With funding from the Penn Museum, this summer I was able to travel to Trinidad and Tobago, a twin island republic situated off the northeastern coast of Venezuela, to conduct anthropological pre-dissertation field research in an area popularly called Laventille. Laventille is now infamous among Trinbagonians as it has been labelled one of the country’s major “crime hotspots” as a result of the elevated number of murders that has occurred in the area since the beginning of the millennium. Laventille is frequently featured in the local media for its high murder rate, drug and gang activity, and other illicit occurrences. This representation of Laventille, however, is by no means new. The area has a longstanding history of marginalization in the national community, as it originally developed as an informal squatter community for freed slaves in the 1800s. Located on the island of Trinidad, at the periphery of the capital city, Port-of-Spain, Laventille provided an ideal location for those who could not afford crown land within the capital, and its hilly terrain, which impeded infrastructural development of the area, meant that it was neglected by the plantocracy, leaving it available to the once-enslaved. From its inception, the area was seen as depressed and a haven for “deviants”; by the 1860s Laventille was classified as overcrowded, unsanitary, and gained a reputation for criminal activity which persists in the contemporary moment.
The current high level of crime occurring within Laventille is often analyzed in isolation and ahistorically creates an artificial boundary around Laventille where the occurrences within the Laventille community are presented as a “culture of poverty” problem, foreign to what is happening with governance throughout the rest of Trinidad and Tobago. My research takes a critical look at Laventille within the larger socio-political context and history of Trinidad and Tobago to look at alternative stories of Laventille, beyond simply a crime hotspot; I explore the stories residents tell of themselves and their surroundings. I also look at the structural problems which have led to the current criminal activity within the area and the material effects media representations of the area have had on residents’ daily lived experience and relationships with other citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.
To begin to collect this research material, during my eight weeks in Trinidad this summer I carried out semi-formal interviews with residents of Laventille, formal interviews with urban planners who worked on redevelopment studies of the area, government ministers and leaders of NGOs active within the area. I also conducted archival research, collected local news stories and film footage relevant to Laventille, as well as photographed the area. Most days I would go to different parts of Laventille from 6am to 2pm when I was meeting with residents. I would meet with them wherever they chose which would usually be their home or workplace. I was accompanied throughout my visits to different neighborhoods within Laventille by a resident of that particular area with whom I made previous connection or with NGO workers. This guide helped to build trust with other residents especially with the sensitivity of the area. I was generally surprised with how willing people were to talk to me and share their life experiences. The Parliamentary Representatives for the area were also very accommodating and willing to talk about their political relationship with the residents of the area.
This summer’s field research overall was very successful as I was able to not only begin building a relationship with residents, government officials, and other professionals who will inform later research, but I was also able to begin building a deeper personal relationship with Laventille as a place which is essential for my ethnographic research.