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August 26, 2016
Rose Place and the problem of persistent poverty, 1950-2016

“In de ghetto, children dying young, in de ghetto houses falling down,” — De Man Age

by Dr Garrey Mchael Dennie, St Mary’s College of Maryland

In the late 1970s, De Man Age delivered a scorching critique of Vincentian society in a series of songs, including “This Society Needs a Spectacles,” “They go Ban it,” and of course, the song cited in the sub-title, “In De Ghetto.” Age’s calypsos had two elements which distinguished them from those of his rival calypsonians. First, Age sang his songs in a style that imitated speech. Second, in their brutal description of the economic, social, and political pathologies that placed tremendous burdens on the Vincentian poor, they were peerless.{{more}}

None of these songs better captured the plight of the poor than his lamentation, “In De Ghetto.” It was a song whose grim realism stood in stark contrast to an earlier epistle by Lord Hawke, entitled “In the Slum.” For, whereas Hawke’s song celebrated outstanding Vincentians born “in De Slum,” Age’s focused his “spectacles” on Rose Place to reveal, in unflinching fashion, the harsh realities of life “In De Ghetto.”

Forty years later, Rose Place once again commands national attention. Now, of course, the greater focus has been (and correctly so) on the lethal shootings which have taken place in public places. In fact, the police’s celebration of their failed “Operation Illegal Guns,” gives official legitimacy to the notion that Rose Place is a crime ridden area, which demands new kinds of policing. But the incidence of criminal conduct in Rose Place cannot be divorced from the broader indices of entrenched poverty that define the village.

It is at this point that Age’s song hammers home a truth that is beyond challenge: Rose Place has been a village mired in persistent poverty for more than 60 years. For, in 1951, when Guy Lowe entered this world as a baby born in Russell tenement yard in Rose Place, Age’s song would have been true. And in 1961 when his mother, Ms Miriam, gave birth to her youngest son, Philmore, Age’s song would still have been true. Ten years later, in 1971, when Elliot Laborde, better known as Banski, walked from Bottom Town to Grammar School to begin his journey as a Grammar School boy, nothing had changed. Indeed, fast forward to the years 1979-1983 when Guy Lowe, Raltie Lowe, Paul O’Garro, Tyrone “Tweetie” Spence, Elliot Laborde, Hammer Baptiste, Tyrone Barrow, Lance Culzac, Reginald “Stokes” Dennie, Ali Munroe, and legendary trainer “Ounce Ah Beef” were leading St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) to its most glorious years as a soccer nation, Age’s song was deeply evocative of the Rose Place they knew and loved.

It is a measure of the greatness of Age’s song that it fully described life in Rose Place 30 years before it was sung. And it is simply unbelievable that Age’s searing account of life in Rose Place remains true 30 years after it was sung. What, in fact, we have here in Rose Place on a local scale is the phenomenon of ‘persistent poverty,’ a concept first utilized in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by Caribbean social scientists. At the heart of this claim was the notion that patterns of economic growth and exploitation developed within the Caribbean during the era of slavery under the plantation economy took new forms in the era of modernization. But their sum effect was to continue the conditions which disempowered and impoverished Caribbean economies vis-à-vis their relationship with the industrialized economies.

These macroscopic explanations of poverty within the Caribbean had value in identifying some of the broader structural forces which gave shape to Caribbean economic life. But they were also deficient in three critical domains.

First, they were insufficiently cognizant of human agency – the capacity of Caribbean people to change the equations of their lives. Second, they assumed a permanence in the relationship between poor nations and rich nations aka – the poor will always be poor and the rich will always be rich. And third, and this applies to villages such as Rose Place, they could not sufficiently explain why within an individual island, poverty would persist within certain locales and disappear from others. Hence, even though ‘persistent poverty’ remains a useful conceptual tool for making sense of the patterns of underdevelopment within the Caribbean, it offers no answers to that phenomenon as it expresses itself in Rose Place.

An historical analysis, however, which is rooted in following the lives and listening to the voices of the residents of Rose Place, both past and present, provides a compelling explanation of why poverty in Rose Place has been with us for such a long time. One of the most astonishing facts in the list of names cited from the 1950s to the 1980s is that all of them, with one single exception, have left Rose Place permanently. And the other, goes and comes, at will, to and from the USA. And these men are not unique. Given enough time, the vast majority of Rose Place residents leave. Whether this is triggered by migration overseas, obtaining a better job, becoming more highly educated (the circumstances have differed from person to person), Rose Place residents leave as soon as they are financially able to do so. And in leaving, they take with them a range of skill sets and values which would bring them great success beyond Rose Place, but also leave Rose Place stripped of its most valuable asset: the human capital needed to pull itself out of poverty.

This struggle against poverty is compounded by a second inescapable fact: as these older and more increasingly financially secure residents leave for greener pastures and better living conditions, they are replaced by new, younger, and more financially vulnerable residents. For these newcomers, Rose Place represents a place of cheap housing that allows them to maintain some degree of control over their precarious budgets. Their income may come from several sources – some assuredly more legal than others – but with no guarantee that they would continue into the foreseeable future. Hence, knowing how to extract maximum value for their limited money is key to living life in Rose Place. Housing is obviously a necessity, but expensive housing is not. Hence, in terms of the search for affordable housing, Rose Place represents a safe harbour within which the poor and the not so poor could and do find shelter in a history that is at least 60 years old.

It is crucial to understand that Rose Place people never chose to be poor. None of them took a vow of poverty. Nor do they choose to be unemployed. In fact, for those who work, whether on the seas or elsewhere, generally speaking, they were and are among the very best workers employers could desire. Captain Mark Dennie is a great fisherman. Power Pac is a great fisherman. Pip could fix any engine for any boat. Jacklie, Ali, Shark, Pojo, they have all created thriving businesses where you can drink rum, play cards, and feel real good. Bullie and Louie sell some of the best food and juice you can find anywhere in SVG. Tee has worked hard for more than 50 years selling fish, running a shop, and passing on the reins to Kieba. Hence, the high level of unemployment within Rose Place across six decades is not a function of Rose Place residents’ unwillingness to work. Rather, it reflects the failures of successive Vincentian governments to eradicate poverty.

This, of course, is an immense task for any government anywhere in the world. And some governments have been more effective than others. But poor people have to live somewhere. And their right to shelter is non-negotiable. Rose Place then has become a magnet that draws the poor – and one consequence of this is that in the search for affordable housing, the beach in Bottom Town has become a site on which some residents have erected roofs.

I spoke about this on a radio programme last Saturday. I did so because I was asked to do so by Guy Lowe. But several weeks earlier I also gave the Minister of Health, the Honourable Luke Browne, a tour on the seafront, where I made the same point: those houses are in a dangerous location. They are simply too close to the sea. Ultimately, it is a question of public safety. In the yard where Guy Lowe was born and where I lived my formative years, there is now a vacant lot that can be resurrected into housing units. We may never be able to solve the problem of poverty in SVG. Jesus himself says, “the poor will always be with us.” We may also never be able stop the migratory flow to and from Rose Place. But safer housing for the poor, we can do. But until then, Age’s song, “In De Ghetto,” will continue to define the Rose Place experience.