Urban Up Close: Bob Marley and the Trenchtown Squatters

In All, Art & Music, Latin America & Caribbean, Regions, Social, Cultural, Political, The Story, UDIN (All), Urban Inspiration by Teju Adisa-Farrar

“When yuh step it’s nah right-left like dey teach yuh, it’s right-forward.”

-Stoneman, Management team of Trenchtown Culture Yard & Trenchtown resident

First Street, Trenchtown.

The Trenchtown Community, located in the parish of Saint Andrew & Kingston, is one of the first squatter communities in the capital region of Jamaica. Home to Bob Marley, rocksteady & reggae music, and two of the best soccer clubs, it is primarily, an impoverished  self-built community where violence prevails and creativity and resourcefulness abound. 

In the late 18th century, Daniel Trench, an Irishman from Galway (where I lived for a year) emigrated to Jamaica and bought 400 acres (162 hectares) to use for livestock. He called this area Trench Pen. In the 19th century the Trench family abandoned the land, presumably they returned to Ireland after the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean and the TransAtlantic Slave trade was abolished by the British government in 1834 and 1807 respectively. This land quickly became a squatters settlement, mainly for the rural to urban immigrants of the early 20th century.

Half of Trench’s 400 acres created Trenchtown, while the other half became known as the Rosetown residential community. The first settlers built their homes out of scraps of wood, cardboard and used zinc for roofs. As this informal squatter community grew, the colonial government’s housing authority attempted to formalize this area by making it a “model township.” The Central Housing Authority built one and two-storey housing complexes in the area among the already make-shift built environment, and required that the community pay rent on the first of every month. However, I’m not sure the community was able to afford rent every month and it is not clear how much they were supposed to pay.

Central Courtyard in Culture Yard.

The general layout of the area was a cluster of small family homes, mainly  single rooms surrounding a courtyard with a shared bathroom and kitchen, usually in the back or off to the side. One room often housed a family of five or even more people. Each settlement surrounding a communal courtyard could have anywhere from 5-10 families sharing two bathrooms and one kitchen. Although this is no longer the case for some of the community, Culture Yard and a few other areas in this community have retained this design layout.

Bob Marley and his mother left home in Nine Mile, Saint Ann’s Parish and arrived in Trenchtown when Bob was 12 years old. He had a room in what is now known as Culture Yard.

Bob Marley’s first room at Culture Yard.

This community lived together, made music together and fostered a reggae Rastafari community where Bob Marley flourished and developed his influential musical style and one-love world philosophy. The move was great for Bob, and provided the space for his talents to develop since Trenchtown became the breeding ground for many musical legends. Shortly after moving to Trenchtown Bob joined a group with Bunny Wailer, Peter ToshBeverley Kelso and Junior Braithwaite.

Currently, Culture Yard is run by Rastafarians who are making music–trying to keep authentic Bob Marley inspired reggae alive, growing herbs (basil, thyme, scallion, ganja, etc), and living in a community with the belief that one love, rasta values of health and sustainability, and “right-forward” is the best way to live.

Our uncle David took my sister and I to Trenchtown and Culture Yard. He used to babysit Bob’s first two children, Cedella and David “Ziggy,” who were both born in Trenchtown. He showed us the house and rooms in which Bob Marley lived, as well as the field where he, Bob and others played  soccer.

Stoneman showing us on a map where notable Trenchtown residents lived.

Once we arrived at Culture Yard, Stoneman, one of the of the managing community members, gave us a tour of the museum, community, and talked to us about the present role of Culture Yard in the Trenchtown community, in general. Although normally visitors are not allowed to take photos, Stoneman said we had good vibes and granted us permission, inclduing taking photos with him and other Rastafarians who live and make music in Trenchtown. Thank you Stoneman and the other Rasta brethrens who welcomed us!

Newspaper clipping outlining violence in Trenchtown and surrounding communities.

The Trenchtown community was notorious for violence in the 1970’s and still is considered unsafe, but regardless it has remained a bed for creativity, music and the belief about how to keep one’s spirit strong and the world peaceful. Also, Bob Marley’s credos, found in his music, are very much alive in Culture Yard.

Self-built squatter communities are usually discouraged by governments and cities, but Trenchtown is not planning to go anywhere and has turned out to be a place from where many Jamaican legends hail. The resourcefulness necessary to create and maintain a self-built community like Trenchtown is testament to the people’s dogged determination to survive and live despite great odds. Groups like Living Kulcha (a reggae band) and RootsandHerbs (a wellness collective) work to keep Culture Yard and the Trenchtown community positive, despite the issues and challenges that exist.  

The Trenchtown community is now managed by Trenchtown Development Association, a Jamaican non-governmental organization.