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Preserving the Tacarigua Savannah

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 09, 2013

Tacarigua, one of the oldest villages in Trinidad, has always been a peaceful village. In fact, it has been so peaceful that there has never been a police station in that village.1 One suspects that the presence of its savannah, the second largest in the country after Queen's Park Savanna in Port of Spain-that is, until the construction of homes on those magnificent grounds in the 1950s,-the gentle-flowing waters of its river to which all repaired on a Sunday, and the peaceful mixture of its peoples-Hindus in Paradise, Muslims in Dinsley, and Africans in St. Mary's-all added to the attractiveness of the place and mutual respect each accorded to the other. In a way, it could be said that the Tacarigua Savannah held the village together. It certainly was the central spot where everyone gathered.

The beautiful aspect about Tacarigua and its "districkers" was the manner in which it organized itself as a community through the use of its savannah. There was never, at least in my memory, a fight over space or of the use of the savannah. The ground west of the Orange Grove Road was used by El Dorado; Holy Ground, the pastures between the Eastern Main Road and the Priority Bus Route, was used by Paradise; the space in front of what is now called the Eddie Hart Stand was used by the Orange Grove Cricket Club. The ground to the south of the old Railway Station (now used by the Ulric Buggy Haynes School) was used by the Tacarigua Ex-Pupils, while the playing field at the southeast of the savannah was used by Dinsley Village. When the Trinidad Sugar Estates (or OG) went out of business, Tacarigua E.C. Ex Pupils moved over where OG played, whereas Buggy Haynes School moved over to where Ex-Pupils played.

These arrangements held for over one hundred years without there ever being an argument from any of the groups as to what ground they played on.. There have never been any violent encounters among these groups; crime remained at a minimum, and we produced our crop of sportsmen of national note including Ulric "Buggy" Haynes, Eddie Hart, and Ellis "Puss" Achong-at least he returned to Trinidad after his stint in England to act as coach for the Trinidad Sugar Estates. Keith Aqui went on to represent Howard University in Washington D.C. at soccer in all of its glory.

In the 1950s when sugar became uneconomical for Trinidad Sugar Estates, they began to erect houses upon the savannah. It was gradual at first-just an experiment-and then it took on a life of its own. Within a fifty-year period the entire savannah was inundated with houses-changing one of the most beautiful natural savannahs in the country into villages such as Trincity and Savanna Drive. In the 1960s the El Dorado ground was sold to Trintoplan and in the 1990s Belgrove Funeral Home bought another piece of this ground so that we now have the pleasure of having corpses look over the activities of the savannah. In other words, within a half of a century a very large spread of real estate which had provided open spaces for relaxation, sports, and aesthetic activities was suddenly transformed into a narrow stretch of about ten acres into which all of the people of the surrounding districts were crammed (or at any rate, in which they now camp.)

Even as these hundreds of acres were being reduced to spaces for housing and industry, a most remarkable demographic shift was taking place in the area. It was almost as though Port of Spain discovered the East and within those fifty years close to two hundred and fifty thousand people moved into the area, not only into Trincity and Savannah Drive, but also into newly formed villages such as Paradise West and Paradise East.

One would have thought that with the movement of more people into the area that citizens would have demanded (or certainly the government) would have seen the need to provide more playing fields and many more forms of recreational and sporting activities. That did not happen. The people of the area had to utilize the last remaining ten acres to satisfy their recreation, sporting, and health needs to such a point that today, the Tacarigua Savannah (or the Eddie Hart Savannah as it is called sometimes) accommodates thousands of people on any given day as they can be seen running around the track, playing football, and conducting sports meetings.

In short, the Tacarigua Savannah is one of the most utilized sporting areas in the northeastern area of Trinidad. It is a place where people walk, jog, ride their bicycles and play a range of sports and games from as early as 3 am to 11am and then again from 3 pm to 11 pm on any given day. The eastern grounds are used heavily by ten schools in the area and by track and field club athletes who use the space for training and practice purposes. It is not too much to say that this is one of the most widely used recreational spaces in Trinidad and Tobago.

Now we are told that the Ministry of Sports has a plan for us. We are told that the Minister of Sports got Cabinet to approve one hundred and seventy million dollars ($170m) to construct a facility in the remaining part of the Tacarigua Savannah (together with two other facilities in Penal and Siparia). Without telling anyone, the Tunapuna/ Piarco Regional Corporation hired K S. and P Civil Engineers and Contractors to organize a plan for the savannah. One wonders if these planners ever thought of building cultural centers and or library to develop the cultural and social capital of the people of the area. Apart from a decrepit building called the Tunapuna Library, there is not one cultural complex in the area where a person can go to read a book, use a computer, or conduct a community activity such as showing a film or holding a lecture.

What did these planners come up with for the Tacarigua Savannah?

Well, according to our information, at the entrance of the first savannah (the Eddie Hart Grounds) they will construct two grounds to play small-goal football joined together with a basketball court, an international cricket, and football field with a running track made of rubber and seating for one thousand people in the grandstand area. Now, we must remember that these are natural savannahs which are self-draining and which have served their purpose for over a hundred years. Now, we are to be introduced to the wonders of a running track made of rubber and a grandstand made of concrete that can hold one thousand persons.

That is not all. On the Ulric "Buggy" Haynes Ground where cricket is played an indoor swimming facility will be constructed and to the east of that-perhaps around the Dinsley playing area, the Minister and his government intend to construct a car park for 300 cars. On the Dinsley Ground, there are plans to construct a running track and pavilion and a road to connect the two grounds.

Now the logical question arises. Why does the Ministry of Sports want to take that last bit of natural savannah to construct a car park-yes, a car park- a swimming pool, and a road on what is left of our natural savannah? Why is it so urgent to transform this piece of greenery to concrete and clay? We must remember that when our natural savannah goes, it is lost for all time. That is to say, the natural legacy of over a thousand years will simply dissolve into concrete and clay, never ever to appear again.

What is the rationale for this plan?

We are told that if this plan goes through we will be able to produce "world-class athletes" and it would result in the reduction of crime. Where is the evidence for such a strategy? The truth is this: if this plan is allowed to go though, in ten years we will see another Laventille along the east-west corridor. Even if we produced ten world-class athletes-which does not seem likely-it could never make up for the destruction of the thousands of lives that will be destroyed or lost in the process.

Why do we say so?

In the first place, if this international cricket, football, and track and field ground is constructed with a pavilion to hold a thousand people, it would immediately deny the residents in Tacarigua and the surrounding districts a place of recreation and exercise. We presume that it would have to be maintained and like the Queen's Park Oval and other such facilities its use would be limited to a few special persons. The same is true if an indoor swimming facility is built. It, too, would be confined to the use of a special few.

It would be sacrilegious to convert a large piece of natural savannah lands into a car park for 300 vehicles or a swimming pool for how many people we don't know. A road running through the savannah would be an atrocity and a violation of the sanctity of a people's history. This natural piece of heaven would be lost to our people for all time. Nothing could be more inconsistent with every theory of development that we know. Would one ever think of building a road or a car park on the Queen's Park Savannah?

But the desecration of this ground has to be placed in a larger perspective. Development, as we understand it, must always be for and about people, always inculcating a people's history in the process. The true legatees of the Tacarigua Savannah are neither the Eddie Hart Football League nor the Ulric "Buggy" Haynes Coaching School. The true legatees are the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the area and whose parents and grandparent have used those facilities for hundreds of years. To transform that space into a concrete jungle is to violate a sacred trust that has existed for hundreds of years between the living and the dead and turn it into a privileged sanctum for a few. It is also a way to destroy the natural harmony between a people and their environment which would affect the harmony of their lives. These are some of the reasons why crime has been so low in this area. Come to think of it, when did you last hear of a violent murder committed in Tacarigua?

Moreover, the area of which we speak is the natural water table for the residents of the area. It is the most significant aquifer in northeast Trinidad providing the water supply for a significant part of north, east,and central Trinidad. At the present time there are eight WASA pumps around the savannah that provide the drinking water for the hundreds of thousands of people in the area. Carol James, an expert in ecology, has written:

This savannah sits at the foothills of the Northern Range from which its watersheds provide copious volumes of fresh water into the rich amplifiers (natural underground water storage areas) lying low below these green spaces (hence the presence of so many WASA facilities). Indeed, it is the only uncontaminated set of aquifers of this size anywhere along the east-west corridor responsible for supplying water needs of significant communities of nations. Aranguez has already been contaminated with salt water and pesticides due to a lack of critical planning in that ecologically sensitive water-storage area. A major building such as the proposed swimming complex would spell disaster for the natural ecosystem function of the Orange Grove Savannah.

In other words, if one destroys or disturbs that natural water table it is guaranteed to create untold water problems for the people in the area in the very near future. We take our natural water supply for granted. Things would not be the same if we placed all that concrete and clay atop that area.

There is another aesthetic factor that we take for granted. All communities have or need natural centers. For over two hundred years, the Holy Ground and the Orange Grove savannahs have been the natural centers of the community. Everything happens there. First, there is the St. Mary's Anglican Church that was built in 1843 (although the old church was destroyed and the present church was constructed in the 1920s); the St. Mary's Children's Home was built in 1857 for the Indian Children that were orphaned on the kali pani (dark waters) and whose parents died while they were on their way to this island. The St. Mary's A.C. School at the east of the Holy Ground that was first built in 1837 (it was called the Cocoa House) with the assistance of the ex-slaves (the apprentices) and relocated to its present site in 1954.2 It was the place where Alfonso Nurse, the father of George Padmore, the famous Pan Africanist,3 acted as headmaster for years.

On this very savannah which is to be turned into an international stadium stands a Coolie Pistash tree that was once part of the home of William Hardin Burnley, the biggest slave holder in the island.4 His original home stood about 100 yards south of where the Eddie Hart Pavilion now stands. The Tacarigua Presbyterian School (previously the Canadian Mission Indian School) was built in 1884; M.P. Alladin, one of the most famous landscape painters of the country lived opposite to that school.

The Tacarigua Savannah is the natural center of the community. If there is no natural center in a community, that community dies. The resultant death of such a community leads to a plethora of crime and the increase of nonsocial activities within that area which leads to the inevitable: "I don't know why these black kids commit so much crime." We do know. If they are denied playing facilities and avenues to express their creative selves, they usually turn to crime. And if we ever wanted to bring the community together in numbers to celebrate any festival, national, religious, or state, where are they supposed to gather?

Today, we take it for granted that Tacarigua is relatively crime free. It is so in large part, because people, both young and old, have a place to go to burn off their energy and their steam. Middle aged and older people can walk to maintain their health. As simple as small goal football seems; if young teenagers could not play a game together when they want, they would soon turn their energies into nonsocial practices and this is where crimes come into being.

Then there is the problem of health. We know that all communities in Trinidad face a rise in diabetes in our young. What used to be an old people's disease has suddenly become a young people's disease. Two reasons for this have been the rise of fast-food joints in our communities and the lack of exercising among the young, caused no doubt by the lack of exercise and a culture that favors indoor activities associated with computers, iPads, and other such modern conveniences. Schools throughout the world are adding physical exercises to their curriculum. They realize the importance of exercise in modern life. Take away our playing fields and one is sure to see a sharp rise in diabetes and other related diseases. Simply walking around a park can save a person's health. A word to the wise is sufficient. If we are not on our guard, we can quickly find ourselves with a pandemic on our hands.

If we continue to pour more and more people into an area and decrease the spaces where they can let off steam, the area quickly turns into a playground of violence and crime. We know of the instance of the Cabrini Greens housing project in Chicago where the Chicago City Council had to blow up apartment buildings because of the growing crime rate. Too many people were living on top of one another. The last building was bulldozed in 2011. The area had become synonymous with crime, prostitution, and squalor.

In fact, the United States federal government discovered that housing people in a limited space with no outlets for sporting and recreational activities is a blueprint for urban decay, squalor, and crime. People are social animals. They need spaces to let off their energies and to engage in sporting and athletic activities. If you continue to pile people upon people, they will explode and that is what happened in Chicago. It is what is happening in Laventille and Morvant. It is what will happen in Tacarigua and its environs if we allow the Government to turn our last piece of greenery into concrete and clay.

Development, of necessity, needs to take into consideration the human aspirations of the larger community and its desire to exercise, play, and just relax. Just as London needs its Hyde Park and New York needs its Central Park, Tacarigua needs its Orange Grove Savannah. It's the last expanse of green space that is left along the entire east-west corridor. Over the years we have looked on sadly as the Tunapuna Savannah, the setting of C. L. R. James's Beyond a Boundary, was turned into the home of a fire station; and the El Dorado ground at the corner of Caura Royal Road and the Eastern Main Road was taken over by the El Dorado Co-operative Building. That village is now without a playing field. We cannot allow the same thing to happen to the Orange Grove Savannah. We do it at our peril.

The Ministry of Sports' plan is bad for the area. By denying thousands of residents a place where they can recreate, play, and relax would escalate the crimes in the area and create a blighted community within the next ten years. One can confidently predict that if the Ministry of Sports is allowed to go ahead with its plans it would create another Morvant-Laventille within our area within the next ten years. More importantly, the plan proposed is inimical to any serious notion of what the social and cultural development of our people entails. Nor for that matter, is it in the interest of maintaining and improving the health life-styles of our varied communities.

For over one hundred years the people of the area have organized themselves into self-regulated communities, doing their own thing, and overseeing their own relatively healthy and crime-free lives. The plan of the Ministry of Sports if it is put into effect would end all of this-a hundred years of tradition-in one fell swoop. It is a classic plan of creating community suicide and plugging us into a disastrous future.

THE MINISTRY OF SPORTS MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO DESTROY OUR VILLAGE. WE, THE PEOPLE, MUST PREVENT THEM FROM TOUCHING ANY PART OF THE SAVANNAH. IF THEY ARE ALLOWED TO DO SO, THIS WOULD GO DOWN IN OUR HISTORY FOR THE SHAME, VIOLATION, AND DESECRATION THAT IT IS. CAN THEY NOT SHOW SOME RESPECT FOR OUR HERITAGE?

NOTES:

  1. In 1842, the ward of Tacarigua consisted of the village of Tacarigua, Arouca, Arima, Guanapo, Caroni, Caura and La Ceiva. See William Hardin Burnley, Observations on the Present Condition of the Island of Trinidad (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1842), 42.

  2. The Cocoa House was built with the assistance of the enslaved and their parents. They also subscribed to the funds that built the St. Mary's Church. The Cocoa House was located in front of the St. Mary's Rectory that was built in 1841.

  3. George Padmore was named George Nurse at his birth. When he went to New York in the 1920s, he changed his name to George Padmore for political reasons. Every Marist had to assume a pseudonym in order to be safe.

  4. Unfortunately, the Coolie Pistash tree is the only reminder that we have of Burnley's mansion that was built in 1821.. However, the presence of the Coolie Pistash tree reminds us of our tendency to destroy rather than to preserve. In 1849, James Lamont, the second largest slave owner in Trinidad, built Benmore, an enormous mansion house in the heart of the Cowal Peninsula of Scotland. Today, it stands at the heart of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburg, Scotland, as one of the prizes of its garden and is used to instruct students in field history, a study of "the visible evidence of the past in the environment." See Augusta Lamont, Record and Recollections of Sir John Lamont (1950), for an account of John Lamont's purchase and association with Benmore and Anna and Fay Young, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburg Benmore Guide Book (Edinburg: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburg, 2011) for a description of the work that is done at the garden. The book leaves out Lamont's contribution to the history of this great garden. David Younger, Country House Life in the Highlands (Edinburg Botanic Garden Edinburg, nd) mentions Lamont's participation at Benmore briefly on page 9. The important point here is this: while others preserve we destroy. On July 31, 2013 I had the pleasure of visiting the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and viewing Lamont's magnificent mansion.

Professor Cudjoe, a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. His email address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu and can be followed on twitter @ProfessorCudjoe.

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