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.”