Guns, gangs torment community life on Dundonald Hill


From Dundonald Hill, St James yon can see as far Nicholas Towers in Port of Spain as well as Hasley Crawford Stadium. – Angelo Marcelle

DUNDONALD HILL is a place of contradictions.

Accessible either from Belle Vue off Long Circular Road or Patna Street in St James, the hill boasts million-dollar views – devalued by a harrowing reputation for gang violence.

It gets the name from British Admiral Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald, a British naval officer and politician, who is perhaps best known locally for purchasing all the land surrounding the pitch lake in La Brea as part of a unsuccessful commercial venture.

Dundonald Hill is mostly concealed from lower levels, surrounded by Bournes Road and its environs, Aboud Circular Road, Belle Vue and Dibe.

From the hill’s midway point to its peak there are magnificently wide perspectives of Port of Spain and west Trinidad – views rivalled by the lookout on Lady Young Road and the hills of Laventille, but few other places. Visitors venturing towards the midway and upper parts of the hill can attest to the scenic brilliance on display, which is magnified at night when urban lights are switched on.

In addition to the stunning views, there is undeniable character about the people of Dundonald Hill and its neighbouring communities.

But residents and visitors no longer feel safe, as they did 20 years ago.

Few outsiders venture past the hill’s midway point any longer, around Fort Dundonald Villas, often referred to as “The Condos.” Fort Dundonald Villas is a largely middle-income community of50 units, constructed in the mid-80s. There is a small grassy area to the end with two old British cannons overlooking the city view. They were left there by the property’s previous owner, whom residents remember only as Dr Jones. Before him, the small estate was owned by a man from Ireland, who also owned most of the surrounding land.

Before you reach the hill, there is a massive wall surrounding homes occupied by members of the Lebanese/Syrian community, built in 1944 as a community club, where sports and other activities took place.

There are some exceptionally attractive houses, but they are few and far between. Most are concrete structures, however, replacing the many wooden shacks built on the hill around the 1960s.

The roads are narrow and often need paving, and almost certainly not designed for the number of vehicles on it today. Some residents reach their homes through tracks, which are impossible to access by car. And some households have more than one car. Parking on the narrow road can cause traffic congestion. Occasionally, emergency vehicles like fire tenders face major delays or are simply unable to reach the scene of an incident, leading to devastating results.

A scenic view from Dundonald Hill, St. James, shows Fort Dundonald Villas to the left and the city of Port of Spain in the background. – Angelo Marcelle

Much of it is undoubtedly down inadequate or a complete lack of planning. The hill and surrounding areas are dominated by structures situated in a way as to hamper proper infrastructural development and potentially lead to flooding.

However, recent years, some qualifying households on Dundonald Hill and its environs were recently given access to leases by virtue of the Land Settlement Agency’s Squatter Regularisation Programme, granting them eventual ownership at a fraction of the market value. The agency, established by the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) Act of Parliament No 25 of 1998 purportedly aims are to regularise and contain squatting in the country.

Statistical data on the issue is scarce and mostly outdated.

The Central Statistical Office’s data from 2000 counted a total population of 3,155 people living in Dundonald Hill and Belle Vue combined, 2,748 in upper Bournes Road and 792 in Dibe.

That data is cited in a 2012 urban profile of Port of Spain published by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. In it, the aforementioned areas apart from upper Bournes Road are included in areas considered “informal settlements.”

The study showed “approximately 67 per cent of the residential population living in substandard conditions with limited basic urban services.”

As obscure they are, Dibe, Belle Vue and Dundonald Hill have produced several talents. Calypsonian Brother Valentino, who was born in Grenada, grew up on the hill, while Belle Vue takes credit for raising soca stars Umi Marcano and Colin Jackman, retired Germany-based footballer Evans Wise, and perhaps most notably, the late netball world champion Jean Pierre.

Football dominated all of the communities in the 1990s with children crossing now uncertain boundaries towards the Belle Vue Community Centre.

Crime crippling the community

Sunday Newsday interviewed several residents of Dundonald Hill, all of whom refer to the “better days” when murders in the area were unheard of.

“It’s been a while since we produced someone notable from up here,” said a woman who was born in “the hole,” a daunting area reached by a track on Dundonald Hill and Aboud Circular Road, which has become increasingly stigmatised.

She partly blamed idleness, lack of employment opportunities and drugs for the rise in violence, although she said there were obviously other factors, which are difficult to put a finger on.

“I have no idea what’s causing this (turf war). I have a son and he grew up with these (bad elements).

The Dibe Commuity Centre and basketball court. – Angelo Marcelle

“It’s true, 99 per cent of the people are from smaller islands, like St Vincent…You seeing a link? There might be a link.

“I can’t understand it. All of us grew up together, and now I don’t just walk around. There was a week I couldn’t come out at all. There was shooting in the day. Just two weeks ago, I wasn’t coming out, I didn’t leave until Monday. And that is crazy to me.”

Gunshots were expected at night as crime escalated in the 2000s.

But now, she said, “It happen even during the day. It wasn’t like this 20 years ago. I don’t know what’s happening. Just the other day my niece was in class (studying virtually) and gunshots rang out. Others in her class reacted – but she didn’t even flinch. Imagine getting used to gunshots during the day, during class time.”

There are, however, always exceptions in the “rough” parts.

“We have someone down there studying to be a doctor, and her mother can barely read and write,” said the woman, pointing to the same “hole.”

There are students who brave the dangers and the influences, before schools were closed, who would walk up and down the hill or travel. Unfortunately, innocent residents have lost their lives to the gang violence.

In 2018, 28-year-old Andrew Noel, a resident of upper Dundonald Hill, was in a car with other passengers when it was stopped and shot at. He did not have a criminal record and was not the intended target. The alleged target escaped, but was shot and killed some months later.

Since the start of 2020, there have been at least ten murders on the hill alone and the scourge is spreading.

“I was just speaking with someone and we were saying you never heard anything about Aboud (Circular Road). You hear of problems in Dibe, you hear of problems in Belle Vue and Dundonald Hill but you never heard about Aboud being a ‘bad’ area,” said the woman, who requested anonymity.

Inadequate infrastructure, health hazards abound

Dundonald Hill faces chronic problems, exacerbated by the poor roads and perpetually broken pipes. The gushing water corrodes the roads, which then wait months and sometimes years for repairs.

Several delivery and courier services are known to avoid the area completely. For years, their main issues were the condition of the roads, the few turning points and the erratic driving. Crime is now one of the primary factors, residents complained.

The UN’s 2012 urban profile of Port of Spain used certain parameters to estimate the population living in substandard conditions with limited basic urban services, including the quality of the building stock, structure stability and income levels. It concluded that the “rapid growth of these settlements has not been matched by the expansion of infrastructure. As such, the majority of settlements lack proper water and sanitation systems.”

One of the historic canons at Fort Dundonald Villas. – Angelo Marcelle

There is an open yard around the hill’s midway point with massive storage tanks.

However, when the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) is called to repair broken pipes attached to the tanks, they are faced with an infestation of rats. The rats swarm a nearby crumbling rubbish collection site, where a concrete barrier for trash bags once stood firmly.

Over the years, it was used for all types of refuse, mixing household trash with old furniture and electronics, making it near impossible for rubbish trucks to work properly and creating and environment for a pest infestation to flourish.

Larger items are infrequently collected by the regional corporation.

As per a recent television news report, WASA workers said they were concerned about contracting leptospirosis, which is also known as rat fever or field fever.

Residents have asked for proper dumping facilities for the different types of trash, and until the Diego Martin Regional Corporation addresses a rat infestation problem, WASA workers have refused to repair ruptured lines in the area.

The hill is unfortunately infamous for indiscriminate dumping, including the neglect of irreparable vehicles on an already congested hill.

Mounds of garbage at Dundonald Hill, St James a major cause of worry for residents. – Angelo Marcelle

Mr Cox, 73, who was born on Dundonald Hill, a short walk from the trash site, says he loves his home and has little to complain about, but would be happy if the problems with trash collection and water leaks are finally solved.

“I was always comfortable. You see, I have a great view. This spot here, you have a view of the city, of the Savannah. In the early days, we didn’t know about crime. No crime at all.”

So Dundonald Hill is something of a paradox. There is a determined community spirit to complement the beautiful points of view. Most residents who were born on the hill die on the hill, they say – whether from natural causes or by bullet.

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