“The cultural capital of the Caribbean”: How Kingston, Jamaica, went from murder capital to creative capital

A mural depicting Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, reggae legend Bob Marley and his seven sons, on the wall of Marley's museum in Kingston. Image:AFP/Getty.

Last week, the LGBT community in the Jamaican capital held Kingston’s first ever gay pride celebration on the city’s streets. This was a notable event in a city often considered one of the most homophobic on earth.

But despite this progress, Kingston’s image is still problematic, as I discovered in the run-up to my recent visit to the Jamaican capital. When I told people where I was going, “It’s not safe there” was a common response. This wasn’t a one-off remark from an overprotective relative – it was a recurring theme. It was almost as if they expected me to get robbed the instant I set foot in Norman Manley Airport. 

Perceptions of a place always change once you get there. Upon my arrival in Kingston at three in the morning, a cordial taxi driver met me at the airport and whisked me to my destination. Of course, I arrived unscathed and with my every possession intact.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that Kingston is regularly featured in lists with off-putting titles such as “10 world cities with the highest murder rates”, or “The most violent cities in the world”. This negative image discourages tourists, inward investors, and other foreign talent from engaging with the city. 

In April 2014, Professor E. Nigel Harris, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, the oldest in Jamaica, gave an interview. In it, he admitted that “perceptions regarding the state of crime and violence in the country” have been causing a “general problem with attracting academics and students”.

Those who govern Kingston are well aware of its troubles: they understand that international perceptions of the city are hampering its prospects for future development and growth. Nevertheless, officials remain optimistic about the measures they are taking to amp up the positive side of Kingston. On the ground, things may not be quite as bad as they seem.

“The problems that create this negative reputation are not widespread,” says the city’s mayor, Angela Brown-Burke. “In fact they are confined to just certain areas. The vast majority is not like that.”

Local businesspeople seem to agree, albeit cautiously, with her assessment. “The rise of business hotels is a good indicator that a city is making progress,” says Christopher Issa, owner of the four-star Spanish Court Hotel in New Kingston, the city’s commercial district.

Issa opened his hotel in 2009. A year later, Kingston declared a state of emergency when attempts by the authorities to capture notorious drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke were followed by riots. The incident, which made global headlines and closed the capital’s airport, put a serious dent in Kingston’s image. 

But fast-forwarding six years, Issa says: “I think Kingston is in a better place now. Most of the crime in Jamaica is related to domestic violence, crimes of passion, or is drug- or politically-related. They happen mostly in the inner city areas and may not impact tourists as much, you know.”

He believes a lack in critical thinking is at the root of Kingston’s problems. “We can turn things around, once we put our minds to it. If we change the mind-set, the city will follow.”

Kingston has much to offer. Its rich history is full of influences from Spanish and British conquest, colonisation and slavery. But it also offers a thriving arts scene, world-famous music (it’s the home of reggae and birthplace of Bob Marley), and an emerging film industry.

“I’d love to have Kingston widely recognised as a creative city, with fashion, art and music of all kinds,” Brown-Burke says. “In fact, my goal is for Kingston to be recognised as the cultural capital of the Caribbean.”

Dr Hume Johnson, nation branding specialist and assistant professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, argues that Kingston is in the “throes of a cultural and creative renaissance”. This, she says, will “undermine its perception as a city of crime, homophobia and underdevelopment”.

But Johnson warns that there are still obstacles. “This cultural rebirth is taking place in the shadows,” she says. “Kingston remains under-valued, underappreciated and misunderstood.” 

Change won’t happen overnight. But over time, it should be possible to position Kingston, and Jamaica as a whole, “as a place of the arts, culture, history, entrepreneurship”. The result, Johnson says, will be “a planned and innovative urban centre where young people can find or create jobs – and people can feel safe to live and work.”

 
 
 
 

How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.