Some 32 years ago, while away in school in New Orleans, I recall the comfort I felt when I visited a small inlet tucked away next to Lake Ponchartrain. In this little waterway off Lakeshore Drive, a number of old wooden fishing boats were docked alongside dilapidated clapboard houses leaning into the waterway. This place reminded me so much of my beloved Belize City, a city built on a swamp filled with mahogany wood chips and quarry waste, shaped by hurricanes, and cultured by ethnic diversity.
In many conversations with my daughter Samantha, who happens to now live in New Orleans, I had a tendency to brag about the multiple infrastructure projects around Belize City that is transforming our city and that is creating a sense of gentrification, a transformation from the old to the new. Her response to me was; “Dad, why would you want to take away from Belize City that which makes it special?” Sammy’s love for this old city of her youth raises her sense of nostalgia just as it did for me so long ago.
The culture of Belize City is enduring. The city’s character comes from its sense of disorder, which in itself is a perpetual condition that only us City dwellers understand well. Bicycles that weave through an odd assortment of second-life cars mostly covered with dust and mud, depending on whether it is dry season or rainy season, and between dented taxicabs that stop at random, often just to chat or to admire and greet a passing “babes”. The juxtaposition of wooden houses falling off their ancient stilts next to modern concrete boxes crammed with cheap goods made in China.
Smelly, smoky overcrowded busses and oversized SUVs traverse streets that were designed for horse carriage and foot traffic. A hopscotch of narrow sidewalks with missing pieces and uneven levels, littered with the occasional lump of smelly souvenir left behind from a mangy potlicker that just tore through the garbage bag that he rescued from the overflowing dirt-box made from an abandoned deep freeze next to the Chiney shop.
I smile every time I see the cruise-ship tourists on horse drawn buggies clip-clopping through the downtown streets and I wonder to myself “what must they be thinking”. Despite the colorful stories made up by the local tour guides, I know that they really don’t get it.
Those bland stares view sights like our famous Albert Street; the perennial downtown main street, bustling with activity; rows of run-down Indian shops all selling identical wares alongside modern bank buildings; Brodies shop-front, itself an ecosystem of vendors, beggars, and taxi drivers sitting on crates, arguing about the latest political scandal. This wonderful kaleidoscope of color, smells, fashion, hodgepodge architecture, artful language, and traffic patterns that make no sense, defies any sense of urban planning.
This city of happenstance that grew like an organic swamp oddity on the banks of the Haulover Creek is nothing short of fascinating.
Now my description may come off to some as derogatory, and others may say: “but sah, you inna government, why you no fix deh ting?” This is where the paradox lies. First of all, fixing is better said than done, as Mayor Bradley can tell you, and what indeed would be a fix? As my Sammy pointed out; why fix that which is not broken? Would the fix not rob us of our essence, our culture? The biggest question to me is whether our culture is one of disorder and rule bending and whether those in itself can it be fixed?
Let’s think first of the culture of this community. A walk through the streets of the old capital wakes up our senses in ways that only a true City cruffy can appreciate. The familiar characters like the Jam Roll man whose erroneously reported demise caused a panic to residents that thrive on his tasty treats, and his big huge friendly smile.
While on the topic of food, as an aside; whose meat pie is the best? As an SJC alumni, nothing beats a hot, juicy Dario’s pie – dat bugga will burn a hole through your skin if you don’t use the right eating protocol, which can only be perfected by someone who learned to ride a bike with one hand while trying to avoid spilling the grease on a white uniform shirt. My wife swears by Pou. As a matter of fact, while I refuse to stand at Mr. Turo’s window, she gets the most special treatment from this upstanding gentleman, and even a soft caress of her hands whenever she shows up for her fix. Mr. Turo is only one of a number of endearing traditional small business locals that are unfortunately becoming endangered by the overpowering influx of Asian-owned food and grocery vending establishments.
These vendors, the street characters, a mayoral candidate who set up his campaign headquarters under a plum tree off Princess Margaret Drive; just a stone’s throw from some of the most expensive homes in Belize. I can go on and on with the many characters that make up this city and the things that make it special in my heart. Beneath the disorder, the seeming chaos and beneath its paradoxical exterior, lies a great deal of humour, heart, and warmth that cannot be described or replicated, and certainly that no tourist on a day visit can experience.
The attitude of Belize City residents is remarkable. As disturbing as the recent spike in violent crime has been, it will take a lot more than a broad daylight ride-by shooting in downtown to empty the streets. The resilience of Belize City and its residents is indescribable and is on full display whenever a disaster strikes. The frequent rain floods and even the occasional hurricane barely dampens our spirits and has never forced us to flee, despite cheaper higher land to the west. Check we pan carnival day! Forget watching the costumes, I get more joy from watching the onlookers who represent to me what the City is all about as I view a mix of ethnicity, social and economic diversity, the like of what exists no place else in the world.
This joyful mix of culture shines no brighter than at the Michael Finnigan Market and its surrounding areas; aptly named after a man who embodies the spirit of this great city. An early morning walk through the market is a joyful event. This venue features stalls teeming with everything for sale, and buyers from all walks of life. Outside the market along the banks of the canal one can furnish one’s house, shop for an evening gown, and even get groomed. In the entire area, typical City style, disorder is the order of the day, further exacerbated by the presence of the largest bus terminal in the country smack in the middle of a narrow congested area.
I often imagine a city of order and what it would be like. I wonder if with order we would lose that which makes this city great. The same attitudes that make us resilient also make us outspoken, colorful, funny and interesting. The same defiance that compels us to ignore rules also makes us strong and keeps our essence intact. I remember once, in response to the attempt made to develop the Fort George area as a Tourism Zone, the great Jules Vasquez advised me that Belize City ought to market itself to tourists as an urban adventure and we need to stop pretending to be what we are not. I balked at his comments and we forged ahead with works in the area. Several years later, when I look at the already dilapidated condition of the improvements, and the chaos that continues in reign outside the gates of the Tourist Village, I realize that Jules was right; we are who we are.
I am slowly coming to accept Sammy’s advice. As much as I celebrate and am thankful for the infrastructural improvements that seem to be ever so slowly changing the landscape of the Old Capital, I remain nostalgic and hopeful that the spirit of this city will never be cemented over; that the day to day joy of community that is shared by those that call it home will never be extinguished. Perhaps someday, some wise promoter will understand how to package the wonderful disorderly essence that drives this city to survive and to grow. Maybe our organic, authentic self is what we ought to be, and perhaps we need to learn to sail with that identity.
Since Hurricane Katrina and massive flooding in the Lakefront area, the canal off the lake in New Orleans no longer looks the same. Reconstruction and gentrification of the area has transformed it into just another tourist trap.