Growing up in Kingston
The late, celebrated Jamaican writer, Vic Reid, wrote an article for a publication marking the Sesqui Centennial (150th) Anniversary of the Granting of a Charter to the City of Kingston published by the KSAC in November 1952.
With the consummate artistry for which he be became famous, Vic painted a picture of Kingston, honestly but lovingly in language that is lyrical and evocative and which I certainly could not improve.
So I would like to begin this talk by quoting liberally from Vic’s piece, painting as it were a backdrop against which I will tell you some of what it was like growing up in Kingston.
“A slow carving out from swamps and jungle produced this city for refuge from earthquake-stricken Port Royal 250 years ago”.
“To cope with the need of the early pirate settlers for quick access to open water, Port Royal had been chosen for their own town. But the earthquake shook up for their attention the fine town site which lay beyond the three miles of water to the mainland.
“They crossed the water and gambled for their lots and put up fences and ` established a town with an observation to precision that rude old Port Royal had never known. Out of this nucleus of a dozen streets and lanes, running east- west, north-south, grew the wider area which we now know as the Corporate Area. Out of it has evolved a character.
“To say it is not handsome is true. Its streets are too narrow, its population too much; its buildings too unpainted, its sidewalks too uneven; too many motorcars, strumpets, beggars and bars. It has too few parks, too dim street lamps, too few statues, too poor public transport, but she’s a lovable jade.
“Its heartbeat is in lower Church Street where some tough old shade trees still line the sidewalks outside the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation’s offices – the Board which runs the city.
“Its muscles form on Duke Street, the financial centre on King and Harbour Streets, the commercial centres.
“It is brawling. It breathes pure dockland along the waterfront. On Little Port Royal Street and on South Street, it is a rocketing surging place of whip-cracking draymen and bull-necked long shore-men boosting its imports up from the wharves to the Orange Street and Princess Street warehouses.
“The only tenderness I know in it is in the yellow buttercups growing between the cracks of the pavement and between the spokes of the rusty souvenir guns from the First World War. But it is warm and vital.
“And leave the elegance of the gay Myrtle Bank Hotel pier, the handsome offices at the Hanover Street pier, Webster’s line block at Breezy Castle, the white swimming pools at Bournemouth, and walk with me through the 19th century charm of Lissant Road and Marescaux Road; visit the quiet churchyards with ivey on the walls and old trees drooping to older tombs; hear the click of ball on bat on the wide green playing fields; rise to the enduring faith of those at labour in the homes for waifs and strays, view the booming promise which is stacked in the sturdy, often handsome, pikes of new factories and offices, in the lovely villas growing so fast that what today is bush, tomorrow is a city’s symphony of ringing hammers and grinding saws – do these and you meet the city’s song.
“Nobody who loves it can help loving it, even if its only tenderness lies in buttercups shooting up about the rusty old guns. It is warm and vital.”
I remember Kingston in Vic’s words as warm and vital, a vastly different place to today’s Kingston – but then you must remember that those of us born before 1930 were a vastly different people.
The difference with those of us born before 1930 is that we were born before television, penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, plastic contact lenses, the pill and fax.
We came before radar, credit cards, ball-point pens, pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, disposable diapers, air conditioning, and before man walked on the moon.
We got married first and then lived together. In our time, Designer Jeans were scheming girls named “Jean”, and having a meaningful relationship meant that you got along with your cousins. We never heard of FM radio, tape decks, electric typewriters, word processing, yogurt or guys wearing earrings and long hair.
Time-sharing meant togetherness, not computers, or condominiums, and a chip was a piece of wood. Hardware and software weren’t even words. In 1940 “made in Japan” meant junk and the term “making out” referred to how you did on your examinations. Frozen orange juice and instant coffee were not yet heard of.
There were stores where you bought things at 5 cents and 10 cents, or in Jamaica at threepence and sixpence. An ice cream cone was threepence, and for twopence, an adult could ride a tram car from the bottom of King Street to either Rockfort or Cross Roads, and for a further twopence, you could go from Cross Roads to either Constant Spring or Hope Gardens, and children rode for half fare. For a threepence, you could buy a soft drink or enough stamps to mail one letter and two postcards to anywhere in Jamaica, which when mailed at the Central Post Office at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, was delivered by 3 o’clock the following afternoon or the next day, to almost anywhere in Jamaica.
You could buy a new Ford car for two hundred pounds, but who could afford one, and that was a pity too, because gasoline was one shilling a gallon.
In those days, cigarette smoking was fashionable, grass was mowed, coke was a cold drink and pot was something you cooked in. Rock music was your Grandma’s lullaby, and Aids were helpers in a hospital. We made do with what we had then, and we were the last generation that was so dumb to think that you needed a husband to have a baby.
Call us naive, call us unsophisticated – whatever- but we grew up and worked and prospered in these streets, in this town, in this environment without so many of the facilities and amenities that are taken for granted today – and we learnt to love this city because it was warm and vital and because this is where we played and laughed and cried and hoped and dreamt and fashioned our lives.
Although my Father’s early business life included sojourns in Chapleton and Falmouth and even a short stint in Manchester, England, I have no remembrance of this period of our family’s life.
My first memory is of Marine Gardens in Kingston where we lived. This I remember as a lovely residential area situated on Harbour Street, between Hanover Street and the Myrtle Bank Hotel and bounded on the south by the sea. It was completely enclosed with one entrance on Harbour Street, and one other on Hanover Street. As I reflect, there must have been twenty homes there, and we knew most of the people in that garden community. I was probably only about four or five years old.
Every Saturday morning, we would accompany my Father to Synagogue. We went by buggy and horse driven by a special coachman called Rufus who had been the coachman for Barrister Stern, an eminent Jamaican jurist who was Jewish. Rufus used to repeat Hebrew prayers for my Father on the way, much to our delight.
I also remember an Indian gentleman who had a jewelry store on the left side of the Harbour Street entrance called Mr. Samuel. He used to make jewelry and other items from turtle shells and we would help him to polish them.
He taught us to swim at Marine Gardens, and we spent may happy hours with him. We occupied the house on the sea, on the Hanover Street side, and on the other side of the street was Mr. Lindo’s lumber wharf.
We used to sneak over there to play and run up and down the lumber. It was a very dangerous exercise, but like most children we were not aware of this and enjoyed our games in that yard immensely. This wharf was later to become Grace Kennedy and Co., Hanover Street Wharf.
We later moved from Marine Gardens to Victoria Avenue, at that time a very nice residential area between Palace Amusement Company and Elliston Road. South Camp Road abuts one end and Elleston Road the other.
I remember this as a beautiful community, although not quiet and intimate as Marine Gardens.
We rented a house immediately opposite to Brenda Smythe and her sister who both taught music and were noted educators.
Our house was beside Mr. Martinez who had the most fashionable and well-kept barber shops called “El Cuban Elegante”.
I also remember the first school I went to. It was Miss Morin on Church Street, below the parade. I was very small then.
After we moved to Victoria Avenue, I went first to Blake Prep School run by Mrs. Adele Murray on Blake Road, and then when the Blake Road premises became too small, she moved the school to 13 South Camp Road, a much larger building, and we continued to attend school there.
Those were very happy days. She had an excellent teaching staff, was quite a disciplinarian and used her strap regularly because we were a turbulent lot at around the ages of eight and nine. She was very fond of our family and I remember a time when my mother became ill and had to go to hospital. My bothers, Moses, Mayer and myself were boarded with Mrs. Murray for about two and a half months during that illness. We remember her with considerable affection, love and gratitude and the foundation of our education was due to her loving care and attention. She was a very staunch Catholic, but had a considerable admiration for the numbers of Jewish students that attended her school, for there was a Jewish background in her family; her maiden name was Morais, which as you probably know is a Jewish name, and in fact my grandmother’s sister was married to Rabbi Nathaniel Morais of Kingston.
It appears as if I might have been reasonably bright at school for at around the age of eight and a half, a new secondary school had been recently established, and it was recommended that I should be sent there. This was a school called Kingston College which was started by the Anglican Church here and the first headmaster was Reverend Percival Gibson. The school started in a very large building on East Street between North Street and Lockett Avenue, just above the present site of the Gleaner Company. It was a small school then and I wasn’t there for very long, just about two terms, for there was no form for me, and Reverend Gibson recommended that I wasn’t ready for secondary school so I went back to Mrs. Murray.
When I was at K.C. I remember very well some of the boys. The late distinguished public servant, Allan Morais was one. So was engineer and patron of the arts, A.D. Scott and Percy Pixley, who was a brother of Frank Pixley. Chester Burgess, who still stimulates us intellectually with his articles in the Gleaner, was also a senior boy at that time as was the late Bunny Evans. The Barrister, the late Bob Verity who did such distinguished work at the Institute of Jamaica for many years and Sonny (Gresford) Jones.
The second master was Mr. Clough, and Mr. Douglas Forrest was then the junior master at that time. Though I was a misfit without a class at Kingston College, I remember being a bit of a mascot and enjoying my sojourn there. There was no playing field at Kingston College when it was on East Street, and they had the right to play at Cloverly Park to which they ultimately moved and set up the high school on the North Street site, which they still occupy as one of their campuses.
When it was time for us to leave Mrs. Murray’s, we were sent to Munro College – but I only spent about four terms there. Munro was a whole new experience – a boarding school up in the mountains with compulsory games and a strict, disciplined regime. I will not spend much time on my experiences there as this is outside the scope of this talk – except to say that I can still remember having to bathe in the morning in baths which had been set the night before in the cold mountain air that water was freezing. Even as I talk, I have a very vivid recall of the shock to my system as the cold water touched my skin. I dare say, no child today would endure this kind of experience and there would be stories in the media suggesting that the children at Munro were being subjected to inhumane conditions.
In those days, we believed that experiences like those build character – and I confess I believe this.
After my short stint at Munro College, my brothers and I were sent to Jamaica College. This was the time when Pros Cowper was Headmaster, but our stay was cut short because of the difficulties which beset my father in business.
The difficulties began with a rupture in the business partnership of Matalon, Levy & Company, of which my Father was a partner. My Father made the decision to dissolve that partnership and go to Montego Bay to purchase the retail business of Mr. Suarez. As it turned out, it was a disastrous decision, as in 1933, Montego Bay was hit by two hurricanes in quick succession a few months apart.
The extent of the loss that my Father suffered from the hurricane and flood damage had a terrible economic effect on the business. He was unable to negotiate a settlement with his creditors after many months and eventually went bankrupt, and, as a result, the family found itself in a fairly destitute state.
Our lives changed drastically – from a fairly comfortable life style, we moved to a small house in Rae Town and our life became a continuous struggle with the proverbial “wolf at the door”.
My Father had to begin all over again – a few of his old friends credited him with a number of ladies’ dress lengths which he put in a grip and went from door-to-door selling them on credit to collect a few shillings a week.
My older sister, having left school, got a secretarial job at Geddes Grant. My older brother Zacci had begun to work as a salesman at Cecil de Cordova & Company. I think Pauline’s salary at the time was forty shillings per week and Zacci’s was twenty-five shillings. Moses, Mayer and I went back to Jamaica College for the last term of the year, but as our school fees had not been paid, we were sent home.
On hearing of this, two outstanding women educators in Jamaica refused to allow us to remain out of school. Brenda Smythe took Moses and Adele Murray took Mayer and coached them to sit for the scholarships at Wolmers and Jamaica College. In those days, there was no free secondary education and for boys between the ages of nine and thirteen, there were just about 10 scholarships in secondary education awarded each year for the whole island. Mayer passed a scholarship to J.C as a result of Adele Murray’s tuition, and Moses passed a scholarship the following year, also to J.C., as a result of Brenda Smythe’s kindness, both of them given without requesting payment or reward.
I was too old to sit for a scholarship, as I was past thirteen, and after remaining home for a few weeks, I was intelligent enough to recognize that there was no way we could find school fees of the five pounds a term that was required by J.C then.
So without my Father’s knowledge, I went on to King Street and got myself a job at Justin McCarthy as a messenger or office boy for a princely sum of eight shillings a week and there my childhood ended. Deprived of a complete secondary education, I entered the field of adult labour on my fourteenth birthday.
And there at Justin McCarthy began the practical education which was to serve me so well for the rest of my life.
I was employed and placed under the guidance, very fortunately, of the manager himself a kindly little man by the name of Isador Romero. I can see him now with gray hair and a little gray beard. He used to wear white flour bag suits and old fashioned cut jackets which came midway almost down to his knees. He took a particular interest in me because he said that he admired the Jewish intellect, and it was extremely fortunate for me that I passed his way.
I well remember my first two weeks after Christmas at Justin McCarthy. I was in a terrible state of depression. I couldn’t figure out what was ultimately going to become of me, and as we sat at the back of the store where I worked with him one morning, I saw him hurry forward to the front of the store where he greeted another gentleman, a bit taller than him but more robust who was impeccably groomed in a gray three- piece suit and felt hat. They chatted warmly for some time, shook hands and parted, and as Mr. Romero turned to return to the back of the store, he saw that I had witnessed the encounter. He came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder. I was only about his height then and he said to me: “Matalon, you see that gentleman I just spoke to? I knew him when he was a little boy like you, he worked at David Henderson & Company as a messenger for five shillings a week. Today his is one of the most influential men in Jamaica. He is the Secretary of The Imperial Association and the Editor of the Daily Gleaner.”
He had of course been speaking to Mr. H. G. DeLisser, the renowned Jamaican journalist and author, and editor of the Daily Gleaner. I remember well the miraculous lifting of that feeling of gloom almost immediately. Recognizing my predicament, this kind man had taken the trouble, with this simple gesture, to offer me that ray of hope that I so desperately needed at that moment, and I have never forgotten him for this.
We used to sit together and I used to calculate with him the elements of costing. He did all the costing and pricing of merchandise. We worked together and priced and costed and marked-up etc. and, he used to pose little problems to me, seeking an answer, and frequently I gave the wrong answer. He was very, very strong on the question of decision making. To him it was the most important aspect of your business. If you started off wrong, nothing else could go completely right, and decision making to him was essential.
One morning, I gave him obviously the wrong answer. I was only a lad then. He said to me; “That’s a Hirkam decision.” I assumed I was expected to know what a Hirkam decision was, and I was too embarrassed to ask, so I let it pass. It happened a second time and it happened a third time, but the fourth time I decided, inquisitive as I always have been, I had to find out what a Hirkam decision was. I asked him and he told me the following story.
Hirkam and Sollas were two gentlemen who conducted a retail dry goods business in the city of Kingston, somewhere between King Street and Duke Street, along Harbour Street. I can’t remember whether it was Bon Marche or Temple of Fashion or the Bee Hive. It really doesn’t matter. What was interesting was that it was a most unusual partnership. Mr. Hirkam was a man well on in age who had a very beautiful young wife, and David Sollas was a handsome, debonair, young, unmarried man, and everybody, that is, everybody except Mr. Hirkam, knew that Mr. Sollas was sweet on Mrs. Hirkam and Mrs. Hirkam was sweet on Mr. Sollas.
At that time, some ladies operated a very fashionable restaurant in Kingston. I think it was the Oleanders. It was a fashionable lunch restaurant to the leading businessmen of the managers, shipping companies and leading merchants, city, bank executives and each working day Mr. Hirkam took lunch there while Mrs. Hirkam and Sollas managed the store. Lunch at that time was a very sumptuous affair. You see in those days you didn’t have a public sector, you only had a civil service, and taxes were low and liquor was cheap, so it was champagne before lunch, fine wines for lunch, and the old Madeira and Cognac after lunch. A gentleman would attend around twelve o’clock and probably would not get back to the office before two, two thirty. Mr. Hirkam had a couch in the office and on returning from lunch; he would take off his coat, vest and hat and take snooze on the couch. One day at lunch, he is telling his friend an embarrassing experience he had on Friday. “I want to tell you it was most embarrassing.” Hirkam said, “I had to deal promptly with the problem.” “What happened?” asked his friend. “Well”, said Mr. Hirkam, I got back to the office, took off my hat and coat and was about to lie down when there was a knock on the door. In comes a storeman who has worked with me for years, by the name of Joseph. “Yes Joseph what’s wrong?” Mr. Hirkam, sir, he said, “You know I wouldn’t do anything to harm you.” I said, “Of course man, what wrong?” He said, “You know, Mr. Hirkam , anything I tell you is for your own good.” I said, “Yes man, what’s wrong?” He said, “Well Mr. Hirkam sir you wouldn’t like to see what goes on that couch between Mrs. Hirkam and Mr. Sollas when you are at lunch.” I could never tolerate such insubordination,” he told his friend. “So I ordered him out of my office, reprimanding him severely. However, I decided that prevention is better than cure, and if there was anything wrong, I would put a stop to it”. His friend said, “Yes, what did you do?” To which Hiram replied, “I have sold the couch.” I will never forget that story.
Anyhow, I must have been doing something right, for after Christmas I was employed full time and my salary was raised to the princely sum of fifteen shillings a week. After contributing at home, which we all had to do, I saved a shilling a week. When I had collected twenty shillings, I paid my first year’s schooling to Kingston Technical School, where I did commercial courses at night. And again I was fortunate enough to come under the guidance of two of Jamaica’s very dedicated and outstanding educators. Miss Amy Bailey and Teacher Lloyd, who was a brother of Dr. Ivan and Mr. Jimmy Lloyd. One taught commercial correspondence, etc., and the other accounting.
My daily routine at that time was instructive. We opened at 7.30 in the morning, so everybody was at the store by twenty minutes past seven. No-one would think of coming late to work then! We worked until 6.00 in the afternoon every weekday and 8 o’clock on Saturday nights, so I would get home by about 6.15, wash, have some supper, do homework, get to school by 8.00 and carry on with courses until 10.30 in the evening and we did that four nights per week.
There was little leisure time and no time to feel sorry for myself and the hard knocks that life had dealt us. Rather I had a very, very happy time at Justin McCarthy. I was liked and I was helped considerably, and I remained there for two and a half years.
My education in the school of life continued when my Father, with the help of dear friends was able to set himself up once again in a wholesale dry goods business partnership.
I was invited to join him at a salary of 25 shillings a week. I don’t mind telling you I had visions of grandeur before going in, after all I was the boss’ son and I was going to get a desk and all the accoutrements that go with it, but I was to receive a rude awakening on the first day.
We arrived at the store, the shutters went up; then he had a small staff, just a bookkeeper who he had brought from the country with him years before and a storeman who he had trained for many hears by the name of Freddy. He got into the office, took off his hat and jacket. He always wore a hat. He couldn’t understand how any self respecting gentleman could go on the street without a hat. He summoned the storeman, he said: “Freddy, Aaron is joining us this morning. I want you to take him and teach him all the things we do here. Start with the sweeping of the store.” (Because then there was a special way that you swept. You didn’t sweep out into the street as people do today. You swept from the front to the back, collected the refuse in the back and a handcart man took it out once a day. Nobody put garbage in the front. We had pride then.) “After that,” my Father continued, “show him how we dust and pack the shelves and how we make bales and then we will go on to the billing and delivery system”.
I was fit to be tied. Imagine my own Father taking a respectable fellow like me to be taught by the storeman. I was accustomed to tutorship by the manager himself. I sulked for the whole day, and couldn’t wait to get home to my court of appeal. I approached Mother as I got in. She looked at me and said “Only one day and you have already quarreled with your Father?” I commenced to tell her of my predicament. She said, “I don’t want to hear it. I am sure he is right.”
Finding no comfort at that source, I decided to confront him on the verandah. He sat there every afternoon with his cigar and his pot of Turkish coffee and read the Gleaner from cover to cover. To him, everything in the Gleaner was absolutely accurate.
After a while he looked at me, sitting where I could be easily seen. “But you look vexed. Who has troubled you?” “How you mean who has troubled me?” I replied. “You mean to tell me you took me down to the store today, the first day and embarrassed me. You gave me a storeman to direct me how to do a storeman’s job such as sweeping the floor etc.” He folded his paper, looked at me sternly and said, “My son, two things I want to tell you, and never forget them. First, there is not one of those jobs that you are going to learn that is degrading. Every one is performed by a human being. Secondly, you will never be able to employ people gainfully unless you can instruct them properly in the duties that you want them to perform and you can’t do that unless you can perform them yourself. Of course I was deflated. In one fell swoop, I got the two messages in a manner that I would never forget – the dignity of work and the importance of instruction and training.
He was a very proper man. He was one of the most decent men I have ever known. His instruction for me was certainly thorough. It was the practical foundation of my commercial experience, and an excellent foundation it was. I did all the processes and after a few months I completed the ordinary store work. Then I did bills of lading, letters of credit, bills of exchange, customs warrants, the whole lot.
Then six months later I was sent to the country as a salesman. I was the youngest dry goods traveling salesman in Jamaica at that time, and continued to travel the island until after the outbreak of the war. On my Father’s death in 1944, I became manager of Matalon & Company until I sold my interest in the business in 1949.
The next phase of my life saw the beginning of our current family business.
The war was obviously coming to an end and Mayer and Pauline, who had been with the army in Panama, returned home at the end of 1944. Moses, Eli and Zacci would also all be subject to active discharge from various war service and we had to give thought to some form of gainful employment for them when they returned to Jamaica.
It was not difficult for us to come together as a family. In considering what we would do, we decided that we should do something together as a family unit. We pooled our resources. They were very meagre at that time. Together it amounted to about 3,000 pounds sterling, all told. Mayer and I had a friend, Harry Everett, Manager of Royal Bank of Canada, and he liked our proposition and gave us a line of credit for 4,000 pounds sterling.
Commodity Service Company was the name we chose for our company because we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do and with a name like that you can do any form of business. We decided to concentrate on things that were not being done, or not being done properly and things that required a maximum of effort and a minimum of capital. We started off with Mayer in charge, Pauline and Marjorie were in the office and Jack, Pauline’s husband, was our drug salesman. At that time I was still managing Matalon & Company. On Moses’ return to Jamaica, he was engaged by a kind and generous friend, Bill Masterton, in a partnership of a small engineering works, machine shop and foundry on Luke Lane, formerly Surants Foundry. As the others came back of left school, they joined us. In 1949 when I sold my interest tin Matalon and Company I also joined Commodity Service Company.
It was easy for us to stay together, because we had come from a closely knit family so in our business dealings as we did in our family, the older took care of the younger. The weaker was taken care of by the stronger. Each contributed according to their ability and each was satisfied according to their needs. We never divided profits for many, many years. We pooled our resources, used what we needed for respectable living and plowed the surplus back in expansion.
For my part, it has been a most exciting and rewarding association. I have a debt of gratitude to them for the kindness and tolerance that the association has brought me. For, together we have dared to dream the impossible dream. Together, we have dared to reach for the unreachable star. We had much success and some failure. It has been a magnificent, exciting and spiritually rewarding engagement. I have given you the bare bones of what it was like for me and my family growing up in Kingston. One day maybe I will go into more detail. But more enduring than the physical realities are the memories of the spirit of the city at that time; the environment that nurtured us and gave the moral sustenance which shaped us as human beings.
Let me begin by using a phrase which I believe was first used by US President Bush but which is now widely used – Kingston was a kinder, gentler place by then, despite world wars, the world a was kinder, gentler place.
The pace of life was slower and there were few avenues of entertainment or other forms of distraction – so family life became the focus of our lives – our homes were not just the places where we alighted to eat and to sleep, but places where we interacted with our families and friends, where we created different forms of entertainment and where we learned the value of community – of caring and sharing with all with whom we came in contact.
As youngsters, our friends at school would come over to our house and we would play various games including marbles, football and cricket. We were excellent kite-makers and so we would spend many hours making and then flying our kites. We would also swim, fish and sail in Kingston Harbour without fear of contamination as they had not yet commenced pumping live sewage into the Harbour.
Later on we would attend garden parties and similar functions at places like Melbourne Park, where there were party games like ‘knock the doll off the wall’ which you would give to your girlfriend. We would eat and drink whatever was provided there for us then walked home about nine o’clock in the evening without fear of anyone interfering with us on the road.
On Christmas Eve, we walked the stores with our sisters and brothers and later on with our children greeting everybody, as merry-making then seemed the order of the day. There were no pickpockets, no gunshots as I remember, I also remember on Christmas Day there was a morning concert at the Ward Theatre. On other holidays, we would probably go to Knutsford Park and and everyone would enjoy entertainment like horse shows as well as a gymkhana. Up Park Camp would have a retreat where you pay your sixpence and partake of everything. Member Clubs in Jamaica in those days never opened at nights unless there was provisional dancing for a special occasion.
I remember the women who used to bake and the girls would take out trays of pudding etc. for selling. Half of the sale would belong to the girls and the other portion to the women who sent them out. Patties were prominent at that time as well. The women used to walk around with their patty pans and sell these patties. Peanut men would ride their bicycles (with a special type of whistle) around the community and bread and milk were delivered daily by a horse drawn delivery van.
I remember the music which was largely mento music, a bastard of the old quadrille done with a soothing beat and the enthusiasm with which everybody danced to the beat. I remember being terrified of the Junkanoo dancers as a child.
In some of the anecdotes I have recounted, the spirit of caring and sharing is clearly evident – when my family ran into trouble, there were good friends to help at all levels; we were at once a less dependent and more interdependent society.
We were at once less dependent in that, we did not depend on a handout from government to help us to solve our problems – we knew that we had to find the solutions for ourselves. But we were more interdependent, always willing to give a helping hand to anyone who needed support whenever we could.
I remember the communities in which I lived where some were more affluent than others – but there was no sharp division between us such as we witness nowadays. There was instead, a rapport between all members of the community, we were all concerned about each other’s welfare.
I remember the pleasure of a leisurely tram car drive. The tram cars met our needs for transportation in the city but they also served as a recreational purpose.
I remember being able to walk the streets of Kingston as a youngster without fear – because it was a time when every adult considered themselves to be protectors of children. In fact, not only did they protect you, but felt free to reprimand you if you were doing something that they did not like.
So what happened to the Kingston I knew?
To answer this question would require a socio-economic and political analysis which is not within the ambit of this talk.
What I will assert as strongly as I can is that we should not, we must not let our city die. There is too much of our history, of our very beings as Jamaicans wrapped up in this city of ours.
So what of the future of downtown Kingston – do we have one?
I believe that, despite everything, Kingston does have a future – but it will require the will and commitment of the widest possible cross section of Kingstonians.
Let us look at the pluses of downtown Kingston:
1. There is good infrastructure which is at present underutilized;
2. its road network is extensive and access to the city is better than it is to most other areas in Metropolitan Kingston and
3. both electricity and water supplies can sustain a far larger population than it does now.
What are the minuses?
Some persons cite distance from their homes as a negative when considering locating downtown. I am constrained to ask, however, why are the traffic jams which are characteristic of areas like New Kingston and its environs preferable?
Others are repelled by the old dilapidated and sometimes derelict buildings which have been a feature of downtown Kingston for the last 20 or 25 years.
To this I say, much has been done to deal with this reality, and for those who have not ventured into the area, come and see for yourselves – of course much more needs to be done.
And of course, there is the perception that crime and violence in the inner cities make downtown Kingston a fearful place in which to do business. We cannot deny that the level of violence in our inner cities in intolerably high. The older political tribalism and the new ‘donmanship’ that exists have made any action at the community level very difficult.
Drug use and abuse are on the increase. Community action programmes of a nonpolitical nature, however, have proven successful, particularly those of the Kingston Restoration Company. The interaction between the ghettos and those businesses who have stuck it out have provided assistance in the communities have been relatively harmonious. Both groups have been able to co-exist and continue to live with one another. Though there has been an awful lot of violence in the ghettos, the majority of the firms operating in downtown Kingston have become an integral part of the ghetto and have been spared the immediate effects of it.
We at Mechala, Sigma, Prime Life and WIHCON have our offices on the borders of Southside and Tel Aviv and have continued to be productive, to keep our offices open late into the night. We go there on weekends and maintain the same daily routines that other companies in the so-called “better parts” of Kingston do.
The development which has given a much-needed boost to the energy, determination and morale of downtowners like myself is the Tax Incentive Programme which was announced by the Prime Minister in 1992.
Basically under this programme, a 25% tax credit is given on all amounts invested in redevelopment and refurbishment in the designated incentive area, and incomes earned on rentals of refurbished buildings are tax free for a ten-year period from the start of the programme.
This has sought to fashion a formula which, based on construction costs and rental rates, would offer to the downtown developer a first year cash yield of approximately 8% on his investment. This has now made investments in downtown Kingston attractive and competitive with those in other areas.
Several companies have already taken advantage of the incentive programme, including Grace and Courts, and Mechala is about to commence its first incentive based renovation.
Already the lead taken by Mechala, Grace and others has spurred the renovation and redevelopment of several properties along the main thoroughfares of downtown Kingston, and as a result the city has begun to shed its “post-war” look. But in my view, if we are to restore downtown Kingston to its former pride of place in our country, then we are going to have to put new life into our downtown communities.
Given the level of crime and violence which we all hear about, some may say this is an impossible task.
But I say not so and I base this statement on the experience of the Kingston Restoration Company, the Downtown Kingston Management District, the Multicare Foundation which is a joint effort between Mechala, Caribbean Cement and TOJ, now Cable & Wireless; and the Grace & Staff Community Development Foundation which has done pioneering work among the communities which surround the company.
In every instance the work that is being done in these communities, has been warmly received and supported by the residents – skills training, sports facilities, a homework training centre and outdoor concerts are among the programmes carried.
Our people are a strong and resilient lot; they have survived natural as well as man-made disasters and the daily hardships of poverty and want.
I would like to quote the words of National Hero Norman Washington Manley-
“I affirm of Jamaica that we are a great people. Out of the past of fire and suffering and neglect, the human spirit has survived – patient and strong, quick to anger, quick to forgive, hasty and vigorous but with deep reserves of loyalty and love and a deep capacity for steadiness under stress, and for all things that make life good and blessed”.
Despite the social and political problems of the past two decades and the rise in the level of crime and violence, I still hold that N.W’s. assessment of our people is basically correct.
If you are doubtful, look at what Jamaicans have achieved in the recent past – look at our athletes, or sportsmen, and sportswomen, our writers and poets, our musicians and entertainers, and our current national heroes – the Reggae Boys.
What the achievements of all these people have told us is that we are capable of great achievement when we put our hearts and souls and minds into it.
And we must begin to put our hearts and souls and minds into reviving downtown Kingston. Everyone of the citizens of Kingston must become seized of the idea that our city is a repository of our history and should be a showcase of our nation.
Everyone of us must be seized of the idea that those who live in the inner cities are Jamaicans who need to be given opportunity and hope for the future.
The key to the renaissance of downtown Kingston will lie in reviving the physical infrastructure and attracting more businessmen, professionals etc. to work there; yes, but also in the revitalization of the communities there.
I cannot end this dissertation without reference to the good fortune that I had in being acquainted with the outstanding Jamaican National Hero whose name this foundation bears, the Right Excellent Sir Alexander Bustamante. I hope that one day in writing my memoirs I can detail the many enlightening and often humorous experiences that I had with this National Hero, but in the interim, I will briefly highlight a few instances which stand out vividly in my mind and which demonstrate the outstanding character of this human being.
I first met Busta very early in his public career through my association with the Samuel family who lived on South Camp Road. I would regularly go with Mr. and Mrs. Samuel and their two pretty daughters to play billiards across the street at the South Camp Hotel and we would often meet Busta there. While playing we would have a few drinks and he would join us. Particularly on a weekend night, after the bar was closed at the Hotel, he would walk across with us to the Samuels’ home and we would continue our discussions for one or two hours. It was this association that allowed me to come into contact with this outstanding man. And of course, it was also this association that brought me in touch with the young Miss Marjorie DeMercado who was to become my beloved bride a few years later in 1945, and who has been my wife and lover for the last 53 years.
The next occasion that I want to tell you about happened some years later in 1954 when I was President of the Jamaica Manufacturer’s Association.
We at the JMA decided that enough manufacturing had taken place in Jamaica as a result of shortages of merchandise during the war years that we should endeavor to get the Government to recognize the possibility and wisdom of expanding these activities to produce more of the goods and services that we needed rather than buying the imported products. So we staged the first industrial exhibition to display the advances made in manufacturing in Jamaica and Busta opened that exhibition for me. I remember very well the opening ceremony on the balcony overlooking the courtyard of the Duke Street Catholic convent. In speaking at the opening, Busta put his foot way up on the railing to show the public that he also used locally manufactured goods as all his boots were made locally. I was nervous that he would lose his balance and fall over the railing, as he was about three times the height of the railing. Fortunately nothing like that transpired.
Busta was immediately impressed by the exhibition and he and Lady Bustamante visited us every night of the Exhibition and we sat down and discussed the affairs of Jamaica and everything under the sun. The first night I offered him a drink and he said, “Yes I’ll have a Beck’s beer.” That was the popular beer but I said, “No, no sir, I really can’t give you that because it is not made in Jamaica.” And he replied, “Well I can’t drink the other one as it gives me running belly.” So I said, “Well I still can’t give you a Beck’s beer but suppose we can find some champagne, how would you feel about that?” And he said, “Oh that would be fine.” So we had a bottle of champagne that night and a bottle of champagne every night thereafter ready and waiting for him.
Every night after the Exhibition closed, the four of us went up to The Rainbow at Half Way Tree where Busta would have his crisp, dry bacon and we would have a sandwich and probably a milkshake. One evening a senior member of the JMA and Busta got into quite a discussion over the granting of monopolies for local manufacture, specifically dealing with the Caribbean Cement Company and the match factory. The discussion got very heated and was not assisted in any way by Mr. Lightbourne who was adding fuel to the fire.
I eventually reprimanded my senior director for his explosive language to the Chief Minister and endeavored to silence him by threatening to make a complete report to our Board as to his conduct. I reminded him that Busta was our guest and that he should therefore deal with the issues civilly. I then confirmed my threat the he would be reported promptly by me to the Board the next day.
But before seven o’clock the next morning I got a telephone call from Busta, “I want you to understand that your man has a right to express his opinion, and therefore I am not in any way offended as to his expressions. He thinks he has a fair opinion, I think he is wrong, I have the responsibility of the Government and have done what has been necessary. But under no condition should you report him to the Board for any reprimand, for I don’t want anyone to be silenced because of me. This is not a request of mine, but this is a directive, Matalon – nothing must be said further to your Board about this discussion.” I assured him that his directive would be honoured. When I got off the phone, I thought was an outstanding demonstration of Busta’s character.
Another of my memories of Busta at the exhibition was that every evening when he walked through the crowd, he seemed to know each person he passed and he was in no hurry to pass. He had an art of working the crowd. He would stop, shake hands and talk with persons -“Did your father come back from America? Is your sister going to school? Is your Grandmother better?” He knew something about everyone and he was not guessing, he was seeking real information, genuinely wanting to know about them. As a result, we would walk through the exhibition which should have taken us normally an hour but instead took us two, two and a half hours. He would never ever rush anybody and he did it every night – that was how I realized the outstanding quality he had.
And then I remember an incident that happened at my home. One evening after Norman Manley and Mrs. Manley had visited Israel (I was the Honorary Israeli Consul General then) and when some Israeli parliamentarians were passing through, I had them to dinner. And during the course of the discussion the name of Bustamante came up and I heard from the mouth of Norman Manley one of the finest compliments anyone could have paid to their colleague, much less to their opponent. He said that Bustamante is the most outstanding man I have ever known in judging the mood of the people.
Manley then relayed and experience with Busta that I shall never forget. He began, “It was during the threat of the sugar uprising at the end of the 1930s. We had started from Westmoreland where Frome, the major sugar estate was in turmoil. Bustamante addressed the workers and the more he addressed them the more they became agitated that their support would eventually come through”.
Manley continued, “Busta and I drove via the Montego Bay route, through Trelawny, through St. Ann. Coming towards St. Mary, which was a major trouble spot, I was terrified about how they would control the crowd if Busta continued to address them in his usual manner. To start off with, we were going to a desolate place where there would be thousands waiting for us.
When we arrived this was the case. Bust got up on the bonnet of one of the cars and I sat there concerned as to the outcome of his speech.
But Busta had recognized the mood that the people were in and he started to talk to the women because every man was with his woman. He said “Listen dears, we have had a long day, your men are troubled, they are tired, they are worried as to their future which we are working on. Take them home now, give them a little porridge, comfort them tonight. Tomorrow is another day.”
He quietly continued talking to the women in this manner and after a few minutes you could see the crowd leaving in twos into the darkness of the cane fields until the entire crowd completely dispersed. Busta and I got back into the car and drove quickly back to Kingston.”
I have never forgotten this story as it is the best example I have ever heard of a man who was able to feel and utilize the mood of the people as effectively. And I also thought that Manley had given a tremendous compliment to his opponent.
I have one last experience with Busta, which I must share with you. It was on the first tour of the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce delegation led by Sir Garnett Gordon of St. Lucia, of which I was a member. This you may remember was immediately after the dissolution of the West Indian Federation and our delegation decided that the trade element of that association should not be lost. The purpose of our tour was to call on the various Caribbean Governments to examine the possibility of the phased freeing of trade within the territory in an attempt to be less dependent on foreign merchandise by encouraging manufacturing for our own consumption and to encourage the export of any surplus capacity within the region.
During the course of our discussions, we found that there was a document in Barbados called the CARIFTA agreement, which was a free trade agreement signed between Barbados, Antigua and Guyana. Errol Barrow, who brought this agreement to our attention, was really firm in saying that he was not going to have any lengthy delays in the implementation of the agreement. He said he would be happy if other countries wanted to be included in it and that we could take it with us for this purpose but if they were not interested he would have it immediately implemented.
The tour went all through the region with success prior to arriving in Jamaica which was the last port of call as it was Busta who had called for Jamaica’s withdrawal from the Federation. The delegation decided that as this was my home wicket, I should open the batting and make the presentation to Busta.
On arriving, I met Donald Sangster who said, “You are wasting your time, how can you expect Bustamante to accept that when he had just broke up the Federation.”
But I continued into Busta’s office despite my increasing feeling of timidity. Knowing that Busta was not a man that would tolerate long dissertations and that he wanted to know the basic facts immediately and thoroughly, I decided to pitch accordingly.
I advised him of the content and purpose of the agreement and that it should serve us well in our endeavor to continue manufacturing more of the goods needed by the region, in the region, for our own use and possibly for export as well. I pointed out that for too long have these territories been a dumping ground for the surplus of production of other countries, and their disposal of seconds and irregular goods and out of fashioned good. It is time that we got together and do our own manufacturing providing employment for our people, goods for our people and export for the surplus.
To my amazement he replied, “My son, you have come to an open door. How could I object to a regular trade agreement between fellow Caribbean countries? What I object to is a political union that will govern the people of Jamaica from Trinidad or Barbados and for Jamaica and Montserrat both to have one vote each in the Council. But in terms of a trade agreement, you have come to an open door. If the document is signed by the others, it will be signed by Jamaica. I left feeling on top of the world and on passing Donald, who was in a state of shock, I winked at him with a smile and thought to myself, “You have been sitting at the foot of Gamaliel for all this time and you obviously haven’t gained any wisdom from the sage.”
As I said, one day I hope to write my memoirs which will contain in more detail a considerable number of the happy and enlightening experiences with this outstanding human being who it was my privilege to know.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I end as I began asserting, like Vic Reid, that Kingston was a warm and vital place and continues to be so, despite the many twists and turns of its history.
So as Vic wrote-
“But now at the end, come with me a little. Let me go back to the sparkling blue harbour where the hard little streets wet their toes. Watch the sweep and dip of the shoreline and brace your eyes up past it and see the lilt of mountains backdropping to the sky and you are looking at some of the memories which bring back the children of Kingston to her, from every corner of the world. Constantly…..It is warm and vital.”
Extracted from a presentation by: Joseph A. Matalon.
The Twelfth Annual Bustamante Lecture
Thursday, February 26, 1998
The Jamaica Conference Centre
by: Dr. The Hon. Aaron Matalon O.J.