Fleet Street is the pearl of Downtown Kingston which breaks down barriers and breathes hope into disadvantaged communities. Downtown is a bustling metropolis featuring the headquarters of leading Jamaican businesses, stores, government offices and the House of Parliament. However, for my entire life I’ve heard my mother say she doesn’t go downtown if she doesn’t absolutely have to and when she did, she rarely took me along. Why? Downtown has been plagued for decades with many socio-economic issues, troubled inner-city communities and now as a result harbours notorious gangs and garrisons which led to the city once being labeled as the murder capital of the world. Political corruption has severed communities, led to the stark increase in crime and now our leaders grapple with reining in the monster which they have created. Nonetheless, as we say in Jamaica “wah nuh dead nuh call ih duppy” (literally translated: if it’s not dead, don’t call it a ghost). And that’s what Downtown Kingston is– a reawakening city and perhaps the most colourful part of that renaissance is located on Fleet Street.
The Success Story Behind Fleet Street
Paint Jamaica is the unique social intervention project behind Fleet Street’s renaissance. Launched by Marianna Farag, a French visitor to Jamaica, she was taken aback by the state of Parade Gardens in Downtown when she visited and wanted to help in some way. She realized that the foresaken dilapidated buildings and zinc fences contributed immensely to the community’s depressed psyche, in particular that of its youth. This inspired her to partner with a group of Jamaican artists in July 2014 for a 10-day project to beautify the walls of a large abandoned warehouse on Fleet Street with bold giant murals. This runs deeper than a renovation exercise as the murals were aimed at fostering a sense of pride in the residents for their community, instilling an appreciation of art and providing an outlet for creative expression. The mere act of uplifting the visual landscape has helped to reduce crime and littering. Also, the murals have brought with them an unforseen benefit. Locals and foreigners alike who would never have dreamt of setting foot in the wrong side of town are now piling in daily to take selfies and host photo shoots next to the street art for the ‘Gram. With that, the community has received more recognition and support from affluent individuals and companies for its development projects.
Unlike most inner city social intervention projects, this one is 100% community based so it has been well-received by residents. Paint Jamaica paved the way for spinoff project Plant Jamaica, launched by a local volunteer Andrew Bruce. Plant Jamaica aims to create sustainable farms in small inner city communities with the aid of farmers, artists and educators. The project debuted at Life Yard Restaurant with the Jamaican adage “Eat what you grow, grow what you eat” and is located directly across from where Paint Jamaica was born. Life Yard serves food straight from organic farm to table, employs community residents and capitalizes on the area’s increased patronage. To date they have welcomed several thousand international tourists from over 45 countries.
Exploring & Dining at Life Yard
I deliberately timed my visit around lunch hour so I could support Life Yard, the vegan restaurant located at 44 Fleet Street. The movement is run by a group of 15 Rasta men all under age 40 and today I found I-Shango, Kabukie and another founder whose name eludes me. They’re open Mondays to Fridays from about 10am – 5pm for breakfast and lunch but are closed on Saturdays for sabbath. Regardless, curious onlookers are still welcome to come and observe Nyabinghi worship. The group uses their proceeds for various community outreach programmes such as teaching skills to the adults that can be used to earn a living and hosting Sunday movie nights and Saturday morning art classes for the children. My friends, brother and I arrived a little after 1pm and were warmly welcomed inside.
We requested lunch and realized then that no fixed menu exists. They eat what they grow rather literally (except the rice 😅) so the daily menu will vary depending on what’s available. Lunch today was a made-to-order ital stew consisting of navy beans, pumpkin, corn, onion and spices. Ital (meaning vital) is a Rastafarian word for a style of cooking with absolutely no added sodium and is often vegan but sometimes vegetarian. I’ve always wanted to cook that way at home but my mother, like most other Jamaicans, won’t allow it. Jamaicans typically love salt and it’s killing us rather literally, but that’s for a separate talk. Anyway, I got my first taste of lunch with absolutely no salt and I LOVED IT! I didn’t even miss the salt because my food was so well seasoned with thyme, parsley and other spices my taste buds couldn’t quite discern and I was too busy enjoying my meal to ask.
Their prices are affordable with my delicious lunch costing only JM$400. Since their meals are done-to-order, you’ll have about a 45-minute wait unless of course you pre-order by calling. I’d tried doing that but unfortunately their current number listed online is not working– an issue they assured me will be rectified soon. Nonetheless, I was well entertained during that time by an I-Shango-led tour through their farm, a space which was larger and greener than I’d expected and has actually existed for 15+ years. Plant Jamaica is only a more recent organized venture and has been bringing the Yard publicity for the past 3 years. They grow many crops including breadfruit, otaheite apples, bananas, papaya, mangoes, culinary and medicinal herbs. The rest of time was spent holding a reasoning— just talking about life in general and relaxing in the astonishingly tranquil environment while soothing reggae tunes permeated the air.
A Kaleidoscope of Colour
Originally, I came mainly with the intention to admire the murals but they made me forget all about that until it was time to leave. Thus, I didn’t get to take in the street art as slowly and thoroughly as I’d wanted because I’m sure there are plenty murals I missed. This only means I must return another day. 🤗 Nonetheless, let’s enjoy some larger-than-life Fleet street-art:
If you’re using the bus, take a JUTC route 83 from Half-Way-Tree or a 77 from Papine. Unfortunately, you’ll have about 5-10 minutes of walking to do from the closest bus stop which is the first one on East Queen’s Street. Taking any other bus will give you a longer walk from Parade, Downtown. There are taxis too– public route taxis or privately chartered– and organized company tours for a bit more money. If you’re driving, Google Maps has accurate driving directions. There’s no official parking but your car will be safe on the lay-by in front of Life Yard. Restrooms are available. A word of caution though, Parade Gardens isn’t fully out of the woods yet. Headlines like this June shooting still make news occasionally, however, I felt 100% safe here today.
I only hope Marianna is aware of how her simple selfless idea to beautify a neighbourhood has become something so much larger and deeper and powerful than that. I likely would never have ventured onto Fleet Street had it not been for her project although many foreigners seem to do it quite carefreely, likely because they don’t grow up with the stereotyping pre-conceived notions with which many Jamaicans are raised (myself included) as my new friends & I discussed. And oh, about Marianna? Following several visits to Jamaica in the last two years, she quit her job and moved to Kingston. The enormous impact of Paint Jamaica, the friends she made and the community that welcomed her was enough to convince her of starting a new life here.
I rate the Fleet Street experience 5 stars, ☆☆☆☆☆. Find out more about Life Yard through their new website and social media pages (Instagram & Facebook). Also, check out some of the music videos shot here e.g. Sara Lugo and Protoje’s “Really Like You” and Agent Sasco’s “Winning Right Now.”
Continue to paint down Babylon Jamaica.
‘Til next time.✌