Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, April 25, 2014

Woodford Square

I used to walk through Woodford Square with my mother. It was always busy,  people wandering aimlessly as well as those crossing purposefully, men in shabby suits expounding to whoever would listen, and pigeons. Over the years it became a haunt of unseemly characters, vagrants (remember the beggars who used to line the pavement outside Greyfriars Church on Frederick Street?) and loiterers. I was never present when the events that made it the "people's parliament" occurred. Dr. Williams burned the Guardian there. To today, political parties occupy it for rallies. Its location opposite the Red House makes it an apt arena.

Looking east in Woodford Square, towards Frederick Street, shopping district of the city

Greyfriars Church
It used to take on a different character as a venue for Carnival events. It never felt too packed at free lunchtime calypso concerts, standing room only. But it was most magical in the early morning of Kiddies Carnival Saturday, with the sun slanting through shady trees touching the fresh costumed children gathering there.
Flowering poui on the Frederick Street boundary
All these impressions came back when we sat to eat our sandwiches in the square. And to reflect on the unfathomable logic of bureaucracy. I could not apply for my passport until I had "restored citizenship." He could not apply for his, until he had an official document of his French citizenship. It was possible to laugh at the hoops of citizenship in Woodford Square.

Lunchtime in Woodford Square, with sandwiches
The square was named for the British Governor Sir Ralph Woodford who was responsible for laying out the city after a disastrous fire. Before that, it was Brunswick Square, through which the St Ann's River once flowed. It was beautiful on this April day, cool even at noon.

Flowering flamboyant

Gregor Turnbull's gift

The bandstand with the old Public Library behind. Is glassing in interior spaces behind those graceful balconies the best solution?

Detail of the fountain

Looking towards the Dragon's Mouth of Carlisle Chang's Conquerabia

Looking towards the Serpent's Mouth (Previous post has no full views of the mural)

Monday, April 21, 2014

What's the plan for Port of Spain?

Back in the seventies - over 40 years ago - there was a plan for Port of Spain. The heart of Trinidad's capital city would feature many pedestrian streets; walkways under shady trees. The model was there already, in the cool heart of the city, Woodford Square. Wide walking avenues would radiate out from this centre. Perhaps the old tramcars would be re-introduced - from the port to the Savannah for inner city riders.
Trees in Woodford Square soften the outlines of city buildings

Perhaps we had a better vision of ourselves in those long gone days. We walked. We planted trees. (Have any new trees been planted that haven't been cut down? Like those in the Piarco carpark.) We dreamed of a better world. We were simpler then.

One would argue we had a slower lifestyle, maybe even a slower heart beat. Now, we all have cars. And when we all go out in our cars, even the roads to the beaches are gridlocked on a weekend or a holiday. Port of Spain becomes a ghost town. It's dying, they tell us, abandoned except for the daily hours of work, 9 to 5 Monday to Friday.

Even the newest buildings among the old are tolerable when seen from Woodford Square.
The heart of Conquerabia: red fenced Woodford Square, with Trinity Cathedral on the south side, the Red House on the west, City Hall on the north, and Frederick Street on the east.

Who is going to dream the next plan for Port of Spain? Create a weekend culture. Revitalize the waterfront, so you might be able to walk from the Woodbrook to the Tobago ferry. Call her name again, proud Conquerabia, instead of just a port of Spain.

Some things worth redeeming are still here. Can we salvage the best of our past, before we lose the soul of our city?

The old Public Library being refurbished as a museum: north side of Woodford Square

The fountain in Woodford Square, made in Scotland and given to the city by Gregor Turnbull in 1866  

The Red House is under repairs for almost two years. The Parliament has been relocated to a tower on the waterfront. What's the best use of this building?

The old Fire Station, corner Abercromby and Hart Sts

The National Library

Hart Street

Police Headquarters on St Vincent Street, the building that was among the targets of the 1990 coup.

St Vincent House on St Vincent Street
Ground level offices on St Vincent Street: gracious and inviting

Re-purposed building on Edward Street. Downtown city streets are filled with daytime car traffic.

Trinidad House once housed the Treasury, on Edward Street.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


sun, sea, native peoples
Conquerabia is one name recorded for the area of mudflats first settled by the Amerindians. This place was made a port by the first Spanish settlers, Puerto de los Hispanioles, later changed to Port of Spain. To its west was an area known as Cumucurapo (present day Mucurapo) - place of the silk cotton tree. (See

my favourite icon in Chang's mural

In 1961, artist Carlisle Chang created the mural for the Port of Spain Town Hall and called it Conquerabia. Just north of Woodford Square, it is worth seeing anytime you are in the city.
Port of Spain Town Hall: the mural is at ground level, behind those stairs

This week, instead of walking in the dry season woods, I walked in Conquerabia, where the layers of history rest ever so lightly, ignored by the car and people traffic thronging the streets. One of the oldest cities of the new world, Port of Spain would so easily erase its past. Bigger, higher, unventilated,  edifices of power overshadow vestiges of slower less tumultuous times.

Port of Spain was always a walking city for me. From the Savannah to Independence Square is a stroll past the shops of Frederick Street. On Carnival days, you can circumscribe the city, from Woodbrook to Piccadilly to the Savannah without noticing. 

The city that is still a port has slowly turned its back to the sea, that virtually land-locked lake that was a breeding ground for all manner of fish.  The Gulf of Paria surely puzzled Columbus for its sweet water, overflow of the great Orinoco. Today, what swirls in the Gulf should not be countenanced: oil spills from La Brea, plastic run-off from the Northern Range rivers, tankers lining the horizon.

But Conquerabia as recorded by Chang, remembers the sea. In his mural, he has set in stone the story of this place: its Amerindian past, and the flowing together of the tribes of the world between the Dragon's Mouth (north) and the Serpent's Mouth (south).

To see Port of Spain through all its layers of the past 500 years, start here with Conquerabia at the Town Hall. Walk through Woodford Sauare and south on St Vincent Street until you face the sea. 

Dragon's Mouth

Building styles of those who came to these isles

Confluence of streams

Serpent's mouth

legend of Carlisle Chang's mural

Friday, April 4, 2014

Noah's choices

Movies are the myths of the new age. The stories that are told on the big and small screens not only reflect contemporary attitudes - those of their directors, storytellers, actors. They also inform the values and ideas that we hold true; and shape the ways that we respond to what's happening in the world. It's what ancient texts like creation stories, the bible and other books, have always done for us: reflected the world with the information at hand; provided direction - even urging - for the way forward.

Yes, the human story is always circling back in order to move forward. It's a dynamic process, this retelling of old stories, seeing them with different eyes and interpreting with up-to-date information. And so, the old myths are made relevant to each age. The personalities, the icons are polished with the symbolism of every retelling, embellished with the patina of recent knowledge.

There are flood stories in cultures around the world. They all tell of a great flood that swept across the land. Many have a moral undertone: that the creator was displeased by man's disobedience (or wrong doing, or overpopulation, or evil). Many include the story of an ark, whose survivors peopled the world anew; among these the Sumerian is thought to be the oldest, but you can find arks in the Roman, Masai, Mongolian, Burmese, Tahitian and Hawaiian myths. The Lakota, among many other North American tribes, have a story of a flood out of which was created the Turtle island/ continent because the turtle was the only one able to dive deep into the flood waters to bring up the land.

None is as retold, or familiar, as the story of Noah, which occurs in the first book of the bible, Genesis chapters 6 to 9. Included in the Genesis story are the instructions for the size and structure of the ark. All of this occurs when Noah is over 500 years old. He has a wife (called Naamah according to Jewish tradition rather than named in the bible) and together, they have three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah is the grandson of Methuselah who is as old as the hills!

So maybe time was different then. Or maybe that's how stories that make a point have to be told. The time frame of an ice age is geologic. The time frame for a catastrophic event - a flood, a nuclear explosion, a tsunami, an earthquake - is measured in the few seconds it takes a human being to live or die.

Darren Aronofsky's 2014 Noah stays true to the central biblical story: Noah and his family build an ark and survive a great flood. Upon this interpretation, however, - Aronofsky wrote this version of the Noah myth with Ari Handel - introduces an ecological conscience, the element of magical surrealism, and puts Noah at the centre of the psychological drama of the family.  Here we see a man who is more than the creator's tool. He is husband to a wife who would be his equal. He has a grandfather with the wisdom of a thousand years. He raises brave sons who would challenge the father's view of right and wrong, even as they struggle to assert their own humanness. He raises an adopted daughter Ila, and shows he is capable of compassion, generosity. He feels responsible for the survival of other species. Russell Crowe brings to the role of the patriarch a rock-solid certainty with which he faces moral and ecological dilemmas.

His insight (a dream, a vision) must be sanctioned by grandfather Methuselah before he acts upon it. It is from Methuselah, played appropriately by Anthony Hopkins, that we expect the unexpected, the trickery, the wry wisdom. Indeed, it is Methuselah who provides the seed from Eden to bring forth a lush and fruitful forest; and Methuselah who ensures the future of the family.

If Aronofsky sought to tell a non-religious story, he could not avoid it being something we might want to believe and therefore truthful at an emotional level. With all the science at our fingertips, we cannot help feeling that there is something "more" out there, some architect of a grand design - call it creator or god or life force or the expanding universe. We also, most of us, don't believe that we control our own lives. On the other hand, we barely perceive our individual selves as cells in the migration or evolution of a single species. So Aronofsky's Noah is yet myth, but on a larger, more persuasive, "blockbuster" scale equal to the tools that he commands - digitized animals (did you see the pangolin hunted by the tribe of Cain?), compression of time, the magic of cinema that creates forests, streams, epic battles and movement through time and space. And the viewer in the middle of all.

This version of Noah and the flood springs to life in the most dramatic means possible, in 3D. We see the fallen angels - the Watchers - who have been turned to stone, working and fighting alongside Noah and his family until they are redeemed and return to the creator as beings of light. And we see the world as we know it - this sphere in a celestial orbit - not as the people to whom the whole world may have been a valley or a continent.

The watchers - however novel the idea, however ingenious to imagine them as molten light encased in rocks that move - are as biblical as fallen angels, as mythic as the garden of Eden. Aronofsky acknowledges that Noah and his family need outside help in the age-old battle of good and evil.  The writer/director may not have invoked Genesis, but his meaning is abundantly clear. Be good, or eco-conscious, or in balance with nature, or else the creator, the earth, the universe will surely effect a cleansing.

Afterthought: The Ark changes dimensions through all the flood myths. In some, it is little more than a basket to hold a few household survivors. Only in Noah's case, is it so explicitly detailed to carry mated pairs of as many animals as possible. The horror of Tubal-Cain's slaughter within the ark, therefore, is more than the need to eat, for when he kills one of a pair, he is likely murdering a species. On reflection, the ark of humanity is carried by the women; and Noah's final decision determines the survival of his own kind, or not.