances

Held on street corners, in town squares, local rum shops or empty car parks across the island, street dances make up an important part of modern Jamaican culture. Drive anywhere across the island and you are bound to see a brightly decorated sign tacked to a lamp-post or hear a local “town crier” (a car with massive speakers attached to its roof) blaring news of a neighbourhood street dance. Raw, earthy and intensely atmospheric, these (typically free) dances attract huge crowds who dress to impress and come to hear a local sound system spin reggae, dancehall, oldies and other popular hits. In Kingston these street dances are immensely popular with dancehall and reggae aficionados who come to hear the island’s best selectors as well as rub shoulders with the big names in the dancehall fraternity – from dancers who come to “bring out” their latest move to Jamaica’s best-known DJs, who might take to the mic for an impromptu performance.

Your security at a street dance is pretty much guaranteed – anyone foolish enough to ruin everyone’s fun by starting trouble or attempting a robbery will inevitably be swiftly dealt with by irate locals. Nonetheless, it’s obviously sensible to keep your wits about you, leave your valuables at home and, if possible, go with a local escort. Similarly, avoid street dances if there’s been recent trouble in any of the areas – just ask around.

Parties come and go, and every town and village in every parish have their own events (both weekly and occasional) but at the time of writing, the main jams in Kingston were: Early Monday at Savannah Plaza (Constant Spring Road); Cadillac Saturday at Limelight (Half Way Tree); Dubwise on Wednesday (no fixed location, check facebook.com/dubwisejamaica); and Old Hits Sunday (Rae Town). Weddy Wednesdays, staged at Stone Love’s headquarters on Burlington Avenue, is the only regular uptown street dance; the action doesn’t start until the small hours of Wednesday morning, though, and there’s not much point turning up before 1am.

Theatre and dance

Next to nightlife, theatre is Kingston’s strongest cultural suit. The performance scene is limited but buoyant, with a small core of first-rate writers, directors and actors – including Oliver Samuels and David Heron – producing work of a high standard. Most of the plays are sprinkled with Jamaican patois, but you’ll still get the gist. Comedies (particularly sexual romps and political satire) are popular, and the normally excellent annual pantomime – a musical with a message, totally different from the English variety – is a major event, running from December to April at the Little Theatre. For details of performances, check the Gleaner or Observer newspapers, particularly the Friday entertainment sections. Many of these venues also stage dance performances featuring the acclaimed National Dance Theatre Company or L’Acadco; check the press to see what’s on.

Trench Town

Eulogized in Marley and the Wailers’ Trench Town Rock, No Woman, No Cry and Natty Dread, Trench Town – one of the government social housing communities of West Kingston – has earned the title of the birthplace of popular Jamaican urban culture. This was the first Kingston home of Bob Marley, who earned his nickname – the “Tuff Gong” – on the community’s football fields after his mother relocated to the capital when he was a small boy and moved into a government-built house at 19 Second Street. In Trench Town Bob Marley found a community rich in music, religion, nationalism and sports. Though the area’s “government yards”, built in the colonial 1940s, were conceived as part of a planned community and were seen as desirable places to live when Mother Booker (Marley’s mum) moved there in 1956, the political violence of Jamaica in the 1970s soon took its toll. Trench Town today is as infamous for garrison politics and gang feuds as it is for having spawned some of the biggest names in the rock steady and reggae pantheon, including the Wailers, Joe Higgs, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, Ernie Ranglin, Dean Fraser and the Abyssinians. Also from here are numerous Jamaican notables, from Labour leader and Garveyite St William Grant to the late Rastafarian elder Mortimer Planno, and famous sports personalities such as cricketer Collie Smith and footballer Carl Brown. Trench Town is also home to two top Premier Club League football teams, Boys Town and Arnette Gardens.

Though Trench Town remains one of Kingston’s poorest areas, the picture isn’t entirely bleak. Over recent decades, enterprising members of this tight-knit community have clubbed together to find ways in which to regenerate their area using their heritage and cultural status for economic development. The first initiative was the establishment, in 1993, of the Trench Town Reading Centre on First Street, a library and resource centre with a mission to arm local people with information rather than weapons. By 1996, the aim had widened, and the Trench Town Development Association was formed to address the pressing issues of sanitation, security, housing, health and employment.

While your safety is assured in and around the Culture Yard (there’s a community-based vested interest in ensuring the success of the project, after all), wider Trench Town itself remains a volatile place.

Kingston’s ghettos

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.

Trench Town Culture Yard

The Trench Town Culture Yard (TTCY) is set in the government yard where Bob Marley sought refuge after returning from living in the US, and where he was taught to play the guitar by his mentor, community elder Vincent “Tarta” Ford, who himself wrote No Woman, No Cry here. Shaded from the street by a lush canopy of mango-tree leaves, it’s also where Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob formed the Wailers and wrote the Catch a Fire LP. The museum is a work in progress; its galleries have greatly improved, but it’s still awaiting funding grants to complete the museum installations and minor infrastructure. Even so, the overall restoration of the buildings has been successful, the experience and presentation commendable, and it was declared a National Heritage Site by the Government of Jamaica in 2007. It’s also possible to stay here.

The collection

The tour of the museum’s collection begins in one of the property’s restored residential buildings. These well-designed buildings are oriented around the yard’s central open-air courtyard, where residents would have washed clothes, gardened and socialized; the rusting remains of Marley’s powder-blue VW van sit in a corner, while around the back is Jah Bobby’s original, colourful and rather odd statue of Marley with his preferred guitar and football, which formerly graced the front yard of the Hope Road museum. Sensitively refurbished and retaining many original features and fittings, from “Tarta” Ford’s graffitied bedroom walls to the single bed on which Bob and Rita slept, the rooms also hold one of Tarta’s and Marley’s first acoustic guitars and a selection of Adrian Boot’s beautiful photographs of the man himself taken during his time in the yard. Tours end at the Casbah Bar at the front of the property which, together with the shady veranda outside, provides a lovely space to kick back and reflect on the life and work of a man whose music and message has achieved such long-standing and universal appeal.

Tuff Gong Recording Studios

If you’re a Bob Marley devotee, you might want to head to Marcus Garvey Drive, a battered but wide thoroughfare lined with warehouses and factories. The state-of-the-art Tuff Gong Recording Studios, established by Bob Marley, is now one of Kingston’s premier recording studios, as well as one of its biggest CD pressing plants. It’s a commercial venture rather than a tourist sight, but you can tour the facility to see the self-same mixing board used on Wailers’ classics such as Stir It Up, Concrete Jungle and No Woman, No Cry. If the studios are in use, you may not get access to all areas – it’s up to whoever’s recording. While not wildly exciting, it’s a nice stop for Marley disciples, with a gift shop for that essential CD, LP or T-shirt.

Uptown

The phrase “uptown Kingston” is used as a catch-all for areas of the city north of Cross Roads, including the business and commercial centres of Half Way Tree and New Kingston as well as residential areas like Hope Pastures Mona and Beverly Hills.

The Bob Marley Museum

For reggae fans, the Bob Marley Museum is the whole point of a visit to Kingston and, even if you’re not a serious devotee, it’s well worth an hour of your time – though don’t expect a Disney-type theme-park ambience. Hidden from the street by a red-, gold- and green-painted wall and marked by fluttering Rasta banners, this beautiful colonial-era wooden building was Marley’s Kingston home from 1975 until his death from cancer in 1981, and was designated a National Heritage site in 2006. It’s been kept much as it looked when he lived here, and is a gentle monument to Jamaica’s greatest musical legend. The hour-long tour starts as soon as you pass through the gates (no photography, filming or taping is allowed inside the house), with the guide pointing out photographs of the singer and his family mounted on the walls, a battered jeep formerly owned by Marley, and Pierre Rouzier’s fine sculpture of the man himself. You’re then led around the back of the house to the room where Marley was almost assassinated during the 1976 election campaign. Blown-up newspaper reports from the time cover the walls, with space left for the bullet holes that riddle the brickwork. After the shooting, Marley left Jamaica for a two-year exile in Britain.

The house

Inside, the house is decorated with gold and platinum discs depicting sales of the albums Exodus (1977), Uprising (1980) and Legend (1984), as well as the covers of all of his LPs, a commemoration of Marley’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, posthumously presented in 2001, and his Order of Merit from the Jamaican government. Upstairs, there is a re-creation of Wail ‘n’ Soul, Marley’s tiny, shack-like Trench Town record shop, where he once hung out with band members Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, while the walls of another room are entirely covered with yellowing newspaper articles from home and abroad, which make fascinating reading. There’s also a chart of all the cities the Wailers played in worldwide – prominence is given to shows in Africa, particularly the independence celebrations in Zimbabwe in 1980, but the band clearly worked hard, notching up performances in places as far-flung as the Mediterranean party island of Ibiza. You can peek into Marley’s bedroom and kitchen, the latter complete with the blender in which he made his natural juices.

The tour ends behind the house in the air-conditioned movie theatre that once housed Marley’s Tuff Gong recording studio. There’s moving footage of the “One Love” concert held during the bloody election year of 1980, at which Marley brought together rival party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, and interviews with the great man cut together with appropriate music videos – the return to Africa and Exodus, celebration of “herb” and Easy Skanking.

The National Stadium

The forty-thousand-capacity National Stadium was built to coincide with Jamaica’s independence celebrations in 1962; the first event here was the raising of the new nation’s black, green and gold flag, and the 1966 Commonwealth Games were held here. Known affectionately to local sports fans as “The Office”, the stadium hosts most of Jamaica’s premier sporting events; the facilities for athletics, swimming, netball, basketball and cycling are first-rate, but the centrepiece is the refurbished football pitch and athletics track – home to the national football team, fondly known as the Reggae Boyz, and Jamaica’s track and field superstars – surrounded by towering aisles of bleachers and overlooked by arc lights. Just inside the railings by the car park is a statue of Jamaican athlete Herb McKinley coming off the starting blocks; at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, McKinley became the first man in the world to run in the 200-, 400- and 800-metre races.

Jamaica’s track and field success

Although historically famous for its contribution to West Indies cricket, Jamaica’s outstanding achievements in the area of track and field continue to propel the island nation into the limelight of the sporting world. Its record of achievement, remarkable for such a small country with limited resources, began in 1948 when the island, still a British colony, entered its first Olympics and has included the successes of medallists such as Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, Don Quarrie and Merlene Ottie. In more recent years, team Jamaica, spearheaded by the likes of Usain “Lightning” Bolt and team members Asafa Powell, Michael Frater, Nestor Carter, Shelly Ann Fraser, Melaine Walker and Veronica Campbell-Brown, have broken records and created history in both the Beijing (2008) and London (2012) Olympics.

Despite their base in Jamaica, it is rare to see Bolt and others in action on their home turf. A great way to see Jamaica’s rising stars, however, is to catch the annual Inter-Secondary Boys and Girls Championship, otherwise known as Champs (wtrackandfieldja.com). This four-day event (usually held the week before Easter) at the National Stadium sees the very best high-school athletes competing against each other; it is here that university coaches and sporting companies – such as Puma and Adidas – come in search of the sporting stars of the next generation.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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