Having spent my early years in the area of The Traffic in the centre of Basseterre, I am concerned about the fate of one of the most important streets of the city, the street known as Fort Street.
I have always known this street to be the hub of activity and, as I grew in years, I have been fascinated by the way it has maintained its central position in the town.
Fort Street is historic for its concentration of economic activity. Long before business appeared on New Street or Rosemary Lane, there was business on both sides of this busy street. When West Square Street and Church Street were quiet residential streets, Fort Street had business going on in every single building while the proprietors lived upstairs.
There has always been a pharmacy on Fort Street. Skerritt’s Pharmacy has been on that street for more than fifty years, changing its name and location at least three times in the process. The early pioneering Skerritt, the grandfather of Ricky Skerritt, ran Skerritt’s Drug Store where Dr. Lloyd has his eye clinic. Eric Skerritt was trained there and later, in the 1950s, he and his wife Agnes opened the Federal Pharmacy at the eastern top of Fort Street. Soon he moved to a building once owned by Joseph Farara where he contructed new premises.
Just as the premises neared completion, a fire destroy it and he had to start all over again, this time with a concrete structure, which still stands.
Seaton’s Drug Store, situated at the corner of Fort and Central Streets, restored the tradition of two pharmacies on the street and when Seaton moved from the Sahely’s property to his own at the foot of Victoria Road, the City Drug Store owned by Dr. Lake and managed by co-owner David Ferguson, kept the balance intact. In fact, the City Drug Store was located in very close proximity to the early Skerritt’s Pharmacy.
In the 1980s the number of pharmacies rose to three when the Medics Pharmacy, managed by Halva Hendrickson, endured a very brief existence at the head of Fort Street.
There has always been a clothing store on Fort Street. Mrs. O’louglilin spent all the years of my boyhood running the Fort Street branch of the 2in1 Store. (The other one was at the corner of Central and Market Streets.) David Charles who was married to one of the Skerritt sisters had a cloth store next to where Island Bakeries now has a deli. Later Vanterpool introduced the modern boutique after Charles retired to his upstairs barber shop. Vanterpool’s store was named Caribbean Sales and sold ready-made clothing.
There was always a place to eat on Fort Street anytime in the day or night. One of the early pioneers in the deli business was one of the three Manchester brothers from Sandy Point. He used to operate the Strand where Skerritt’s now is. He had a nickname – Bongo Toffee – from one of the items which he sold at the Strand. On the other side of the Strand there was the Palace.
Many years after the Palace had gone out of business Norris Caines, the barber, constructed a building in which he re-established the restaurant tradition on the ground floor and located his barber shop upstairs. This was not Norris Caines first venture into business on Fort Street.
While he was still a sugar factory employer he and his friend Ishmail Lake had opened a little deli; the first of its kind in Basseterre in which from early morning till late at night young people could get a half-a-dollar bread with cheese, sausage or butter and a Bryson to wash it down. Each day after Ishmail’s spell was over, Caines would keep his business open until everybody was off the road.
Over the many years of its history the fortunes of Fort Street has followed the same evolutionary process old owners changing hands with new ones, new businesses taking over from old ones.
Some of these business places were quaint; like the one on the eastern corner by The Circus. It used to belong to the Matteson’s, Lloyd Matteson’s parents and then passed on to the Dickenson’s, Derek Dickenson’s parents. The special feature of this store was the way its patrons and idlers could enter from Fort Street and exit into Bank Street and vice–versa. The Store on the other side of the road was similar. I think it was run by a man named Harney. One could enter from the Circus and exit into Princess Street.
Not Many will remember that there used to be a bank on Fort Street – a penny bank, where AC Heyliger’s Jewelry shop now is, Many years ago Methodist Minister William Sunter and one of his church leaders, Mr. Knight, ran a savings bank every Monday to teach thrift to the poorer youth of the church. After Rev. Sunter retired and Mr. Knight died Stanley Procope moved the banking activity to Fort Street and was allowed to share the premises of Mr. Heyliger. The bank closed after the church goers decided that the change of venue from the Manse to Fort Street was not to their liking.
Procope put aside the money left with this rudimentary bank and eventually used it to establish the Industrial Bank, which was renamed National Bank.
The location of Scotia Bank at the lower end of Fort Street has kept banking on Fort Street.
It was this impressive history of a street unmatched by any other street in St. Kitts that some misguided jokers wanted to destroy under the pretext of preparing for the World Cup. Whoever the joker was, they decided to close this major artery with its pots of palm and to make it an information centre for 10 days!
For 10 days they strangled the business places and inconvenienced the local consumers by preventing shoppers from parking in front of the shops where they went to buy. They prevented the many business owners from parking in front of their own businesses!
Both shoppers and proprietors endured the torture in the general interest, not wanting anyone to accuse them of not supporting cricket. They thought it would be 10 days and could not believe it when they heard people advocating that Fort Street was to remain palm-lined avenue where only pedestrians were allowed.
The outcry of sensible people caused a minor relent when the Cabinet decided that the street would lose the line of palms but that Fort Street would become a no-parking zone. But this decision by the Cabinet was not just directive against the enterprising business community of Fort Street. It was a directive to stifle these local entrepreneurs who sold lottery tickets, medication, entertainment, clothing, and who rely on the motoring public to park up, drop in, browse and buy, so that these local risk-takers could earn enough to pay the various taxes, which are levied on them.
It has been more than a directive. It was an insidious act of sabotage. Since the World Cup passed into history every business in Fort Street has operated well below its normal capacity, some as low as 50 percent.
Given the present circumstances, both business people and customers are gripped by fear of the potential violence inherent in this non-parking decision by the Cabinet.
The other day popular Mechanic Mop went to buy a bottle of water and in searching for the money with which to pay he exposed a wad of notes which he drew from his pocket. According to the reports, one of his fellow shoppers saw that he was loaded, cooped him and, as he got back to his car ambushed him, robbed him and shot him.
This could easily happen on Fort Street’s no-parking zone. When clients have to park on New Street Central Street or Victoria Road, the walking distance from Fort Street to their vehicles can be dangerous or even deadly.
Owners who operate their businesses at night and who take their money to the bank are lucky up to now that none of our young daring criminals has tried to ambush them.
It is somewhat encouraging to learn that the government is about to consider a reversal of their earlier fiat which made the lively, vibrant Fort Street into a ghostly zone.