“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.”

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.