Georgetown, Guyana – a lost city?

A letter published in the Stabroek News, Guyana,
on November 3rd, 2013, headed:

Forty years on, most of the splendour of the Garden City has gone

31st October, 2013
Dear Editor,

I have just been on my first visit to Guyana in 40 years. From 1968 to 1969, I was a VSO working for Broadcasts to Schools in Georgetown, and I came back in January 1970 to marry Wordsworth McAndrew and teach at St Joseph’s High School.  Our daughter Shiri was born in 1972; I completed my Diploma in Education at UG the following summer, and only returned to England after our divorce in September 1973.

Since then, all through my exile, I have held fond memories of the beautiful Garden City that was Georgetown. I loved the elegant white wooden houses with their jalousies and delicate fretwork, in gardens overflowing with bougainvillea, hibiscus and oleander.  I loved the wide avenues lined with sweeping flamboyant trees and canals sparkling in the sun.  I loved the bridges over trenches to little wooden cottages on stilts, in yards brimming with palm trees and callaloo.  I had an idyllic picture in my mind, and came back intent on taking actual photographs to preserve my memories in tangible form…

But what did I find?  Most of the splendour of the Garden City has gone.  Most of the wonderful wooden houses have been criminally destroyed.  Only not by criminals: perhaps by developers, perhaps by fire, but more probably by neglect.  Their place has been taken by buildings constructed in the practical but unromantic material that is concrete – some of such buildings no doubt attractive in their own way, particularly to their owners, but none with the delicacy and grace of the past.

And in the smaller streets, these concrete houses have been crammed in together, cheek by jowl, so there is no provision for the greenness of a yard; there are few airy bottom houses with room for a hammock; there is little space left for the sense of peace and relaxation that used to characterise life in Georgetown. Now it is all hustle and bustle, with cars and taxis, expertly driven a hair’s breadth apart, their drivers hooting, gesticulating and shouting as they vie with cyclists, pedestrians and minibuses for priority on the crowded roads.

And the gleaming trenches that used to line the roads – where are they now?  So many are clogged with rubbish and silt, blocking the drains and enticing the sewage to flood, smell, and contaminate the water supply.  Exhilarating as I find the force of a tropical downpour, I was glad I wasn’t there in the real rainy season to experience the havoc that those blocked drains would entail.

Fresh from a country where re-cycling has finally become mainstream, I couldn’t believe how many plastic bags are thrust at you in supermarkets, and how few people think to use them again. When I took my own bags with me, and held them out to the assistants, they thought I was crazy, and were so quick at their job that half my shopping was already bagged up before I had a chance to protest.

No wonder there is so much rubbish – it seems that people just don’t care.  And that suggests that the government just doesn’t care.  Otherwise they would institute fines for dropping litter, have educational campaigns in schools, insist that supermarkets charge money for each plastic bag they issue.  And set up re-cycling facilities.  It would take only a few months to train consumers to separate their rubbish – plastic, cans, paper & cardboard, glass, garden compost…  Think what a saving to the economy, and to the expense of clearing and maintaining the drains!

On the other hand, there were lots of positive initiatives to be seen. The concern for mangrove conservation demonstrated by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Mangrove Visitor Centre at Victoria, with its far-reaching repercussions for sea defences and wildlife regeneration, was a very welcome contrast to the lack of care about the environment of the city.  Other encouraging signs were evidenced by the energy put into GuyExpo, the AgriFest, World Habitat Day, and a Unicef workshop on Disaster Risk Reduction and Persons Living with Disability – all taking place within two weeks.  And luckily, life outside the city had retained much of its character:  the East Coast, the West Coast and Essequibo were closer to my memories, and Kaieteur, Orinduik and Pandama, which I had not seen before, were utterly unspoilt.

And then, just before I left, my hosts presented me with an amazing book: Rupununi: Rediscovering a Lost World, whose publication was fostered and promoted by Conservation International.  This book, if you haven’t had the chance to see it, not only contains a wealth of stunning photographs of the landscape, the flora, the fauna and the people of the Rupununi, but also gives an insight into the power of regeneration projects, given the political will.  And there, in a joint initiative by the Guyana Government and the Commonwealth Secretariat, through the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, the political will is unmistakable, and inspiring.

Given time and care, even vanishing species can be retrieved, and impoverished land can be restored. How ironic that in Georgetown itself so little attention has been given to preserving the architectural and aquatic heritage of the former Garden City – something which, unlike wildlife and flora, once lost, is irrecoverable.

In neighbouring Suriname, in recognition of the preservation of its beautiful colonial architecture, Paramaribo has been declared a World Heritage Site.  In Georgetown, over the last 40 years, the oversights of generations of town planners have let slip the chance of such an accolade here, but surely the town planners of today can to stop the current deterioration in its tracks, with the vision to regenerate the city before all traces of its former glory have gone forever.

Is it really too late?

Rosie McAndrew, Hastings, UK

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