Georgetown and the World Heritage List

Stabroek News
March 11, 2001

In this season of election frenzy, non-political issues get shunted into the background. Many of those issues are critical to the functioning of the society and the quality of our lives, but the all-enveloping overburden of the power struggle has a way of burying everything, no matter how important, under its own dead weight.

It is for this reason that the visit of Dr Ron van Oers of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre to this country over the past three weeks, has slipped by without much public notice. Dr van Oers was here to advise on the selection of portions of Georgetown as a World Heritage Site, with a view to assisting in the preparation of a dossier for submission to the International Council on Monuments and Sites. The idea is for the city to be inscribed on the World Heritage List which would hopefully attract funding for its conservation. (See story on page 12.)

The preparation of the dossier is likely to take two years at a minimum, but before Georgetown has any hope of being selected, certain things have to happen first. Among several other things, says Dr Oers, a legislative framework would be required, including a viable National Trust Act (we have one already, but it is in need of amendment) and an appropriate town planning act. The general aim would be to maintain the image of the city, so that we preserve historical/cultural sites and zones, and ensure that modern buildings to be erected in designated areas will not be out of consonance with the ambience of those areas. Any laws, of course, would have to be enforced, and seen to be enforced.

In addition, we would need to embark on a major campaign to sensitise the public to the value of our material heritage, so that businessmen, for example, would be encouraged to renovate any older structures which they own, rather than tear them down and rebuild anew in a style which is both unaesthetic and unrelated to the local tradition.

For all the deterioration of the last thirty years, the capital city still has much we should be proud of. Several of the structures of the great period of public building in the last quarter of the nineteenth century still stand, such as the law courts and City Hall. It was an era when the country was blessed with some truly talented architects, including the Italian-speaking Maltese, Cesar Castellani, the English Jesuit, Father Scoles, and the locally-born Sharples, whose contributions to design were mostly confined to the field of private housing. His hallmark was often decorative wrought ironwork, a typical example being the residence the President currently occupies. There is another Sharples building in Duke Street, and his own house - no longer in its pristine state - in Queenstown.

Not to be forgotten are the contributions of all the nineteenth and early twentieth century anonymous carpenters and contractors, who introduced ingenious concepts of natural ventilation and invested them with artistic form, as in the case of the Demerara shutters. In sum, the architectural tradition which this country inherited from the past is truly unique, and cannot be found anywhere else on the planet in its entirety. It is this very uniqueness which will help in the process of qualifying Georgetown for listing as part of the world's heritage, rather than just the Guyanese heritage.

There are other things too which help to give the city its character, like its avenues and trees and canals. But there is one particularly unusual feature, which was pointed out by Dr Oers, but which Guyanese probably would never think about. This is the urban lay-out of Georgetown, which has followed the grid pattern of the plantations which it eventually supplanted. Even the Company Path is still identifiable - i.e. the land owned by the West India Company which divided the plantations, as well as the canal popularly known as the 'forty-foot trench,' which was dug by slave labour in the eighteenth century to serve an estate. In another example, Regent Street was built precisely on the Middle Walk of Plantation Vlissengen.

The prognostications are good that the relevant authorities will co-operate in working to put Georgetown on the World Heritage List. But the rest of the population too has a role to play. The first step is to learn to appreciate the value of what we have.