|Jumbey Village: Lessons learned|
Published: Apr 30, 2012
The history of Jumbey Village gives us an opportunity to question the way we see life in our rear view mirror. And over the past few weeks we have enjoyed a National Pity Party, as the details of its demise have been laid out like an Eddie Minnis buffet on various radio talk shows and presentations.
There are, however, several lessons to be learned from the saga, but I am afraid many of them may be lost in the competitive and acrimonious conversations about political sabotage and broken dreams that we have been seduced into. There are lessons about the way we govern ourselves, about our efforts to redevelop our communities and about the business of culture that so far have been left out of the public conversation, lessons crucial to our future development.
First there is the question of the truncated system of government we presently practice. There are few, if any, countries in the world that do not offer their citizens the opportunity to exercise responsibility over local community matters, that operate only at the national level. That is what we do. There is no real local government, because there is no opportunity to determine local agendas without the sanction of the central government, usually through the minister. Monies used locally are provided by the central government, and must be spent on an agenda determined essentially by the central government.
In most instances in other countries, funds are derived from local taxation and spent in accordance with local concerns, within limits defined by law. It is within these lower tiered scenarios that those interested in national administration get an opportunity to learn what the rights are under the constitution, how government actually works and how to turn a political promise into a benefit for his constituents. Our so-called “local government” is therefore neither local nor government.
For those of us who enjoyed the Jumbey Village experience, and the Grove Festivals it spawned, its reliance on a central government was certainly a tragedy. A local administration would most certainly have found ways to save the idea, and continue the empowerment of the people of the Grove area. The first lesson, therefore, is that it is not a good idea for us to continue to pretend that the central government’s dictatorial behavior is a matter of personality. It is the system we have chosen to continue despite the evidence of its shortcoming.
Secondly, much is being said about “urban redevelopment” and the loss of the opportunity offered by the Columbia University study to have meaningfully revitalize the Over-the-Hill area. For the record, the study cited would not have been commissioned by the then government, as reported in several journals, but proposed by a university as an exercise for the students of its architectural school. It may have required government sanction, and they certainly deserve credit for encouraging the study, but it was not a study that included the input of the people for whom the study was supposedly done. It would therefore most likely have been disastrous for it to have been implemented.
This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with having foreigners carry out studies, but their relevance is determined by the extent to which the “brief” is determined locally. Bain and Grants Town is a community that deserves to have their particular lifestyle as the basis for their planning solutions. The scale and texture of the area are determined by the history and the civic decisions made over years about street size, leasing policies and boundary walls by the communities that grew there, and should not be ignored because it is inconvenient to actually study them for inclusion in the framing of future plans.
There is still a great need for that exercise, and perhaps this saga will help us begin to take the responsibility for getting it done. By the way, while Freeport may be pretty, few people offer it as an example of community life. Clean streets and wide sidewalks do not make a community better unless that is what the community wants. Communities feed on a rich community experience, not an environment that fits somebody else’s image of how they should live. Mason’s Addition provides a richer community experience than Seabreeze, despite its apparent congestion and blight.
What, therefore, has been said about the loss of opportunity to redevelop “Over-the-Hill” (actually, the residential section of the City of Nassau) is no more than an excuse for not taking responsibility for the study of our own built environment. We have had the opportunity, but seem content to wait for some outside savior with a “prize-winning program”. One of the most obvious successes in the Jumbey Village story was that Ed Moxey showed the Cordeaux Avenue community how to take responsibility for themselves. If there was one major failure, it was that he allowed them to believe they needed outside sanction to continue doing so.
Finally, there is the question of culture as commerce. For some reason, Bahamians have been convinced that the constitution gives them the right to be appreciated. Across the board, presentation standards are low, performers surly – even rude – and there is no respect for the basics of production, yet as long as there is some connection to our “roots”, we behave as though customers are privileged to have our performance. Add to that an environment that encourages the belief that “jobs” can be guaranteed by law and it is no mystery that the cultural offerings of The Bahamas are uncompetitive. In a country that makes its living presenting its people’s story, there is not a single school for the performing arts. Yet, with everybody in the region eating our lunch, we miss no opportunity to publicly pat ourselves on the back.
For me, the greatest lesson to be learned from the Jumbey Village story is probably that to survive, attractions must be commercially viable. Excuses about travel distances, bad neighborhoods and high ticket prices have been proven bogus by cultural presentations the world over, that prove that people will travel long distances, brave hostile environments and pay high prices for presentations that deliver exceptional experiences. It is the tired, boring, excuse-ridden experiences, delivered badly (and late) for which they will not put themselves or their money out.
In 1987, I wrote about the lack of government commitment to cultural activity in connection with the demolition of Jumbey Village (in which I was an accomplice), and I stand by that article, but that was only a part of the issue, and we have made no effort to develop the public’s understanding of the part of the issue that requires our own acceptance of responsibility.
The Bahamas is in the business of tourism. Between half and two thirds of the money with which we build roads and schools comes from that sector. It is about time we begin to take that fact seriously. The business of tourism is the business of the creation and operation of attractions: tours, resort attractions, event attractions, retail attractions and virtual attractions. Jumbey Village had the opportunity – and the responsibility – to become a first-class retail attraction, built on the experience of our lifestyle. But for that someone would have had to develop the business model (that is, understand who the customer was, what the product was and how to offer the product to the target customer for a profit), which clearly was not its focus at the time. It was focused on its social objectives, but it was its commercial failure that made government support so necessary. While there has been much discussion about the extent to which the country failed Ed Moxey, I believe we have missed the opportunity to focus on the potential role of Jumbey Villages in the development of the economy, and therefore on the real empowerment of the so-called “small man”. The formula is not that complex, but it is brutal if ignored. If you are not offering a superior experience you will not survive (at any price). That is what our present decline in tourism business is proving, although it appears no one is prepared to admit it.
There were many things right about Jumbey Village. But there were many things wrong, and among them was the fact that the business of Jumbey Village was not important, and as a business it was not viable. It would therefore make sense for us to study its failure, so that future similar ventures prove more successful, and in the near future there might be a dozen Jumbey Villages to bolster our thin tourism business. After all, they say the best way to honor the idea of a Jumbey Village (and Ed Moxey) would be to repeat it – successfully.
– Pat Rahming