August 14, 2003
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The controversy that entangled the city council, law courts, business community, central government, police and vendors over the last decade seems to have been settled but the conditions that gave rise to it have not. Yet, it is something of a mystery that the opportunity was not taken to deal with the 30-year-old ‘vendors’ problem in a more decisive manner than resorting to yet another stop-gap expedient.
There is little doubt that Georgetown’s hucksters, peddlers, vendors, and small-scale traders are popular among some sections of consumers to whom they have provided a convenient service over the years. In the colonial era, this sector of retailers was confined largely to four markets in Albouystown, Bourda, Kitty and Stabroek. These markets were the main sources of fresh fruit, ground provisions, green vegetables and meat as well as a wide range of ‘dry goods’ and were a profitable source of revenue to the city. Initially, they were orderly, safe and well built and they have endured for decades.
There was a time, too, when Georgetown’s markets were something of a tourist attraction. Not only did their towers and clocks grace postcards, but visitors, including the likes of Prime Minister Percival Patterson of Jamaica, could safely buy jewellery from market stalls such as L. Seepersaud Maraj & Sons and others. Markets complemented, rather than challenged, other sections of the commercial community. More than that, they stimulated trade and development by bringing buyers, producers and sellers together while pouring revenue into the city’s coffers.
Relatively little of that revenue seems to have been spent on the maintenance and expansion of those popular markets. Although by 1970 the city limits were extended, the urban population had increased, the demand for consumer goods grew and it had become clear that the four markets had become inadequate to satisfy the public demand, there was no significant improvement to what had been inherited from the colonial era.
Indeed, markets rotted, became vermin-infested, and their electrical, structural, sanitary and security facilities deteriorated. Vendor ‘sprawl’ devoured the historic Bourda Green and sidewalks and roadways close to all the markets became clogged with makeshift stalls. As the blight spread, the municipality seemed concerned more with the collection of fees from the vendors than with the repair and maintenance of the markets, the protection of consumers from elements or the preservation of the environment from the pressure of garbage.
When it was recognised that the shortage of consumer goods in the 1970s had led to a boom in petty-traders who gave birth to Georgetown’s informal economy, the municipal response was a spate of controversial ad hoc measures.
Mayor Beryl Simon’s Regent street ‘Vendors’ Arcade’ shut down an important part of an important roadway to house 258 vendors. Mayor Robert Williams’s ‘Stabroek Bazaar’ tried to accommodate another 277 vendors in the 1980s. Mayor Compton Young’s ‘Stelling View’ project in the 1990s, which aimed at accommodating 320, was quietly abandoned as unworkable. Mayor Hamilton Green’s ‘Merriman’s Mall’ millennium project for 164 vendors in the 2000s also failed to accommodate either the number of vendors or the range of trading activities.
These sad, inadequate experiments created new blighted areas without satisfying consumers’ desire for convenient shopping or the community’s demand for a clean and a safe environment.
Modern urban markets need not be shanties. They could be trendy and attractive, built for tourists and bargain-hunters and providing outlets to indigenous craft - nibbi, tibisiri, leather, cotton hammocks, basketwork, fruit preserves, etc.
It is time for the city to turn away from tarpaulin-covered shacks in open spaces and sidewalks and provide proper permanent market places for a vital legitimate commercial activity and its citizens’ convenience.