No one could ever accuse the PPP of being endowed with any aesthetic sense, particularly where Georgetown is concerned, but then the City Council is equally lacking in that regard. Many moons ago Guyana’s capital was known as the Garden City, and every now and then someone comes along to insist that we need to restore it to its former glory. That is a forlorn hope. The damage that has been done is simply too extensive and too structural in nature to be reversed. One might have thought, however, that the little glimpses which still survive of an earlier, more graceful world would be targeted by the authorities for preservation, but no. Where our urban surroundings are concerned the government and the municipality between them represent the wrecking ball of heritage.
It is true that central government finally stepped in to save the iconic City Hall, but that was only after the passage of twenty-three years when it was almost on the verge of collapse. It was too, something of an exception. The only other building which attracted this level of attention was Red House, and that was because Dr Cheddi Jagan had lived there when he was premier. The various PPP/C administrations have maintained State House, but then that is the President’s residence, although in a service to the nation the current head of state did rescue it from the lurid green hues in which it had been coated by his predecessor. In a general sense, however, concern for the material heritage is not the government’s forte.
Despite a lack of a feel for architecture, never mind history, the authorities could have shown some interest in preserving the green aspects of the city. While metropolises across the globe struggle to create green spaces for their citizens, the government and M&CC are moving in the opposite direction. Technically speaking residents are not permitted to concrete their entire yards because then the soil surface area which can absorb rainfall is reduced and an additional strain is placed on the drainage system. In practice these bylaws have not been enforced for decades, and in any case the municipality itself is the biggest offender.
Which brings us back to the matter of aesthetics. One of the residual survivals of the Garden City are the avenues with their parapets and trees bisected by either a canal or a walkway. The most impressive of these always used to be Merriman Mall, partly because it was the longest, and partly because a spectator standing behind the row of canna lilies which marked its entrance, could cast their eye along that extensive green corridor to the cathedral glistening ethereally in the sunlight at the opposite end. No more. The City Council with some help from the government has degraded it to a point of unrecognizability.
The original problem began twenty-five years ago with the erection of stalls to take the overspill from Bourda Market. That portion of the mall had always been a bit untidy, but below that it retained its traditional verdancy, although for many years it was not well kept. The signal that the entire mall was to be sacrificed came with a decision to grant permission for the building of the SleepIn Hotel at the Queens-town end of Church Street. Exactly what role the City Engineer’s Department played in all this has never been disclosed, but it had the backing of the Ramotar government, because they promised owner Mr Clifton Bacchus a casino licence.
In the first place, there should never have been a hotel in a residential area, let alone one with a casino, and in the second, a building of that height was quite out of harmony with the structures all around, in addition to the fact its façade was anything but elegant. Furthermore, no one canvassed the residents of the area to learn their reaction to living alongside a hotel and casino. When they did learn of the casino after reading about it in the newspaper, they were not happy. The granting of the casino licence was interrupted by the accession of the coalition government to office, but that ended when the new administration was installed.
One thing that seemed to give neither the City Council nor the government pause for thought was the fact there was no parking in the area. As was pointed out by commentators at the time other hotels have been required to submit parking arrangements in their plans, but here was a casino operation in a crowded residential area with no off-street parking available. There was some suggestion the owner attempted to buy adjacent properties possibly with the aim of creating a car park, but if so he was unsuccessful.
In any event, thereafter the M&CC gave permission for the SleepIn to create a car park on Merriman Mall itself, and in a rare example of accord, both APNU+AFC councillors and PPP/C ones voted in favour of the project. It is a case of finding entente in the wrong proposal. But the City Council wasn’t yet finished with the beleaguered residents of Georgetown. Its most recent travesty is the construction of concrete stalls on Merriman Mall opposite the hotel, which, as we reported, will include barbershops and salons.
This newspaper was told by a stall owner that the allotment of stalls had been made under the previous government, and that payment was being made at City Hall before building commenced. The acting Town Clerk did not make herself available to our reporter to explain the details. Whatever those are this latest assault on our diminishing green space is a disgrace.
While the City Council has a case against the central government for the way in which it is bypassed, the residents of the capital have a huge case against the M&CC for the way in which they are bypassed and never consulted. Who are the councillors to tell citizens they must have their few green areas in the capital destroyed without first being asked their views? Where are the policies and plans of the council laid out in a way residents can access and comment on? Our councillors are elected officials, not local autocrats.
The latest complaints about the state of the mall relate to GWI, which is making an enormous mess in the process of laying underground pipes. Again, citizens were given no warning. The difference in this case is that once the pipes have been laid, presumably they will be covered up with soil again and eventually the grass will regrow; it is not a permanent elimination of a green space. However, like the City Council, GWI is deficient in the department of communication. What is preventing it from issuing a press release, or making a statement on social media explaining what is being done, and apologising for the disruption. Why aggravate local residents unnecessarily by telling them nothing?
In the meantime, will the Councillor who has the responsibility for the ward which includes Merriman Mall make himself available to citizens and explain the nonsense which the municipality is engaged in with respect to the concrete stalls. Furthermore, if the men and women around the horseshoe table have any more outrageous plans for further shrinking the little greenery that has survived around us, would they please put these to the citizenry first, rather than steamrolling ahead in ignorance.