Georgetown is one little democratic experiment that seems to have gone off the rails already. Citizens can forget all those seductive words like consultation, transparency and accountability; Mayor Patricia Chase-Green and many of her councillors are the legacy of another era, and if they are not incapable of winding their minds around the concept democracy, they do a first-rate job of pretending that they can’t. It would not be quite so bad if at least there was some evidence they were endowed with a modicum of common sense, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a deficit there too.
And so the latest decree emanating from the Chief Citizen and her cohorts is that a part of China should be reflected in Georgetown. And this does not mean an exhibition – there would be absolutely no problem with that – but a permanent installation so to speak. According to the Guyana Chronicle last week the street where the Chinese Embassy is situated will be renamed ‘Fuzhou Road’ in honour, it was said, “of the great relationship between the cities of Georgetown and China’s Fuzhou.”
Never mind that the citizens of the capital have never heard of what mutual benefits have accrued from this “great relationship” between their city and Fuzhou, it still has not prevented the M&CC from accepting a draft sent by the Chinese Embassy showing what the street would look like. The state paper went on to quote the Mayor as saying: “Some works have already started – the revetment of one side of that street – and it will continue on the other side with street lamps that are either solar panel or energy savers… and an arch. One of the model streets of Fuzhou will be an example of what will be there.”
Ms Chase-Green, who opens herself to the allegation of being an aficionado of China’s imperial period, did not see fit to alert the public until the project was a fait accompli, in addition to which she is not making herself easily available to answer questions. But that does not mean certain obvious questions and observations even at this late stage are not in order. First of all, is the street which cuts through the Botanical Gardens Sheriff Street, or is it Mandela Avenue? If the latter, many Guyanese would take exception to any renaming exercise, no matter how small the portion and no matter what the street were to be renamed.
In any case, changing place names is a highly contentious issue, and should only be undertaken following the widest consultations with the public, and after mature deliberation as to the wisdom of such a move. It hardly needs repeating that there were no wide consultations in this instance, and, one feels fairly confident, no mature deliberation involving those who could give the Mayor some informed and clearly much needed advice.
In the second place, exactly what kind of a precedent does Ms Chase-Green think she’s setting? Are we now going to have other foreign missions requesting that their streets be renamed (at a minimum), and on what basis would she refuse such a request without causing diplomatic friction? The possibilities are endless: there could be Bolívar Boulevard for the Venezuelans; or if one really wants to get into the Latin spirit, Avenida de los Insurgentes for the Mexicans. Then there is Richmond Hill Highway for the Americans, and since the Canadians are on the corner, Toronto Turn for them. The Russians, of course, have a nice ocean-front view, so the Kremlin Esplanade would seem to be the appropriate appellation for their portion of the Public Road, and then perhaps the Fidel Throughway for the Cubans.
The British open up interesting possibilities, since their segment of Main Street could be renamed Whitehall Parade, and a horse guard could be stationed outside the High Commission. This would be an inevitable tourist attraction, while the off-duty horses could keep the Avenue grass cropped, and save the Mayor and her councillors no end of money in terms of weeding gangs.
The third interesting question in relation to this matter is why are we importing a replica street from abroad and giving it a foreign name, when (assuming there is a case for renaming a street) there are local Chinese who could have been remembered instead because they made contributions to Guyana?
The Chinese Embassy, it might be noted, is a supremely ugly building, and while many of the Georgetown foreign missions would not win architectural awards, the Chinese effort is in a class of its own. In fact, it would earn a place among the capital’s more unsightly modern structures of all categories. This is not to suggest that China does not boast beautiful modern architecture; it is simply to say that whoever was given the commission for this particular edifice had no interest in aesthetics, let alone the Georgetown context in which it was to be erected.
And now we are to get a replica of a bit of Fuzhou outside the embassy. The ordinary public has not seen the draft, of course, so no one except the Chief Citizen’s chosen few knows whether the archway and the street will seem alien in the middle of the bisected Botanical Gardens. Of course, it is true that the gardens were ruined a long time ago, first by the road, and then by the lease of land by Forbes Burnham to his wife for a farm. That half of the garden was intended to remain wild, and among other things, was where a collection of examples of every palm species in the world was supposed to be found. But like the PNC, which had no interest in palmae, the PPP too had no more interest in botany than it had in heritage, and allowed the Chinese to build their own special eyesore there.
The citizens of Georgetown are tired of secret deals like the parking meter fiasco, of incompetence like that in relation to the private garbage disposal contractors, and the alteration of the appearance and nomenclature of the city without their input. When they went to the polls earlier this year to punish the PPP/C for its treatment of the capital over two decades, they were not expecting to vote in more of the same. The Mayor is but a representative of the residents; she is not there to follow her own caprices.
Before this Fuzhou project advances any further, the Mayor’s office should cease all further work, release the drawing of what the road will look like, and invite public responses. That is how she should have proceeded in the first instance.
And finally, who exactly will be building this reconstructed street? Chinese workers or Guyanese? And if it is the city council employees – or any Guyanese contractor, for that matter who precisely will be paying for it? Are we wasting money on a street we don’t need but are not paying the garbage disposal contractors or it might be added, restoring the historic but crumbling City Hall?