Making Development Happen: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

Two interviews? Really! Did I need this job so badly? I had promised Pippa Fray, then President of the Jamaica Library Association, that I would go, but this was a bit much. However, having given my word to the unusually cute Financial Controller, Jeremy Brown (he did not look like anything I had seen in England) I decided to do the second round.

I joined the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) in 1974, to establish and manage the Corporation’s library. The offices were at 40 Harbour Street, in  the old United Fruit Company building, a beautiful two-storey edifice with the architectural flourishes of the period, landscaped with stately century palms.

The original building was  a house which was destroyed in the 1907 earthquake.  rebuilt and used for industrial purposes, then acquired by the United Fruit Company in the 1920s.

However, the site dates back to the Taino period. Historians believe that the area  was once a Taino village and that their water came from a network of underground springs which still exists today. Perhaps this is the explanation for the intermittent ‘mysterious’ flows of water we see along the roads south of Harbour Street. The UDC purchased the building in 1971 and used it for its office until 1975 when the organization moved to its own building at 12 Ocean Boulevard in the newly-constructed Kingston Mall.

Making Development Happen is the mission statement of the UDC which was established in 1968 to be ‘a developer in the public interest.’  What does this mean, you may well ask? Colonial Jamaica’s social, physical and economic growth had been haphazard. During the depression of the 1930s, the rural population bore the brunt of the hardships of unemployment, so they  migrated in large numbers to the urban centres of the island – primarily Kingston and Montego Bay – to seek employment, thereby straining the already inadequate physical infrastructure and social amenities – housing, roads, water, schools. health services, etc.  Attempts were made to address the trend of rural/urban migration with the   establishment of the Town and Country Planning Authority, (TCPA) in the 1950s  to advise government on physical planning matters.

In immediate post-independent Jamaica (1962 +) , the TCPA brought the island’s entire coastline and major urban areas under development control, which meant that permission would have to be secured to undertake any physical development in these areas. However, one shortcoming of the  Authority was that its powers did not extend to the acquisition of property, or the assembling of land to undertake comprehensive development. This was the period of accelerated economic growth and concomitant increased urban overcrowding and blight. To stem this haphazard approach to physical development. The UDC was created in 1968  as a developer in the public interest, with the power to acquire property and  undertake urban renewal and/or comprehensive development in areas designated by the government.

At Harbour Street, the space allocated for the library was a tiny room on the ground floor, dominated by a huge table  and hardly anything else.  The library’s ‘stock’ consisted of  gazetted copies of  the laws relevant to the UDC  and old copies of the Times and Newsweek magazines.  The first week was spent in dusting and sorting. I was introduced to Roy, the general factotum, a stocky man of few words, always dressed in blue coveralls and with a permanent half-smile. Little did I know that Roy had an affinity for fire, so when I asked him to pack the piles of sorted magazines in boxes, I had no idea that to Roy that meant disposal  by fire. Can you imagine my utter shock when Florence the office attendant-cum-lunch purchaser, asked me if I had given Roy some books to be burnt. When I rushed to the rear of the building, there was Roy, blithely adding more magazines to the flames. I managed to salvage some. What am I going to do? I thought in despair. Am I about to lose this job after my sinecure at JLS? I took the bull by the horns and   spoke to the General Manager. She was very understanding and enlightened me on Roy’s proclivities.

Because we were slated to move into more spacious surroundings at the beginning of the new year, I had the ‘pioneering’ task of working with the project architect to determine space requirements, layout, furniture design.  I was  a one-man band, the only member of staff, which meant I had to do everything – from acquisition through classification and cataloguing, loans, orders, shelving, in addition to preparing a monthly newsletter of  not just new additions, but abstracts to attract  users, unaccustomed to an in-house library service.

It was my first experience as a  Special  Librarian  as we were called in those days, and coming from the public library service, I reveled in the fact that I   now  had the opportunity to become fully   cognizant of the information needs of the diverse staff of the Corporation. I could anticipate their information requirements from one-on-one interviews, as well as from the Corporation’s project schedules. When I moved in April 1975 into my brand new all-white library on the seventh floor of the spanking new building overlooking Orange Square Park with its lush vegetation , gorgeous stonework and fountain,  I felt an immense sense of pride and achievement.

Because I no longer had to contend with frequent  on-the-job travelling, and I had acquired a motor car,  I decided the time had come for me to revisit my deferred dream of acquiring a university education. My daughter Naala  was four and had just begun attending Wolmer’s Preparatory School;  my son Chris was two; Lance and I had separated and my  domestic arrangements, with  housekeeper Veronica Jackson (Vanca to Chris and Vroncica to Naala in her pre-school days)  would allow me to pursue this dream. Veronica was a blessing and valued member of my small household and we have remained in contact to this day.  I successfully registered in the Arts Faculty  as a part-time student  in the newly-established Caribbean Institute  of Mass Communication’s (CARIMAC)  undergraduate  programme. It was an exciting and exhilarating time. The UDC   was involved in development progrmmes in  Ocho Rios, Oracabessa,  Montego Bay, Negril,  Hellshire, as well as downtown Kingston. The myriad of projects included land reclamation, hotel construction, housing, road construction, and the creation of the Hellshire New Town, from scrubland and beaches, to accommodate the population overspill from Kingston. The cadre of professionals included architects and engineers, physical and urban planners,  social researchers, landscape architects, project managers, land and quantity surveyors, as well as financial, administrative and clerical staff.

The Corporation was a hive of activity – meetings with consultants, project meetings, site visits, meetings with potential partners in development,  meetings with would-be beneficiaries of developments. In charge of this powerful organization was a diminutive woman, with a heart-shaped face – high cheekbones, oriental-shaped eyes, a beautiful smile, dry sense of humour, and a large derriere that seemed to  move on its own volition. Gloria Knight, of  tremendous intellect, charm and dignity;  one of a rare breed of women who could function at the highest level in a corporate environment, successfully manoeuvre the shark-infested waters of partisan politics and corporate boards, keep her staff centred and highly motivated  to the urgency of the task at hand, comb her children’s hair for school and know the first  names of her staff members.

My absorption at work, at school and adjusting to being a single mother left me no time to feel sorry for myself over my failed marriage. I was getting good grades at University, positive responses from staff on the service provided by the library.  Moreover, with the help of my mother  I had paid down on a house at Garveymeade in Portmore, constructed by the National Housing Corporation an agency of the Ministry of Housing. Garveymeade was so named in honour of our first national hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey of international repute whose life mission was to educate the black population worldwide to its potential and the need to remove the psychological shackles of slavery, acknowledge our potential for greatness and  take responsibility for charting our future as a great people.

The seventies was  a period of intense political activity and fundamental changes in the structure of  Jamaican society.  Michael Manley, a trade unionist and  son of national hero Norman Washington  Manley,  one of the architects of the constitution of an independent Jamaica, won the 1972 national elections for the People’s National Party.   A charismatic leader, Manley sought to change the status quo  in the society, and replace the capitalist  market-centred  system with democratic socialism, which some regarded as a soft form of communism,

The fourth Prime Minister of independent Jamaica, Manley pioneered the most comprehensive and wide-spread  raft  of social legislation  and reforms ever seen in the country –  equal pay for women, family court, free health and education including tertiary, removal of the stigma of illiteracy with the equal inheritance act , lifting the voting age from 21 to 18, and maternity  leave pay, among others. He created  the JAMAL foundation for the eradication of illiteracy;   the National Youth Service, a continuing education and skills- training programme for high-school leavers; the National Housing Trust to provide affordable housing for citizens in the lower socio-economic stratum,  and the National Housing Corporation to provide quality and affordable housing for the  middle class. At the regional level he was instrumental in the establishment of CARICOM, the Caribbean Common Market, and internationally was a strong advocate for the New International Economic order and the sovereignty of ex-colonial states. Manley is regarded as one of the most outstanding political figures in the post-colonial history  of  the Caribbean. He had an extra-ordinary passion for human equality.

The energy and drive in the society was conveyed to the Corporation and  we  felt this sense of urgency and intense patriotism to give of our best in the service of our country.  Late nights and week-end work became the norm. The UDC rolled completed projects off the line like a conveyor belt – commercial centre, housing, hotels and beach development  in  Ocho Rios, Montego Bay  and  Negril; hotel, apartment complex, shopping mall and car park in downtown Kingston. It was said that the real power behind the throne was the Chairman of the UDC, Moses Matalon, of the  influential  Matalon clan involved in housing developments and other businesses. He was a heavy set, bespectacled, shadowy figure only sometimes glimpsed entering or leaving the office on monthly Board meeting days. It was said at that time, that the Matalons strategically straddled the political divide, with some supporting the People’s National Party (PNP), while others  the Jamaica Labour Party  (JLP). That way, they always benefitted from major government-financed projects.

In 1979, the UDC was given the task of putting in secondary infrastructure in Portmore New Town, then a dormitory town for neighbouring Kingston.  Portmore, in the parish of St. Catherine, approximately 15 miles south-west of Kingston,  Portmore New Town officially began – there were several older communities in the area –  with the construction of the Independence City Housing Project,  by the Matalon-owned West Indies Home Contractors who were pioneers in the provision of affordable middle and lower middle income housing. Independence City was followed by a succession of   other housing schemes which were snapped up by a hungry market.  In the meantime, Portmore had become a dormitory town without the requisite basic amenities. UDC was therefore given the task of constructing neighbourhood service centres, with post office, fire and police station and rental facilities for enterprising entrepreneurs. Schools were later added  to the project portfolio. In 2003, Portmore received municipality status with its own city council and mayor and discussions are now underway for according it parish status. Today, Portmore’s population is approximately 200,000, the largest residential community  in the English-speaking Caribbean and  with the highest concentration of university graduates.

Portmore has one of the lowest annual rainfall records in the country. Its nomenclature  ‘The Sunshine City’, and more derisively,  Jamaica’s ’desert’ can be attributed to this fact. As a consequence, attractive landscaping is challenging, particularly for public institutions.  To motivate schools to beautify their surroundings, and thereby enhance the learning environment,  the UDC launched a Portmore Best Kept Schools Competition which proved highly successful.  As the innovator of the idea, I felt particularly disappointed when the decision was taken by the Board of Directors to end the programme, not because it was no longer fulfilling the objective for which it was established, but because of ‘financial constraints’, a weak excuse at best.

In 1979 also, when floods destroyed the  town of New Market in the parish of  St. Elizabeth, the UDC was given the mandate to build a new town  on higher ground.  On completion, Lewisville New Town, so named for the Member of Parliament for the area, Cleve Lewis came into existence. We established a drama programme which entered  the annual  Jamaica Cultural  Development Commission’s, (JCDC)  competition and a craft project for the women of Lewisville, under the guidance of CDO Ferguson.. The quality of their products was of such a high standard that sales skyrocketed  and extended  as far as Kingston.  The success of the Lewisville experience resulted in the UDC being assigned other disaster reconstruction programmes –  Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

By this time I had completed my undergraduate degree in communication with first class honours and was promoted shortly thereafter to the position of Public Relations Director,  And this time around I was lucky!  I had three members of  staff  – a deputy director Beverley Josephs,  a Graphics Designer, Anthony Colquhoun and a Secretary.  It was a marvelous unit. We worked hard. We worked  together, and we enjoyed our work. We felt a part  of an organization that was manifestly and profoundly contributing the  development of the country. These were the Camelot days of the Corporation.  The children waited at the office for me after school and Chris  hung around Tony and asked him innumerable questions. Tony did not mind. Today Chris has a  promotional products and branding company and his interactions  with Tony, as well as his artistic ability which he had demonstrated from early days,  may well have been an influence on his career choice. Not so my daughter Naala, now a Restaurateur, after several years in the corporate world. Certainly not from my cooking, but I believe a throwback to her great grandmother Amy Hall, an entrepreneur well before her time.  My friend Artley, refers to Naala affectionately as a ‘binniz’ woman!

In 1981, the West Kingston Development Project, funded in part by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) was launched. Its redevelopment was long overdue.  We had carte blanche to develop a support communication programme – a multi-media effort involving music, drama, print, radio and face-to-face,  based on  the principles taught us at CARIMAC, by  Dr. Peter Haberman,  a German  lecturer  who had had extensive experience in similar  projects  on the African continent. West Kingston  was a  challenging and exciting project. It opened our eyes to the squalor and deprivation  that had existed less than a mile from the spanking new skyscrapers of downtown Kingston, in what was the island’s  market hub and food basket for the Corporate Area. The late Monica Mason came on as Communication Manager. We received one of the highest honours for our effort, the recognition of our peers. In 1988, we won the best audio-visual presentation  of the Public Relations Society of Jamaica’s Annual Awards  for a dramatic production, performed by citizens of the area,  on the importance of  financial responsibility.    The production was entitled “Tek Tim Walk Fas’”

In 1981 also, the Comprehensive Rural Township Development Programme (CRTDP) –another IDB-funded initiative – was launched, in accordance with the Corporation’s original mandate of improving the quality of life in rural areas to   stem  rural/urban  migration.  Six townships across the island were identified in the first phase of the programme. The Public Relations Department was  integrally involved, from the initial stage of holding community meetings in the targeted areas to finding out the perceived needs of the population, to the completion, handing over to the local authorities and community leaders and post-project evaluation.  Each township had a Community Development Officer (CDO) to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Corporation and to develop income-generating projects for the citizens. Lewisville  was used as the pilot project with local input in every aspect of the development programme – physical, social and economic.

The Community Development Officers for all the townships were exceptional. Their creativity and innovation surpassed our expectations and those of the IDB whose representative commented officially on their outstanding contribution to the overall success of the Township Development Programme.

A project which remains dear to my heart was the Orange Bay Squatter Development Programme.  Orange Bay is in the parish of Hanover and over the years, it had  developed into an unplanned settlement where persons unable to afford housing simply encroached on government lands and built their own houses.  In 1983 a programme was initiated that allowed citizens who had taken up illegal; occupancy to gain legal tenure in a properly designed layout. They were allowed to place their wooden structures on their allocated lots which were sold to them at very reasonable rates. Community Development Officer  Holness was employed, a kindergarten  school and  community centre built. In addition, to subsidize their intermittent earnings from  the tourist industry, agricultural lots were made available at peppercorn rental.  The community flourished under Ms. Holness’ nurturing,   1987 was declared the International Year of Shelter by the United Nations.  Public Relations did an audio-visual presentation on the project – entitled ‘My Own Piece of Ground’ the title of a  Miriam Makeba protest song on South Africa’s system of apartheid – to  the annual meeting of Habitat,  the United Nations Human Settlements Programme headquartered  in Nairobi, Kenya.  The upshot was that the Orange Bay Pilot Project was elevated to a model to be replicated by member countries of the UN; another accolade to the  forward thinking and innovative work of the UDC.

In 1989 the government changed hands from the JLP to the PNP and Dr. Vincent Lawrence was appointed Executive Chairman.  An extraordinarily bright and astute men – an engineer by profession – he had other ideas on the direction of the Corporation. When I was appointed the Director of Administration my  relationship with the PR Department  changed to that of  a supervisory capacity only.  Although this new position afforded me the opportunity  to develop and hone my administrative and negotiating skills, the passion I felt in public relations was not there.  When a new member of staff who turned out to be a political appointee  was brought into the Division  and the areas of responsibility between our positions were  in my mind deliberately blurred, I resigned from the Corporation.  For three years I did  consultancy work in  public relations. By this time I had remarried, and my  children had left  for universities overseas  under the supervision of my husband Michael and my mother.  So, once again, I sought to improve my formal education by  registering for a masters programme in communication at the University of the West Indies. I earned a Distinction.

My years at the UDC   were, without question,  among the best  of my professional  life. I became  self-assured and confident of my abilities. I forged long and enduring friendships which I will value forever.  It was this confidence and pride that  had led to my decision that I would not compromise my integrity by  being a willing, if reluctant party to an arrangement  which I saw as anathema  to the values I hold dear.  My stance was vindicated when the individual lost her position shortly after my departure.     It is ironic that it was the Chairman of the Corporation who was instrumental in my contractual employment with a group of public sector companies to publicise their work under the banner of government.

In 2003, I was invited to rejoin the UDC for three months to temporarily  fill the position of  Manager of the Corporate Services Division,  as the former Manager had resigned unexpectedly. I had direct managerial responsibility for four departments – human resources, public relations, corporate planning and information technology. My three months extended to four years. Because I was working on my PhD dissertation, we agreed to a four day work week. It never materialized, so I adjusted my timetable.   The energy and drive I expected to find at the Corporation was no longer there. Perhaps it was naivete on my part. Yes, nothing is static, change is an inevitable part of life, and development is not static.

I found an organization bogged down in bureaucracy and minutiae.

There were too many layers of authority. For example, one small expenditure, within a department’s budget and hence its area of responsibility, had to be approved at three different levels. Yet, our assets were in excess of one billion dollars. We seemed to be always looking at the small details while missing the big picture.  Our weekly executive management meetings were an exercise in frustration and futility. One relatively insignificant item such as vacation leave for a  department head remained on the agenda for weeks on end.  As the national organization charged with the responsibility for creating urban centres of functionalism and beauty, we were hardly a role model worthy of emulation. Our immediate environment was physically unattractive and uninviting.

There were instances when, as portfolio minister, the Prime Minister’s frustration with the lack of vision and initiative in the organization was evident. The irony of its  stifling environment and  threatening moribundity,   was that the Executive  Chairman,  a brilliant man with excellent ideas, was an  engineer,  at best a cautious profession, with a dependence on manifest empirical data to support action. This, combined with a General Manager who was an accountant, meant that the top positions were occupied by individuals who were ‘wired’ to  eschew  creativity and boldness, vital ingredients in the business of planning and urban development in a developing country. Routinization hardly has a place in what should have been a dynamic environment.  Individually, they were excellent for the organization, but together their management styles stifled creativity and initiative and effectively hobbled the organization. While comparisons are indeed odious, it should be noted that Mayer Matalon was also an engineer, but Gloria Knight was a sociologist and this combination, at that particular time in Jamaica’s history, with the spirit of ‘can do’  in a newly-independent nation may have been the catalyst that spurred the organization to its outstanding  achievements in the early years of its existence. There is a well-known expression that you cannot go home again. If you try to return to a place you remember from your past, it won’t be the same as you remembered it.  How true!

The government changed hands in 2007 and I realized it was time to go. I did. Subsequently, the executive management of the Corporation was decimated by political bloodletting.  In retrospect I am extremely grateful to the Corporation for affording me yet again another opportunity to serve my country and to garner additional experience to add to my professional portfolio.

And once again, the national political landscape changed, and I was offered another position at the Corporation, at which time  I politely declined. While you may be able to go back home once, twice would have been distinctly foolhardy.


About the author

Gloria Royale-Davis