For a bunch of reasons it’s really hard for me to paint an unbiased and objective portrait of Tivoli Gardens, but let’s see how this goes. My grandfather opened a drugstore in July of 1945 on Spanish Town Road, which was, and still is, one of the main arteries in downtown Kingston. It’s a block or two away from an area that 18 years later would be developed and named Tivoli Gardens.
By 1945, decades of post-emancipation urban migration by thousands of rural Jamaicans had already started the creation of what was becoming one of the largest shanty towns in the Caribbean. No running water, no sewage system. Dogs and goats roamed unpaved dirt tracks scavenging what was left from whatever humans had already picked from. People were making do and constructing extremely creative housing solutions: old abandoned cars, cardboard boxes, pieces of zinc and scraps of board were pieced and patched together. The area was called Back O’Wall, given the name because it was where people and things that had no use to greater society were thrown—at the backside of civilised Jamaica, walled in by their destitution and kept out of sight and hopefully out of mind.
In 1962 a Harvard-educated Lebanese-Jamaican by the name of Edward Seaga was elected member of parliament for West Kingston. Back O’Wall fell within the boundaries of his constituency. Seaga, who died last year aged 89, was a man full of contradictions. He was passionately benevolent and extremely conscious of the plight of impoverished constituents. He also led with an unyielding authoritarianism and cold pragmatism. Both aspects defined his political career.
As a sociology major he studied the people. He was already very familiar with the area having spent a significant amount of time living there and doing research on the Neo-African/Judeo-Christian religion called Revivalism. Revivalism was practiced by many rural Jamaicans who had relocated to Kingston with their traditions intact. Bredda Eddie, as he was affectionately called by his constituents, was also a record producer and label owner. Both became outlets for his deep love for Jamaican culture and music.
Seaga was a political strategist par excellence whose tenacity would later make him become leader of the right-leaning Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and eventually prime minister. He knew that in order to continue to secure his placement as a member of parliament he would have to lock in a base of voters. However, no politician had ever won West Kingston for more than one term. He did it by creating Tivoli. It was Seaga’s brainchild when he was MP of West Kingston and minister of development and welfare. He envisioned, crafted and implemented his idea of a Jamaican urban utopia. From 1962 until his retirement in January 2005—for 43 years—Edward Seaga was the uninterrupted political representative for West Kingston.
To build Tivoli, residents of Back O’Wall were swiftly moved out, willingly and some unwilling. The area was completely bulldozed and in its place housing, schools, community centres, medical facilities, parks and sports fields were speedily built over the course of three years. Some would describe it as a political purge of sorts since residents who were supportive of Seaga and the JLP were returned to these new facilities and became eternally grateful and, more importantly, very politically loyal
The energy and the personality of Tivoli Gardens, as well as many parts of West Kingston, became a hybrid of Seaga’s national mandate for cultural, political and economic development as well as the rural traditions and social dynamics of its inhabitants. Jamaican music, arts, dance and sports were all institutionalised within the community. Most of the early musicians, performers, bands of ska, rocksteady and reggae all had West Kingston roots. Dance halls and concert halls were rooted in the constituency, with Seaga even owning one of the most famous—the legendary Chocomo Lawn.
In later years, 2002 to be exact, my family’s sound system, Swatch International, started what became the largest weekly street dance in the Caribbean. It was called Passa Passa and was held in Tivoli on Wednesday nights in front of the same store that my long-deceased grandfather opened 60 years earlier.