Culture and community

For perhaps the hundredth time the frustrated caller asked, “Whatever happened to those strong old communities we used to have, where everybody looked after one another?”

While the talk show host immediately launched into a discussion about crime, foreigners and “people are just different these days”. I found myself asking the same question as I walked mentally through the neighborhoods of my teenage years. While each neighborhood had its own character, they all seemed so familiar. As I remembered events and activities I enjoyed and the relationships I built in each one, I started to see the similarities. I saw myself at a “record hop” at Our Lady’s School, then a Christmas play at Wesley Hall. Next, I was at the Priory at St. Francis enjoying the annual Bazaar. After the concert at St. Agnes Hall I realized there was a pattern. Although I spent time with classmates and friends all over the island, in almost every neighborhood our getting together was often in a community meeting place. It was as if someone had laid out a pattern of energy centers over the island, each pulsing away, each in the center of a community. St. Joseph Field, where lower Bain Town and Chippingham gathered to do friendly battle in cricket. The Priory for battling in basketball and enjoying dances and the much-anticipated annual Catholic Bazaar. Wesley Methodist Hall, where the most famous company of Boy’s Brigade met, and where church fairs, plays, concerts (aka programs) and exhibitions were held on a regular basis. St. Agnes Hall, where not only plays and concerts took place and Boy’s Brigade and other youth groups met, but where early political student groups first met. St. Agnes Fair was important to the area as far east as Collins Wall and south to Wulff Road. The priests at Our Lady’s School made sure that youth groups and activities were available to the neighborhood, especially the popular matinee dances (for younger readers, that’s dances that ended at sunset). In fact, matinee and evening dances were popular all over the island, from Garfunkel Auditorium (Aquinas School) to St. Mary’s Hall (St. Augustine’s) to St. Anselm’s in Fox Hill. Each neighborhood seemed to have its own reputation in sports, for some cricket, for others basketball or track and field. But in each there were places where the neighborhood met regularly to share each other’s peculiar personalities and to enjoy each other’s’ company. Rivalries in sports built strong friendships as communities competed in sports and cultural expression. Of course, there were also many neighborhood centers of entertainment, from the intimate Joe Billy Rake and scrape hall to the larger nightclubs, like the Zanzibar in Grant’s Town, The Silver Slipper on East Street hill, the Jungle Club in Fox Hill and many more.

What was most interesting about these “centers of community”, however, was that they were most often facilitated by churches, yet there was little concern for who in the community took part Everyone played basketball on the Priory. St. Augustine’s was the home of track and field. St. Agnes courted groups that wanted to share community concerns. Wesley Methodist, St. Agnes and St. Barnabas built Boy’s Brigade companies that did not care which denomination the boys came from.

These were the strong communities that floated through my mind. I tried to do the same mental walkabout through today’s neighborhoods, but could not find very many of those energy centers. Nor could I “feel” the wealth of cultural activity I enjoyed in those early days. Getting together as a neighborhood appears very rare these days, and when it happens, it is most often in protest. The tolerance that allowed neighbors from different churches to sit on their porch and participate in a street service is gone, with everyone claiming their right not to have to have to tolerate someone else’s expression. Parents don’t meet each other at PTA meetings because most don’t attend. The neighborhood Junkanoo group has been replaced by membership in some humongous organization, leaving only those committed to competition in the shacks to participate, and eliminating participation as a neighborhood “just for fun”. But by far the greatest loss is the loss of the opportunities to gather as a neighborhood to listen to that Jamaican man next door play the trumpet, or the Andros woman shock you with a violin solo, or your grandmother recite a two-page poem in the Friday night program, or watch that bad boy from around the corner play the lead role in the Christmas play. Or follow the Church of God parade on the way to their baptism ceremony on the beach. Or pile into trucks to go to the beach as a neighborhood on August Monday, each family with baskets of food, blocks of ice, bottles of limeade and crates of sodas. Perhaps these things still happen, but they are not evident. What I hear instead is a concern for “my” stuff, a concern for whether the neighbor is “real” Bahamian or not. A concern for who has contributed to the event. Even the church is now concerned about who benefits from their effort. So, there are fewer and fewer fairs and bazaars, no matinee dances or even evening dances for the community, no “noisy” street meetings (I did pass one the other day, the first in decades), few community concerts or programs, few parades by even fewer youth groups, lodges or associations, very rare funeral parades and lots of declarations of very personal independence. And while there is occasionally the recognition of the community leaders and outstanding performers by the country, they are almost never celebrated at the community level (except when politicians are on stage).

This is really a conversation about the extent to which we have stopped exposing to ourselves to ourselves. It is about the lack of cultural presentation throughout the country. We have developed the unfortunate attitude that culture is only for certain people, that going to the theater is for the “arts crowd”, that a concert with fifty people in a community hall is not important enough to report in the newspaper, so we shouldn’t bother. The strength of the communities that brought us into Independence resulted from a steady diet of sharing the things that make us unique. James Catlyn understood that, and he pulled together a troupe of people willing to bend over backwards to help us see ourselves from our neighbor’s point of view. Winston Saunders, Clement Bethel, Cleophus Adderley and Meta Cumberbatch understood that and provided us with material to share with our children for a century. Blind Blake and Joe Spence and Phil Stubbs understood that, and they made the Market, the mailboat and the potcake ways for us to share our uniqueness. But the rest of us apparently don’t understand that. We send governments off to do our bidding and choose not to make ourselves part of the agenda. Instead, we seem to believe that some outside agency will come in and miraculously inject us with a sense of community. Cultural expression at the level of the neighborhood builds strong neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods build strong communities. Strong communities build a strong nation. But it always comes down to the extent of cultural sharing.

Where have the strong communities gone? They appear not to have behaved like communities for so long they’ve forgotten how to. They are now trying to be subdivisions instead. That is, they are committed to building communities without an effort to share community values, without a display of their culture. Perhaps now is the time for that Ministry of Culture we have been avoiding for fifty years.

• Pat Rahming is an architect, writer and songwriter who is passionate about the importance of the built environment and its importance to the social development of The Bahamas. He can be reached at prahming@gmail.com or via his blog “From the Black Book” at prahming.wordpress.com. He welcomes other points of view.

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