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‘Emperor Valley Mall’ may yet revere history

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In a lateral move, Governor’s House became President’s House, keeping its place in the Emperor Valley.

The Prime Minister’s residence, as it moved into the valley, described a steadily upward trajectory.

If we are where we live, last week’s ceremonial handover of the Prime Minister’s residence and diplomatic centre confirmed the occupant’s possession of place in the now ever-more exclusive Emperor Valley.

As yet, only one leading T&T artist has proposed frank identification of the valley with the Manning La Fantaisie complex.

Having seen the buildings going up from a Hotel Normandie lookout, the artist thought it should be called “Emperor Valley Mall.”

The valley, he recalled, had been named after a species of native butterfly called Emperor. The “mall” part of his proposed name expressed what the design and structure of the new building suggested to him—a shopping centre set down in the city’s highly prized green valley.

Having seen none of it by time of writing, I could agree only with the principle that the complex should be named.

My own modest proposal, connecting with a patriotic mood on this Independence weekend, may be summarised in the rhetorical question, “Why stop there?”

Indeed, I am advocating the naming of all buildings that could be called national for having been put up with public funds or on State initiative.

Start with those “signature buildings,” which, as Udecott executive chairman Calder Hart promised in June, were to be opened in “the final six months of 2007.”

Now, whose “signature” will those buildings represent, having all been designed and erected by Chinese, French, Canadian, Malaysian, Indian and other contractors?

On them, vast TT$ sums will have been expended. A vast propaganda effort is latterly also aimed to counter the heresies coming from this space and elsewhere against the PNM faith that “tall buildings” evidence “development” toward a final 2020 realisation.

They are here to stay, these buildings. They surely won’t stay up as long as the pharaonic structures but, like the pyramids claimed as black heritage, they will proclaim the enduring expression of a PNM civilisation.

What to do?

The UNC called for a boycott of the national awards ceremony at the Prime Minister’s diplomatic centre.

Certainly, we can’t avoid sometimes scaling the slopes of at least some of the man-made mountains going up in downtown Port-of-Spain.

For they are dedicated to prosaic purposes that entail encounters between the State and the people—inland revenue, customs and excise, legal affairs, education, social development and others.

My modest proposal for making them ours is to name them after T&T heroes or distinguished people, dead and alive.

I fear it may be easier to say this than to move others to recognise what I’m talking about or, later, to build such a critical mass of public support for the idea as would cause the authorities to respond.

The difficulty in making the built environment celebrate something about ourselves has been explored by David Trotman, a Trinidadian historian based in Canada.

In a 2003 paper, Dr Trotman showed why this use of the built environment didn’t take place in colonial times: it wasn’t wanted or needed. The colonialists wanted of Port-of-Spain only an administrative centre and a seaport.

With the PNM 45 years ago, Independence came but not much changed.

Till now, the post-colonial regimes (including NAR and UNC) have lacked the money to enable “inscribing their visions of themselves and their histories on the urban landscape.”

In its 34th year in office, the PNM with boundless faith in its energy-derived destiny, is nonetheless limited by its imagination.

Most of the hundreds of schools and public buildings put up under PNM rule have received names either generic or simply signifying location or, more likely, electoral constituency.

The Russell Latapy school memorialises a football hero. Names given to scores of others call to mind only some bureaucratic committee’s determination of the political “catchment” in which they should be sited.

Morvant/Laventille secondary is hardly in Laventille and miles from Morvant; Malick senior comprehensive is in Morvant rather than upper Sixth Avenue, Barataria.

Those naming miscues are the ones I know. But none of that need occur if schools were named after national heroes, some belonging to local areas, others distinguished by educational, intellectual or artistic achievement.

Nothing state-run is named after CLR James. The Manning PNM overturned a UNC decision to name the national library after VS Naipaul.

It also rejected a Trinidad Theatre Workshop application to stay in the old Fire Brigade building in a project funded by and likely named after Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

A programme to name all schools after notable T&T scholars, educators, writers and academics implies stimulating a major exercise of historic recall.

Commission history writer and novelist Michael Anthony (after whom Mayaro Government School should be renamed) to research deserving names of educators and others to be applied to primary and secondary schools.

Maybe have Mr Anthony lead a project to write 500-word monographs to be posted in schools on the achievements of whichever famous son or daughter to whose memory a school is rededicated.

Few people outside academic circles know about John Jacob Thomas.

A Couva schoolteacher, linguist and polemicist, he wrote a grammar of Trinidadian creole. Later in his 1889 book, Froudacity, Thomas effectively debunked the theories of imperialist British writer James Anthony Froude.

John Jacob Thomas’ career anticipates what Dr Trotman calls the “renaming, naming or the use of new monuments as part of the efforts of iconic or symbolic decolonisation.”

Here is a leading candidate for the renaming of Couva Secondary School.

Of the Port-of-Spain high-rises, only the Hyatt Regency is assured of name or brand recognition.

For the rest, run competitions to find hero-figure names for all those “tall buildings” that express the PNM vision for the urban landscape.

Meanwhile, I’ll offer one, that of an accomplished, and still accomplishing, diplomat for the diplomatic centre in La Fantaisie: Sir Ellis Clarke.

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