‘A Sustainable Nassau?’ Working towards the possible

Ian Bethel-Bennett writes for the Nassau Guardian:  The results of months of planning and international cooperation between Austrian students and College of the Bahamas students, along with investment from the International Development Bank (IDB), the plans by the Sustainable Nassau Urban Lab were launched on Friday 29th July, 2016, at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. The press was present to cover this momentous event.

It seems to be a bold step forward for a tiny island that contains over seventy percent of the national population, where things have been woefully allowed to degenerate and fall into disuse, and where the new global-climate-change reality means that as citizens we need to adjust our lives in a very focused way in order to prevent certain submersion.  How does all this matter in the culture of art and the business of culture?

Sustainable Cities works to design pleasant and environmentally compatible city living and developments that adjust to the realities now facing the world. Can this plan redesign and adapt a city that is creeping steadily into segregated decay?  Can the plan break down the mental, spatial, economic, racial, ‘cultural’ differences that have historically entrenched Nassau?

Sustainable Nassau Presentation with the right Hon. Perry Christie. Image by Peter Ramsey

A regional context

In 1992, post-Hurricane Andrew while travelling in Latin America, I was shocked by seriously drawn lines of separation in many places. Two places that were most blatant were Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Mexico was alarming because of its poor infrastructure, massive police corruption and huge disparities between rich and poor, especially in the Cancun area. Cancun was busy, hot, disorganised and chaotic, but also very appealing with bursting folk life; roadside stalls, street vendors, and food for offer everywhere, though tourists were warned not to eat street food.

High walls and security guards marked the separation of resorts from locals, except if they worked there.  Buses connected the long distances between city and historical sites, but police often stopped, boarded and escorted all local men off the buses in the wee hours of the night.  Some men would return while others were ‘detained’.  Since then, disappearances have run high.

Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic immediately post-Andrew was even more chaotic than the Yucatan.  Non-functioning traffic lights, old and battered cars, a cacophony of horns, shouts, screams, calls for passengers, and roosters. It was madness on speed.  This was the opposite of anything Nassau could become! Electricity hovered between spikes and dips punctuated the brownness of in-between-ness.  Generators added to the noise and stink of the city where people were accustomed to scraping by to survive.

The music emanating from spaces hardly large enough to hold more than three people but overflowing with tens, where beer was frozen and prostitutes were common. Some intersections had four bars, each playing different music, some playing Bachata, some playing the meringue of Juan Luis Guerra and 4:40, or something else.

The chaos of no garbage collection, very little running water, challenged infrastructure, and poor drainage made Santo Domingo scary, but extremely appealing.  Tourists loved it.  Then the “all-inclusive” resorts invaded, and the atmosphere started to change.

So unlike Nassau!

The oldest Cathedral in the New World, the first this, the second that, the boastfulness of the Columbus Lighthouse that would be unveiled later, the Malecón!  All of this gave Santo Domingo panache, even if it was in decay and crime and violence were frighteningly high.

Nassau in the mix

Nassau had just started its descent into tourist destination made-in-China bric-a-brac and made in China Hey Mon 3-for-$10 T-shirts, replaced Lums restaurant and port ‘boutiques’ replaced Bahamian shops.

The markets were destroyed to civilise the city centre and make it more attractive to cruise-ship passengers, who opted not to leave the womb of protected comfort because of drug selling, prostitute pedalling and bothersome local behaviour.

These seemed absent when local life was on Bay Street.  The ‘Mall’ had opened and drawn business off of Bay Street.  The Sea Floor Aquarium had closed with a sign that said something like “due to circumstances beyond our control, we are no longer able to serve.” Coral Island took over but soon met its demise to an all-powerful all mighty all-inclusive mega world; the complexion of Nassau had changed.

By 2000, this transformation was all but complete.  The chaos of Santo Domingo and the Yucatan had moved into Nassau.  The distinction between local and resort life had arisen.  Walls had begun to climb heavenward; buildings were being left abandoned in favour of the “Mall.”  By then, the second mall had opened, and life moved into air-conditioned, clean, stress-free and private hands.

Bars, clubs, and restaurants disappear from Bay Street. This is what tourists wanted, the Ministry of Tourism sang.  Bahamian music began a slow decline with the openings of cruise ship lounges while in port, the refusal of ships to overnight and the shift to a lowest-common-denominator-style tourism.  The thriving, bustling, deeply racialised and historical space of struggle and ownership had been transformed into a cruise-ship port. Segregation had returned to Bay Street, very shortly after it had been officially barred in the 1950s/1960s.  This is no longer Jim-Crow-style legal segregation, but a new boutiqued globalised style.  All ports look the same.

Sustainable Nassau Meeting with Lester R. Cox, Dr. Nicola Virgill-Rolle, Director of Economic Development and Planning, Office of the Prime Minister, NAGB Director Amanda Coulson and COB Dean of the Arts, Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett. Image courtesy Dr. Nicole Virgill-Rolle.

Plans and Realities

Sustainable Nassau provides the opportunity to (Re)scape Bay Street and Nassau and make it a thriving and sustainable place where Bahamians can actively participate in daily life.  The plan is comprehensive and commendable; the teamwork between players admirable.  Nassau will be a place where energy consumption will be reduced through adapting to less reliance on fossil fuels and more on renewable energy.

This plan will address the serious structural problems currently visited on Nassau.  Nassau has become increasingly third world (as used by the self-declared First World) with its enormous disparities between local and resort development, between rich and poor, between urban and rural, crumbling infrastructure, and indicators of serious social disintegration and crime and violence. The plan has mechanisms to address all of these factors that currently make Nassau unsustainable.

The study builds on successes in other countries and cities but also adapts its focus for the uniqueness of small island communities and developing states. This densely-populated capital city faces massive privatisation of public space, which would require all players to be on the same page, the closing of coastal areas to local business, the focus of tourism in all-inclusive resorts, built around Marina Village-style culture where the local flavour is mostly absent and a bland but appealing space is created.

The community has been consulted, and there are only a few questions that stand out after the consultations, the presentation and the questions and answers:

How will we break down the mental and spiritual barrier between Over The Hill and downtown that was created through slavery and colonialism, where people were indoctrinated into roles and spaces?  This has been consolidated by an exodus of educated, resourceful persons from Cleveland Eneas’ Bain Town that has been ghettoised by current power players and where the criminal element apparently reside, how will this picture change?  The music of The Bahamas draws tourists; it is a part of the creative industry and a part of the people, much like in Santo Domingo, it expresses local colour and flavour, but when it is canned, what happens?

The art of graffiti is gaining universal appreciation; can we express this kind of creativity?  Where does that fit into a China-State-owned swath of land?  How do we harmonise these plans with the realities of a rapidly expanding penchant for privately owned ‘public’ land?  The Pointe is a high-soaring glass beacon to success and disenfranchisement.

The plan for Sustainable Nassau is incredible!  It works hand-in-glove with the National Development Plan, but how does this stand out from the graveyard of plans that have yet to be implemented?  To be sure, we enthusiastically back the adaptation of Sustainable Nassau and its various plans, but there are some serious matters that need very careful and controlled assistance and engagement.

When new residences are created, who qualifies for these and how?  How do we govern private sector development, especially when owned from offshore, when it is not sensitive to local needs? Can we rely on the good faith of the local and international private sector to do what is best for national development, outside of the state?  How do we create a balance between rent seeking and sustainability and affordable living conditions?  How does a plan ensure the survival of a culture that is challenged by environmental and capitalistic change?