Tag Archives: heritage

This old house

Trinidad’s internet elite have a new rallying cry: Save the Boissiere House.

There’s even a Facebook group and an online petition devoted to the cause, so you know they mean business.

Boissiere House, located at 12 Queen’s Park West in Port of Spain, is one of the last remnants of a dying breed: a beautiful piece of creole “gingerbread” architecture, characterised by intricate and elegant fretwork.

The house is being offered for sale – asking price US$10m – but as Nicholas Laughlin points out (via Newsday):

Any private buyer willing to pay that will almost certainly bulldoze it and build an office block or posh condominiums to recoup their investment.

He’s right, of course.

And since Boissiere House does not enjoy the status of a heritage site, said property developer would be immune from legal challenge.

And if this old house is destroyed, it would not be the first time art, architecture and history would have been sacrificed to progress, and not least in this country.

I am a big believer in conserving and celebrating Trinidad’s architectural heritage, and I’m not just referring to landmarks like Boissiere. Because all over Trinidad – from Aripita Avenue to Vistabella – beautiful old houses languish in disrepair, or are broken down in order to construct office blocks or social housing.

Land in this country is not yet so scarce as to make such destruction anything but wanton; and our contempt for our built enviornment reeks of nouveau riche incivility.

Architecture matters. Consider Jeremy Taylor’s recent post over at Notes from Port of Spain, in which he declaims the the “dirty concrete” of the Central Bank, and the “ramshackle dockfront.”

Says he:

The buildings are dramatically out of scale and out of style with the rest of the city, and they speak of money, power, and facelessness, a truly ominous combination. They say that someone in this mad little island aspires to make us like Miami or New York by building skyscrapers; someone has the wild idea that development can be represented by size.

And have you really looked at the architecture of these buildings? It is so bad, so impersonal and anonymous, that truly these buildings could be set down in any city in the world, and it really wouldn’t matter which. There is not a shred of Caribbean in them, not the faintest echo of Trinidadian-ness: no awareness of a tropical, almost equatorial climate, no thought of energy saving, no anxiety about the sea rising and spilling over the waterfront.

They are just big, blank, anonymous, unimaginative, uncreative. In a word, gross. Without taste, without elegance, without grace. Just big. Just expensive.

Exactly. As architect Rudlynne Roberts told Newsday:

The worth of [Boissiere] is in its architecture. Its method of construction, design and layout tells us how people lived during that time.

And more than that, the building is beautiful – unlike the unrelenting concrete monoliths local developers and government seem to equate with progress.

Nicholas Laughlin wants to “persuade the government that the Boissiere House is a crucial and irreplaceable part of our national heritage, that it must be bought by the state, restored, and put to appropriate public use.”

He also offers a list of practical suggestions, including:

– Tell people the Boissiere House is in danger.
– Forward this blog post to everyone you know who might be concerned.
– If you have a blog, write your own post there, or link to this.
– Write a letter to the editor.
– If you work in the media, try to get your newspaper or station to run a story.
– If you own a camera, stop by 12 Queen’s Park West, take some photos, post them online, or just forward them to friends.
– If you know someone in the Ministry of Culture, tell them you’re concerned and ask them to speak to their superior about saving the Boissiere House.
– Call Town and Country and urge them not to give planning permission for a new building on this site.
– Call the National Trust and ask what you can do to help.
– If you know a politician of any party on any level, tell them you’re concerned and ask them to talk to their party leadership.
– Read about the history of the house in Olga Mavrogordato’s book Voices in the Street, or John Newel Lewis’s book Ajoupa, and share this with others.
– Come to the event we’re planning at Alice Yard next week Friday to discuss why this and other historic buildings are worth preserving.
– Email me (my address is in the sidebar to the right) and tell me you’d like to be on a mailing list to hear about further efforts. A website is on its way, also an online petition.
– If you know a member of the Boissiere family that owns the house, ask them to consider putting a no-demolition clause in the sale contract, or to negotiate with the government to arrive at a reasonable sale price that might make it easier to save the building.
– And if you are a multi-millionaire property developer, consider doing something truly enlightened: buy the house, pay to have it restored, put it to some use that will not damage its fabric.
– Finally: ask yourself if you’d be willing to stand in the hot sun with a placard, if it comes to that.

It may well come to that.

Thoughts on the “Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People”

I have the right

  • not to justify my existence in this world
  • not to keep the races separate within me
  • not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical ambiguity
  • not to justify my ethnic legitimacy
  • to identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify
  • to identity myself differently than how my parents identity me
  • to identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters
  • to identify myself differently in different situations
  • to create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial
  • to change my identity over my lifetime–and more than once
  • to have loyalties and identify with more than one group of people
  • to freely chooose whom I befriend and love

By Maria P. P. Root (via Light-skinn-ed Girl)

This is a thought-provoking piece of work, with which I can at least partially identify. So much of the discussion about “mixed-race issues” is limited to the experience of bi-racial (white/black) people living in the US of A; the “Bill of Rights” is broader in scope.

Some of its declarations I have always taken for granted – never have I had to justify my existence, for instance. And the phrase “physically ambiguous” is downright amusing.

But it made me realise that I don’t know how my parents self-identify, and nor do I know how they would describe my siblings and I.

And I have had to justify my ethnic legitimacy, on more than one occasion and to the gamut of family, friends and the parents of former paramours.

It’s a strange thing to be a victim of generic racism. It sounds absurd, but I have always wanted to ask, when faced with such discrimination, which part of me most offends.

In other words, is it because I is black? Or is it because I am not Indian/Chinese/White enough?

(Or, more recently, is it because I’m a twenty-something overachieving chick with dreadlocks and a predilection for wearing Converse to work? Hmm.)

I have never felt (insert ethnic grouping here) enough.

Still, I have had more experience of Trinidad’s version of black and Indian culture than I have had exposure to my Chinese and White heritage. But I am comfortable with none of these. In situations that are purely one or the other, I have always felt ill at ease.

When I donned a shalwar to attend a Divali celebration at my highschool, eyebrows were raised.

When, in my younger days, I was briefly part of the tennis-playing set, I didn’t quite fit in with rivals at tournaments in Port of Spain and environs, and that wasn’t just because they were way better than I. We didn’t speak the same language – and if you’ve ever hung out with the Westmoorings crew, you’ll know what I mean.

Total lack of Chinese-related anecdotes is sufficiently telling, methinks.

I have no real, first-hand experience of what it is like to be white/Indian/Chinese in Trinidad.

Nor do I know what blackness means, as much as I use it as political shorthand for my identification with issues of racism, discrimination and other minority concerns.

Does that make my claim to these multiple strands of history less valid? Am I less authentic because I exercise my right to tick “Other”?

Nothing like an identity crisis on a Friday afternoon.

Feel it in the One Drop

I feel an identity crisis coming on.

This most recent bout of mixed-person-itis was triggered by a post over at What Tami Said, in which the eponymous author comments on “black people” (italics mine) who claim mixed heritage.

While she makes some interesting points, two of her affirmations thereupon unsettled me:

Mixed ancestry is often what we bring up to prove that we are different from other “just black” folks.

It is about elevating ourselves in the hierarchy of race–from “just black” to something special.

The folks in question are not those “bi-racial people who rightly claim both family cultures,” Ms Tami said, but those “who reach back 100 years in the family tree to tout a Cherokee princess who may or may not have existed.”

Oh dear.

I’m not bi-racial. I’m not even tri-racial. Rather, like so many other Trinidadians of my generation and prior, I’m a Chinese-Indian-white-black poster child for miscegenation.

And those roots are much less than 100 years old.

It is true that when people ask me – as they often do – what my “background” is, I reel off that list. But that is not because I’m trying to prove that I am more than merely black.

Because the fact of the matter is, I am not just black.

Nor am I just white, Chinese or Indian – and in fact I am “more” any one of those than I am black, judging by the overwhelming Chinese/Indian presence in my family tree.

So what then?

I’ve said in the past that it is only when I left Trinidad I discovered I was black. Before that, I was happily race-averse, content with and never questioning the legitimacy of my red woman status.

Now, increasingly and usually in the context of discussions socio-political, I self-identify as black.

But I still don’t know what that means. I’m working on it.