Dreams, Dons & Dancehall

It’s really hard for me to paint an unbiased and objective portrait of Tivoli Gardens. For a bunch of reasons. 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. 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, pigs 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 the greater society were thrown-at the backside of civilized 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 earlier this year at 89 years old, 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 and eventually prime minister. He knew that in order to continue to secure his placement as 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 Tívoli. It was Seaga’s brainchild when he was MP of Western 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 centers, 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 Jamaica Labour Party 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 institutionalized within the community. Most of the early musicians, performers, bands of Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae all had West Kingston roots. Dancehalls 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 held in Tivoli on Wednesday nights in front of the same store that my long deceased grandfather opened 60 years earlier. Passa was unique because it changed the perception that many Jamaicans had of the community. Diverse groups of people from all over the country and the globe would make it a point to be in Tivoli to experience authentic dancehall music , culture and personalities. All in an environment that was safe and orderly without ever an incident. This flew in the face of the then common narrative that Tivoli was a crime infested ghetto whose inhabitants were prone to violence and unwelcoming of outsiders.


This reputation, though unfounded, had had its genesis from an earlier decade.

You see, Tivoli became a pawn on the chessboard which the geopolitical tensions of the cold war were played out in the 1970s. Seaga, who by then had become the leader of the Jamaica Labor Party, was strongly opposed to the leftist leanings of the ruling Peoples National Party. Michael Manley was the charismatic leader of the PNP.
Manley had cultivated strong ties with Cuba and Russia and was determined to lead Jamaica as a democratic socialist country. Many Jamaicans feared that we were the next in line to join Cuba and Nicaragua in becoming a fully communist state. America very much believed this and dreaded the thought of another red outpost with missile striking capabilities in its backyard.
Well, this is where we will try not to say too much. But let’s suffice to mention that the streets of Jamaica became filled with American M-16s and Soviet Ak-47s and West Kingston became ground zero in a bloody, brutal battle that was probably being scripted from offices in Havana, Washington and Moscow.
Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston were surrounded by areas that were all politically aligned to the left leaning PNP government and with Tivoli as the defacto capital of the right leaning forces, they were all hellbent on its destruction. Tivoli was viewed as the ultimate garrison and ground zero in the war for the ideological soul of Jamaica. 
Continuous strikes and counter strikes lead to an undeclared civil war in which thousands islandwide were killed in the lead up to the 1980 elections.



The JLP won that election and Jamaica has embraced a mostly capitalist economy ever since. Tivoli has also remained loyal to the JLP even subsequent to the resignation of Edward Seaga in 2005. However that loyalty has been strained over the last decade for one particular reason. In 2010, the JLP government as a result of an extradition request from America, grudgingly removed a prominent community leader and flew him to New York to stand trial on drug trafficking charges. His name was Christoper “Dudus” Coke. 
Dudus was considered the Don of West Kingston with Tivoli being his home. He was known as The President.


His father was Lester Coke aka Jim Brown, who was also considered the defacto boss of Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston before him during the 1980s. Dudus was quiet, intelligent, attended a prominent high school and became the leader after the death of his father. Loved and feared, his brand of benevolence and leadership, one dedicated to a sense of order allowed West Kingston to become a place where internal crime was almost unheard of. He was perceived by some as the final arbiter of justice within the community. Some would say that his power and influence extended all across Jamaica and perhaps the globe to places where migrating Jamaicans had settled. Yet America wanted him to stand trial and the community didn’t agree with that at all. They closed ranks and the entry points into Tivoli were barricaded with booby traps. The President was going to be protected at all costs regardless of the wishes of the both the Jamaican and American government.

The defense included lots of men with lots of guns. All were seen in Tivoli by US surveillance planes and internal informers who were by then both feeding information to the Jamaican military. All in preparation for an invasion of the community to get Coke dead or alive. On May 23, 2010 the military and police broke through the barricades and the resulting carnage left 73 civilians and one soldier dead. Well that was the official report. From the community’s count that number is closer to 120 civilians killed. The soldiers had burnt bodies. Also it seems that Dudus and most of the warriors who were defending him had left after preliminary mortars were fired by the military and before any actual fighting started. It is also suspected that a significant number of the civilians killed were executed in cold blood by soldiers as they sought information on Coke’s whereabouts. 
Dudus was eventually captured en route to turning himself into the American Embassy and quickly extradited. He stood trial and was sentenced to 23 years in a federal prison. 



Tivoli lost its Don. As a result, over the last few years, there has been some violent internal strife between various factions vying to fill the void left by his departure. However, in the face of this, the community remains vibrant. Music and sound system culture is alive and well. Tivoli Gardens sports teams and cultural groups still excel nationally. Entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency as an area are still strong in the DNA of the residents. 

Tivoli has been through decades of regular onslaughts by various forces. Some may say many were brought on because of the legacy of how and why it was built. But because of these challenges the residents have built up a communal resilience and particular fortitude of character that does not exist in many Jamaican urban communities. There is no question that Tivoli will have to evolve and take a proper place in the new 21st century Jamaica which everyone is desirous to see. I only hope that the culture, energy and strength of spirit of the residents are channeled to positively impact their own destinies.