Boss' workshop, Trench Town, Jamaica

Buddha, at Boss’ workshop, Collie Smith Drive, Trench Town, 2011.
Jan 15, 2011

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Trench Town, unintentionally, was designed for the vulnerable. Unintentionally, it promised a better future, and unintentionally, its habitants mistook the promise for the future. Fortresses are built on that mistake. Despite its origins as a temporary staging place for itinerant and migratory workers, Trench Town is the brute of Kingston politics and Jamaican culture. This brutishness can only be explained in terms of origins: bring the vulnerable together, bring together their stories, their histories, and instead of timorousness, the collective begins to speak with assertion, with force, with a global voice. It speaks for that vast segment of humankind that clings to each other out of struggle and hope.

That is why reggae music matters. This book however, is not about the music. It is about what seeded the music. As I began to photograph in this community, I felt that the images were going to end up being a poetic and subtle rendering of a highly vulnerable place – vulnerable at many levels, some in conflict with others. Among these collisions was my sense that Trench Town, the community, was a living history – characterized by a devolution from utopia to dystopia – which may be jeopardized by the need for better social conditions; that a culture which grew out of conflict and resistance may now be under threat by the slightest change or improvement in environmental and social conditions; that the vernacular architecture can only be preserved if it is turned into museum artifact, and therefore not inhabited… and so on. So, in many ways, this collection of photographs, mostly from and around trench Town, Kingston, Jamaica, is a study in the destructive nature of progress.

Technical note: all the photographs were made with Leica M-series cameras and lenses.

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The book, as is being proposed by me and my co-authors becomes a cautionary tale. I think. Goodbye, Trench Town. Hello, inna di light.

What follows are the Forward and Introduction to the collection and proposed book, Turning the Wall: a Trench Town Journey. The book, if not the entire project, relies heavily on research carried out by Jamaican architect and teacher, Chris Whyms-Stone. [links and information more specifically related to this research will be posted here.]

Introduction by co-author S. Dixon Myers

 In 2005, Architect Chris Stone published “An Urban Case Study of the Government Yards of Trench Town,” which compiled detailed construction and architectural information, and pointed to how the design and spatial dimensions of Trench Town kindled prolific aesthetic creativity within the community. His publication revealed the synergy that occurred between the architecture and the musicianship.

It is an elusive task indeed to substantiate such a correlation with definitive conclusions. Chris relates a statement that is often heard from the older generation in Trench Town:  “Bob Marley did not make Trench Town; Trench Town made Bob Marley.” One can look at the long list of those that came from this small area and make similar claim, that it was the epicenter of the music. Bob Marley was only one of many musicians who came from the neighborhood.

Architect Philip Johnson said that “all architecture is shelter; all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” The seven-block plus, housing scheme built in the 1940’s in West Kingston, Jamaica, known as Trench Town embodies this emotionally descriptive phrase in the subtlest of ways. The rural vernacular architecture was designed with gabled roofs and verandahs, multiple dwellings formed around communal yards, louvered windows and built-up foundations to help dissipate the tropical heat. It was modest and affordable yet empathetic to a recently transplanted rural population that occupied a burgeoning city.

For Jamaicans, whose families worked in the fields and boiling houses of the sugar cane plantations for centuries during the post-Columbian era, exercising their freedom to move to the city was luring and appealing. What they brought with them were the oral and musical traditions of their African ancestors: stories about spider deities and duppys (ghosts) that hung out in cottonwood trees, and Yoruba music. The Afro-centric culture had been diluted by European parenthood, and it would be revitalized in West Kingston via an indigenous religious sect, yearning for a black messiah and repatriation to Africa.

The halcyon days of Trench Town however, were short lived. After becoming independent from Great Britain, the forces of social and economic change rapidly blew the wind out of the island’s post-independence sail, leaving the island ship afloat in a tumultuous sea. The transformation to a more industrialized economy, while trying to dig-out of antiquated sugar-cane plantation agriculture, brought about massive unemployment and thus the gulf between the political ideologies grew enormous. The battle for post-colonial power, that had begun in the 1970’s, witnessed the closest Jamaica had come to the precipice of civil war. Trench Town, with its quaintly chiseled gable roofs, louvered window shutters and communal gathering spaces, with its creative, artistic population was unfortunately surrounded by the wider West Kingston battleground, the hotbed of the nation’s political violence.

Encased in this struggle, the narrative that captures the Trench Town story becomes complex and conflicting. You hear it in the music. The name Trench Town becomes identifiable, because the artists use it in a poetically, self-deprecating way, to arouse the sense of misfortune and poverty and to relate the harshness of life in the city. With the international popularity of the music, it became the storybook symbol, the geographic icon, for all oppressed urban poor around the globe. Trench Town conjures up images of sewers, rats and misfortune. Here lies the dichotomy in its history. The promise of the place, conveyed in its careful intentional utopian design and place-making, its embodied promise of independence and development and progress, was shattered in a few short years by the internecine tensions and politics of the Jamaican people themselves. Paradoxically, the soul of Trench Town has remained vital throughout. It is this paradox that provides the impetus for ‘Turning The Wall’.

A community, as an historical formation of people, is like an original score of music and its arrangement is constantly changing. That unpredictable rhythm of change in the social fabric, like the improvisation of jazz, fuses what used to be, to the here and now and the beyond. In this book we hope that you will see, feel and hear many of those overlapping melodies and rhythms. Those of us who contributed to this project all view the world through vastly different lenses, as architect, photographer and community organizer. Therefore our viewpoints of Trench Town diverge and pull against one another, in the process, create a new space between, in which we see and discover something beyond what any of us might have seen alone. We invite you here to add your own lens, and to discover the persistent protean magic and grace of this place we have come to love.

Forward by Felix M. Bivens

This is not a book about Bob Marley, or about reggae. That book has been written many times before and those inspired by Marley’s music can piece together much about his life from the artist’s own words and works. However, much of the power of this book comes from already knowing that story and that music. The book is an exploration of what preceded Marley and what followed his storied life. It is a panorama the place that was and is Trench Town, the community which nourished Marley and dozens of other artists of his generation. Marley was a creative genius in his own right but he was also blessed to be born into a time and place of optimism and artistic foment. While there is always an element of chance and miracle in the rise of any great talent from poverty and obscurity—and even more so in Marley’s becoming the first global music superstar from the developing world—this book shines light on the particular dynamics of Trench Town in the 50’s and 60’s that supported Marley in his artistic development and his arrival on the world scene. But much of that insight is gained from reading in between the lines and the images contained in this volume.

This is not a history book, nor a sociology text nor even a photo essay, though it has some aspects of all these. Like the reggae music that first drew its authors to this unique community, the book is a fusion of disparate elements which blend into something new and unexpected and revealing. It is at one level a juxtaposition of a utopian vision from the past against a dystopian view of the present. However that is only the surface of what’s here. There is much discussion buildings and architectural design, but also woven through all of this there is also the story of the people who have lived and fought and thrived within those courtyards and along those planned streets for decades, and in this there is something that transcends the initial impressions of dysfunction and disintegration. Something elusive seeps through those images and stories, a meaning, a level of coherence, a quality of integrity that is absent from many more affluent and transient communities.

And so, ultimately, this is a book about the meaning and importance of community. The layers and layers of color, of history, of decay and of repurposement tell us something about life and death and resurrection in a still quite voice if we look and listen long enough—like the furrows on an aged, timeworn face that upend our shallow commercialized notions of beauty to give us a glimpse of the wisdom and nobility that come with struggle, pain and loss. The faces of the residents mirror the textures of the place, worn and weathered—but indefatigable. In spite all that has gone awry, there is still pride and hope, creativity and exuberance. Music still fills the air and moves the feet. The energy that filled the government yards in Marley’s day still resides there and hums rhythmically, in expectation of that better world that the music helps us to believe in from the inside out.