Thursday, December 23, 2010

Images of Monrovia from A Land and Life Remembered

The book A Land and Life Remembered, which has been discussed extensively in the last two posts, focuses mainly on the original settler townships in Grand Bassa County (Hartford, Fortsville, and Edina) and the St. Paul River area (White Plains, Millsburg, Clay-Ashland, Crozierville, and Arthington). Monrovia is mentioned only in passing, despite having probably the largest stock of historic architecture in the country.

As mentioned previously, the field trips were taken between 1977 and 1986, and in the best of circumstances it would be reasonable to expect some of the structures featured would be lost, as many of them had nearly collapsed a quarter century ago, and there no historical preservation restrictions even today. This is quite aside from the merciless effects of the war, through outright destruction or decades of neglect and abandonment in the merciless West African climate.

In my last post, I put up some pictures of Robertsport and Buchanan, with some existing houses built in the historical style, even if its unclear as to how historical the houses are themselves. The book does its best to provide information on the name of the family that owns the house, and approximates the date of the house's construction (although extensive remodeling makes this date a bit meaningless).

When it comes to Monrovia, however, a more specific street address would be useful. Arthington and Edina may be nothing more than a cluster of farmsteads, but Monrovia's many streets, as well as the extensive development and destruction of the last three decades, would make more location information helpful.

The book doesn't specify the exact location of the above house, but I don't really need to ask. I am pretty positive that this is the same building, on Front Street where it crosses Randall Street at an overpass:
I apologize for not having a better picture of the structure (one of those times when you assume you have a picture of something you've admired a thousand times, but when you go to find it, you realize you looked at it so much you never bothered to photograph it). The pitch of the roof and the two windows on the top floor are unmistakable; looks like something happened to the front porch. If that didn't give it away, Belcher's photograph shows the beginning of the underpass in the foreground.

Elsewhere in the book's plates is this double feature:
Not too sure about the Parker House, but I am absolutely sure that the Coleman house is on Coleman Hill, at the intersection of Front and Gurley Streets. The first time I encountered it, the weaping, creaking structure still had a waistcoat of gorgeous clay brick and a surprising amount of woodwork on the mansard windows:
This is the same house that I was distraught to suddenly discover raised to a pile of rubble at the beginning of 2010:
A travesty. I call this Monrovia's Penn Station. I asked someone about the house the day that I walked past the rubble and took these rather silly, forlorn shots of the heap of brick. they said it would be a better thing to have a new house there. So much for history.

Lastly, I have never seen this structure, and doubt that it is still standing, but I thought this freestanding kitchen on the old Executive Mansion grounds was pretty cool. I bet this place saw some palm butter in its day!

Doz Way Back Houses Dem (Settler Architecture, 2009)

Aside from generally appreciating the historic architecture of Liberia, I've never conducted my own investigation into the areas which A Land and Life Remembered covers. I've never explored the St. Paul river area; I've never been to Arthington, White Plans, Clay-Ashland, or the other hamlets along the riverbanks from the ocean to Mount Coffee.

I have been to Grand Bassa County, but I hadn't realized that I had been though the towns of Fortsville and Hartford, mentioned in the book, until later. I realized that I must have driven through them on the way to Buchanan last year when I looked at the map. Apart from what is in the architectural tour, I did take some photographs of some old-style houses in Robertsport, Buchanan and what I think is Hartford on my trips around Liberia in 2009. I'm no photographer, even when it comes to architecture, and I tend to like to oversaturate my photos in Liberia to give a sense of the atmospheric intensity:

Buchanan, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Buchanan, Grand Bassa, April 2009

Possibly Hartford, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Possibly Hartford, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Possibly Hartford, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount, April 2009
Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount, April 2009
Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount, April 2009

I always admired the antiquity and unique style of these houses, which look remarkable even in their teetering, unkempt state. Of course, its usually really difficult to ascertain just when they were built, and by who. Its also interesting that really no one seems to be building in this fashion now: almost all houses built in Liberia today are ranch-style, and out of concrete, which makes the structures that much more noticeable and remarkable to come across.

What I also find really intriguing, but is not discussed in the book or elsewhere, is the somewhat curious choice of zinc panels for the structures. In some ways, such as resisting rot and security, it might be desirable, but I just imagine that rolled metal would be a difficult building material to come by, especially, say, more than 50 years ago. Maybe these were originally wood-sided constructions (maybe the underlying structures are still wood), but at any point that metal sheeting was incorporated involved importing the material.

My inclination would be to undertake an exhaustive, multi-county survey to see what still stands, especially those properties featured in Max Belcher's photography. Given the hydra-headed scourge of war, looting, poverty, neglect, abandonment, tropical deterioration, and the complete lack of any sort of historical preservation movement, much less regulated restrictions, it is all the more incredible to come across a "Way Back" House, as my Liberian friends exclaim when we come across them.

I also wonder, given that Belcher's survey did not seem to cover anything north of Tubmanburg or south of Grand Bassa County, that no truly country-wide index of historic architecture has ever been covered. I've read Mississippi In Africa but I don't think I've ever seen a picture of Greenville, in any era. This also reminds me of Glenna's haunting photography from her many trips to Harper, which are not to be missed.

Moved 2 Montreal

Having recently finished my last post about photography of Liberia, in the late 1970s, involving Canada, It really hadn't occurred to me that I could continue posting on such a specific topic.

But then... I decided at the last minute to go to Montreal last weekend. Its obviously quite a different place from Monrovia: its big and built up and it was very, very cold when I was there, with plenty of snow already on the ground and enough still falling to keep the streets covered.

Therefore it was all the more startling to discover this in a wide, snow-blanketed courtyard just west of the skyscrapers of downtown:

The front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture was draped in an enormous black-and-white photograph of an historic house in Arthington, Liberia. It turns out that the museum has included the photo survey of Liberian settler architecture, taken by Max Belcher between 1977 and 1986, as part of its current exhibit, Journeys, on how architecture manifests the journey of ideas across the globe.

Beginning in 1977, Max Belcher journeyed to many of Liberia's historic American settlements, particularly along the St. Paul river and in Grand Bassa County, and photographed the historic homes there. He then traveled across the American South, looking for comparative architecture. He was able to draw a clear parallel in the architectural stylings that the original American settlers brought with them.

This project yielded a book, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, which was published in 1988, with text by Svend E. Holsoe (one of the world's great Liberianophiles and founder of Friends of Liberia), and Bernard L. Herman. Herman summarized the project for the CCA's exhibition catalog.

The book is not currently in publication, and copies of which are for sale online for as much as $250.

Not only is the book a tremendous resource for the documentation of a rapidly deteriorating stock of historic structures, the timing of the project is rather incredible. The first series of Liberian expeditions took place prior to the Doe coup in 1980, and the entire publication was released in 1988, on the eve of more than a decade of civil war, which of course destroyed the entire country and probably more than a few of the delicate, dilapidated structures that the book documented.

©Max Belcher courtesy CCA.

I'm still not clear if Max Belcher's photographs are just a part of the Journeys exhibition or are actually part of the CCA's archives. From what I can tell, Belcher's photographs are part of his collection which is held by Duke. Either way, this whole project, with its incredible book and haunting, mythic photography is so exactly the kind of thing that I like, and love talking about on this blog, that at one point a momentarily considered scanning the whole book page by page. Instead, I've started expanding on some of the more specific tangents about the project in separate posts to follow soon. In the meantime, I recommend visiting Montreal in general and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in particular, especially between now and March when this exhibit is on and the halls of one gallery feature black-and-white portraits of the grand houses of old Liberia.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Liberia '77

Liberia '77 - 60 sec from liberia '77 on Vimeo.

Liberia '77 is a documentary project by two Canadian brothers, Jeff and Andrew Topham, who grew up in Liberia in the 1970s, and who returned recently, making a film of the story.

This beautiful project is just the sort of work that I geek out on. I was so excited when I happened to discover the site recently, that I have to admit I was almost upset that I hadn't known about it before. I haven't even had a chance to see the documentary yet.

The Liberia '77 website also has a gallery of vintage and contemporary photography, and this is where its really engaging. Some of the older photographs are just arresting-- especially the black-and-white snapshot of two girls running across a smoothly-paved Broad Street, thirty-three years ago (notice that the building on the corner was called the Palm Hotel even back then! KLM sign is also recognizable behind the parked car).

Equally intriguing but far more devastating is the juxtaposition of the family house: on the left, a manicured tropical bungalow, on the right, an overgrown archaeological shell. Same structure, decades apart. It makes me wonder what so many other bombed-out ruins around Monrovia looked like in their prime.

Also, elsewhere on the site, note the Ellen-backed drive to assemble a national photo archive and one of the brothers talking about the regrettable state of the National Museum. So right! Would love to be a part of this, and I hope a lot of others within the Diaspora and among the ex-pat community would be able to assist. There are a lot of other people out there who are not only taking beautiful pictures now, and who care about Liberia's history.

A Request from the President from liberia '77 on Vimeo.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Way-Finding Without Maps

Aside from all the usual reasons why improving the available maps of a city would be beneficial to its residents and visitors, in the case of Monrovia it is especially important, because Monrovia's street address system is undeveloped and under-functioning.

At some point a few decades ago, the city seems to have had a numbered street-address system, which, at least downtown, is still nominally in place. There is no postal delivery service in Liberia the moment, so these numbers have use only in the sense of the general public way-finding in the city. Although numbers appear on business cards and signs for many businesses on the main avenues in the Broad Street area, it is rare to be told a specific street number when directions are provided.

This is partially a result of Monrovia's small size, there are only so many streets and buildings on them. But Monrovia, like many cities in West Africa, has an only partially-developed official street-naming system. Street address numbers are few and so locations are presented in relation to landmarks. This is especially true when the location of the dwelling or business is unofficial, or informal.

Thus addresses in Monrovia are rather vague, often just listing the name of the street and section of town. Businesses and residences are often listen simply as Smythe Road, Old Road; 12th Street, Sinkor; or UN Drive, Mamba Point, so that the location is specified to within several city blocks.

This is mitigated partially by the profusion of signs, labels, and graphics painted on or affixed to structures large and small, which almost universally proclaim the name of the street, area, or neighborhood. In many cases a post office box number is provided for mailing-- the only way to expect any type of letter-carrying in the country. In a limit-technology environment, such signage is often the only advertising a business has, and for a visitor, obtaining bearings is eased because of the proximity of signs proclaim the name of that particular street and neighborhood.

T. Choithram & Sons at Red Light, with four signs, address on the top.

What Monrovia lacks in street numbers it more than makes up for in landmarking. Most prominent buildings are named. In fact, a great many large buildings in the capital have more than one name. For the most part, these fall along the lines of the following:

(1) A name is given to the building by its owners, this is often a family name; (eg Parker House; King Building; but also perhaps first names, eg Diana Plaza; or the Rose Building. Presumably these are owned by such individuals or families.

(2) A name is given to a building based on the business that is presently there (eg Lonestar Building, Cellcom Building, Star Radio Building, American Laundry Building, Fedex Plaza). Often these are buildings built by that particular business.

(3) name given to a building based on the business that was once there, which includes such examples as Chase Manhattan Plaza, among others.

This last category can be especially confusing as it often presumes that the wayfinder has either been resident in Monrovia for several decades, or knows the commercial history of the town during this period well-enough. For instance, the DHL office on Broad Street is in the Old Mandarin Building, a named derived from an erstwhile Chinese restaurant in the stately, settler-era mansion, whose appearance suits the gradiose moniker.

The Sport Commission is a major landmark at the Crown Hill
end of Broad Street.

The King Building, on Broad Street at the corner of Gurley Street.
Note the P.O. Box number

Horton Avenue is only a block long. Note the street signs, still relatively uncommon,
and also the JSI sign designating the building name.

Exclusive's original in-town location is noted as Carey & Gurley Streets on the sign above the corner.

Farther out in Paynesville, these informal businesses are noted as simply "ELWA Junction"

Diana Plaza, Broad Street

The E.J. Barclay Building at Carey & Johnson Streets has also begun to be referred to as
the "Caesar Architects Building" due to this prominent sign. Note building number.

Archaic nomenclature can make things even more confusing; but can also be insightful to Monrovia's geography and history. For instance, I was once nearly very embarrassed by my tardiness to a Sunday service at a Baptist church across in the Freeport area of Bushrod Island. I had been invited by a colleague, eager to impress, and had been told to have the car "put me down at the Old Peugeot Garage." So I started looking among the many commercial signs in that stretch of road for a Peugeot dealership.

Little did I know that the Peugeot Garage was referred to as "Old" because it had not been there in about twenty years, so only the people who knew of its previous existence could use it as a road marker.

The situation is even looser when paved streets and concrete buildings with names and signage are not involved, which is the case for the majority of the city's residences. On my first visit to Liberia two years ago, I asked my new friend for his address. Here is what he wrote down:

Kpelleh Town, Rock Hill, ELWA Community, Paynesville, Liberia.

This may seem impossibly vague, like presuming that if you said Murray Hill, Manhattan, New York, someone could find the way to an apartment there. But here's how it works: first, go to ELWA in Paynesville, and generally head towards the northeasterly zone off the highway-- this is the ELWA Community. Ask around where Kpelleh Town is, and someone will either point you in a direction, or escort you to the general area. Once at Kpelleh Town, ask where the Rock Hill section is (or, as my friend told me, look for people breaking rocks, which is the equivalent of telling someone to go to the tip of Manhattan and look for people carrying briefcases). Once you are reasonably sure that you are on Rock Hill, ask for your acquaintance by name, and be pointed or escorted to the correct house.

Like many aspects of life in Monrovia, although it can be confusing, time-consuming, and often frustrating, it is also insightful into a way of orientation which hardly exists in the US, even before the era of GPS. There is often no way to find a business or person without the assistance of one or more of a series of locals, who are normally abundantly friendly and helpful.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mapping Monrovia

As readers of this blog, and visitors to the Moved 2 Monrovia website come to find, I've really developed an interest in Monrovia's history and geography. I have even drawn some maps of my own, which I have been developing into a handy tourist map of the city--I hope to be able to announce details of this soon.

While maps of the city are available on-line, none of them are very accurate; misspellings and other mistakes are common, and some of the information that is provided is decades out of date. The current cartographic situation typifies those constraints common in tackling many of Liberia's challenges: suffering from an overhang of history, and lack of easily accessible and verifiable information, and needing more assistance (almost wrote "capacity building," but I'll spare you).

This is no more true than with the only atlas that matters in the world nowadays: Google Maps. The top image is a screen shot of Monrovia. Notice, for instance, how UN Drive is missing along Mamba Point. The below is a screen-shot showing the current, somewhat sorry state of Google Map Maker's representation of Central Monrovia. Its obviously suffering a rather glaring error, with a truncated Mamba Point, an amputated West Point, and thus most of the city's diplomatic community and largest informal community in the Atlantic Ocean, as if the city had experienced an earthquake (one of the few disasters West Africa has avoided). [ed: I have no idea why Google Maps and Google Mapmaker seem to show to different versions].

So clearly, this corporate crowd-sourcing cartography project is in need of some work, even if Monrovia, which saw almost no new construction in the last 20 years, still appears remarkably similar to how it looked half a century ago. The city itself is not the same as it was in the 1980s (quite aside from the new landmarks of the recent building boom). This is where the current state of Monrovia's Google Map is peculiarly intriguing : landmarks which were vacated, abandoned, or moved long ago remain on the map, like ghosts of history.

Presently, Google Map still shows such phantom landmarks as the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel and the French Embassy. I'm all in favor of including these on any map, as the hotel in particular remains one of the city's most important landmarks. But it should be clear to the map user that they shouldn't show up at the Ducor expecting a club sandwich and a dip in the pool, or at the French Embassy planning on getting an E.U. visa or taking in an evening Balzac lecture. Similarly, the eerily empty E.J. Roye building is included on the map.

I'm still getting the hang of the editing tools in Google MapMaker, so I am not sure if they have a "shell-of-its-former-self" category. Such post-colonial ruins, often found in post-conflict states, are too young to be archaeological, but also too recent to be historical, especially as they might be redeveloped.

Likewise the zoo, which I am pretty sure was never inside the Matadi housing estate as shown. I have been told it used to in an area called Mercury Field, near Gaye Town, Old Road, and is actually called Old Zoo. I recently deleted the zoo in the list of attractions in the Culture and Media section of the Wikipedia article on Monrovia. (Don't even get me started on how bad the Wikipedia article is.) But I'd hate to have someone wandering around Matadi, looking to watch a sea lion feeding.

Besides France, other former embassies are shown on the map, including the British, Swedish and Dutch Embassies. All of these are still standing, occupied buildings, but are no longer diplomatic missions. These states presently do not have any consular services in Liberia at all. Similarly, the Chinese embassy and many African commissions are shown in old locations.

Several government ministries have switched places-- there is no longer a Ministry of Work, and its replacement, the Ministry of Labor, is in a different location than shown. Same with the Ministry of Law, which is now the Ministry of Justice several blocks away. But even in the two years that I've been in Liberia, several ministries, like Defense, have changed location.

Prior to my first time traveling to Monrovia, I had trouble finding much to familiarize myself with the city (Google had yet to map Africa beyond blurry satellite photos on Google Earth). So I was thrilled to come across this MSF map, below, which is was created by the European Space Agency in 2003 (Thanks to UC Berkeley for the link: large format here). It includes a lot of helpful and practical information, and it gets some details right (Lorma Quarter), and some things wrong (those warehouses in Joenhansen were never Water Side Market, and Rally Time Market was never in Sinkor; also, the Old Road area is incorrectly labeled as Congo Town, which really confused me the first time I visited). There are also some spelling issues ("Executif Mansion"; "Massonic Temple") which seem to reveal its pan-European authorship.

It also features a lot of individual building details, which is helpful (yay, Abi Jouadi Supermarket!), but still has a lot of pre-conflict landmarks, like Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as the Swedish, French, Russian, and Dutch Embassies. I've never heard of the French Hotel, its definitely not there now. Also note how the original Old Road, which was split by the Spriggs-Payne runway decades ago, is still labeled as such, and not by its contemporary moniker, Airfield Short-Cut. Thus, the map is a mixture of information that was correct circa 2003, and another layer of information that was more accurate in the pre-conflict period.
A second example from the immediate post-conflict years earlier in the decade is below. The first image, showing Central Monrovia, highlights the old Embassy Row on Mamba Point, but not much else (and its Ashmun Street, not Ashmond). Also, there are a lot of names for "Across", on the upper-right, including Vai Town, Clara Town, Free Port, and Bushrod Island, but Riverview Section is not one of them.
The bottom image, of Sinkor, is mostly fine, except that every single embassy shown is not in the same location today (and of course Zaire is now the DRC; and by the way its Cheeseman Avenue, not Chessman). These seems to have been produced for the United Nations, which at least might explain the colors and the emphasis on Embassies.
Going further back into the pre-digital era, this rather basic, seemingly hand-drawn map below, from Lonely Planet, was basically the extent of publicly-disseminated maps the city available in a typical American library or bookstore (Thanks to U Texas for the link). Unfortunately, it is both sparsely detailed and somewhat misleading, without bothering to include the grid of Sinkor's "Avenues", much less the Old Road section of town, or providing much sense of scale (As an aside, its interesting to find that Lonely Planet now uses Google Maps on its website).
Posting this one reminds me: has anyone ever heard of the first section of UN Drive that passes Rally Time Market and the Barclay Training Center, referred to as Fairground Road? I've asked several generations of Monrovians, including my friend who grew up in Bassa Community. He did say there was once an amusement park in that area, possibly including a Ferris wheel (I've no other confirmation of this). Since the street and its carnival rides could have easily preceded the founding of the United Nations itself, I suppose its entirely possible that it had a former name.

What's also unique to this situation is the issue of authority. None of the above examples were directly produced by Liberia's government, and its not clear what input Liberians might have had in their production or fact-checking. Therefore, there is something of a vacuum when trying to determine if there is a correct way to spell Lakpazee, the northern area of Sinkor, which is spelled Larkpase in both map examples above. That may just be the way a European Space Agency technocrat typed it in.

Its difficult to be confident that geographic information is accurate, and therefore sufficient to improve the condition of Google's maps, for the benefit of others. It generally takes extra time and effort, and is hard to support assertions when trying to get contributions to Google Maps approved.

Despite this frustration, there is an upside to improving Monrovia's map which is very exciting and encouraging: like so many endeavors in Liberia, work can be pioneering a tangible improvement. Its not likely to come across mistakes and omissions when scanning Google Maps of Chicago, New York or Boston. In ways big and small, there is an opportunity to make a difference in a way that is hard to find an equivalent of at home in the U.S.

I'll close this now very long post with the below shot, the only image of a pre-war Tourist Map of Monrovia. From this tiny slice, it looks rather detailed and official. I'd love to see a copy of this someday, and see what is shows (thanks to Shelby Grossman for the original source, and all your on-going help with locating the original).

Until then, I'm going to try to figure out how to label Old CID Road onto Google Maps, for all the world to see.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ohio In Liberia

Looking closely at the maps above, you can spot Mississippi-in-Africa, Louisiana, Maryland, and New Georgia. I had heard of all of these. I've also read about colonization societies from Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. But until I had seen the maps in the photos above, I had never head of an Ohio colony. Also notice how the Vai people are labelled "Veys", and more generally in both maps how the interior, not far in from the coast, is boldly labelled Guinea. Its also interesting that the town near to Ohio is called "Sugaree" which reminds me of my friend's hometown, Sugarcreek, Ohio.

In researching this, I came to learn that E.J. Roye was from Ohio, and that today there are several active Liberian communities in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.

And I also found this document, dating from 1851, discussing the Ohio State legislatures commitment to the sponsorship for an Ohio-in-Africa colony. Six pages of fascinating reading of how arguments for Emancipation, Anti-slavery, and Christianity were the basis for advocacy of funding the establishment of Liberia's settlements.

I snapped both of the photos below on a recent visit to the offices of Dr Fred van der Kraaij, in the Netherlands Foreign Ministry in the Hague. FvdK has to be one of the main Liberia-supporters in the Netherlands, perhaps even in most of Europe. He spent many years in Monrovia in various capacities, but hasn't been back in almost twenty years. Nonetheless, he continues to show his support and enthusiasm for Liberia and its history through his excellent blog, Liberian Perspectives.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Robertsfield, Recently and More Recently

To finish off the recent posts about flying to Monrovia, there is a bit more to say about Roberts International Airport, Monrovia's and Liberia's main international gateway.

I've discussed previously how Pan American World Airways was integral in RIA's history, and how Monrovia was important in that airline's history in Africa from World War II until its withdrawal from Africa in the late 1980s, just prior to its demise in 1991.

Roberts International Airport is now operated under contract by another venerable American firm, Lockheed Martin, and has improved significantly in the years that I have been flying there. However, it remains a tiny facility, really only handful of small rooms, from the check-in hall, to the security area, to the departure lounge; the baggage claim hall, with its single, elderly luggage belt. In fact, the first time I landed in Liberia, I looked out the window and, seeing the collection of low structures at the edge of the tarmac, assumed that the terminal must be on the other side of the runway. But no, that was the terminal.

There is a much larger structure at the landside of RIA, seen in the center of the top picture. Although I have no official or definitive reporting, I've been told that this was the Pan American Terminal, and the main terminal facility for the airport during its golden age, when KLM, British Airways, British Caledonian, Swissair, SAS, and Sabena, among others, ran weekly services from Europe to or through Liberia. Monrovia, like other West African airports, was also a stop on the Europe-to-South American runs. This was the case in Liberia's worst aviation disaster, when a Brazil-bound VARIG DC-10 from Rome crashed on arrival in 1967.

The building, like the rest of the capital's infrastructure, was totally ruined during the war. Below is a picture taken by a US Air Force officer in 1997.

I'm only sorry that I thus far haven't come across any pictures from RIA's busiest period, to see just what the terminal looked like when brand-new. I'm sure that there are some out there in the Liberian community, not to mention Pan Am's archives in Miami. Today, the structure remains vacant, and shrouded in a gigantic Lonestar banner advert. However, the so-called "Old KLM Terminal" which connects to it, is looking spiffy as a VIP terminal used by the President and International celebrities (you can see it at center left of the top photo, complete with KLM blue roof trim).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Flying to Monrovia - its Getting Easier, Part 2

Monrovia is unique among African cities, in that it has not one but two international airports (at least as far as I know). That it makes unique on the continent. Johannesburg, Nairobi, Cairo, Lagos--not one of them has more than a single commercial airport, much less two with full customs facilities. Its somewhat incredible that war-weary, infrastructure-poor Monrovia is up there with the likes of London, Paris, and Tokyo with a second international airport.

While Roberts International is at least 45 minutes from Central Monrovia, the city's second airport, called James Spriggs-Payne Airfield, is located right in the heart of the city, in Sinkor. Its single paved runway is the de facto boundary between the "Avenues" and "Old Road" sections of Sinkor.

The runway of Spriggs-Payne separates Sinkor-Airfield and the Old Road area. The Old Road crosses the photo horizontally from west to east; the old connection to Tubman Boulevard can be seen; this street is now called Airfield Short Cut. The neighborhood behind the terminal is called "Airfield" as a principal entertainment and residential area of the city.
Image courtesy of Google Earth.

In fact, the runway used to be crossed by the Old Road, presumably with ground traffic being halted for take-offs and landings, but this intersection was later blocked and the end of the Old Road became known as Airfield Shortcut. Today, the "Airfield" section of Sinkor is a lively entertainment district, home to several popular restaurants (like Ro-zi's and P.A.'s), and nightclubs (most notably déjà Vu). I've written about Spriggs-Payne before, in the context of the airports authority trying to reclaim their rights to the open fields and neighborhoods at the end of the runway).

Although I authored the majority of the Wikipedia entries for both Spriggs-Payne and Robertsfield (and even provided the picture for Spriggs-Payne), I really don't know too much more about the Airfield's history. It seems the spot started as a grass-strip airfield in the days before Robertsfield was built, and that it has been the hub for Liberia's occasional domestic air services.

Although the runway is longer and made of concrete, the airport is still home to the only domestic flight in Liberia, which connects Spriggs-Payne (code: MLW) to Harper, a weekly flight operated by a Cameroonian-based airline, Elysian Airlines (yes, I wrote that wikipedia article, too).

Elysian's own website is not updated very often, so its difficult to provide the most accurate current information, but as of earlier this year, Elysian was flying from MLW to Conakry, Banjul, and Freetown, about once a week. The Harper run usually leaves Monrovia on Friday and comes back on Monday, so its possible to go for a long weekend, in theory. I've also heard that the flight might stop in Greenville, capital of Sinoe County, if there is any passenger demand.

I've heard some mixed reviews of Elysian--actually the only complaint that I can pass along is that, given the airline's small fleet, if there is a mechanical issue, you can find yourself staying in Harper for a week and three days, rather than just a week.

Aside from that, I think its pretty incredible that this airport is up and running, with a Cameroonian company running a regional hub. Its interesting to contrast Elysian's services with those from Robertsfield, which currently only only one west-bound flight, the Royal Air Maroc connection to Banjul and onward to Casablanca. Beyond that, the only westward services to neighboring Mano Region countries are Elysian's flights to Freetown and Conakry to Spriggs-Payne.

Like many things in Monrovia, UNOPS is to thank for Spriggs-Payne condition. I don't have hard facts, but the UN made a sizeable effort to upgrade the effort post-2003 for its own purposes, which allowed for public and commercial utilization. Still, its more likely to see a UN Helicopter hovering over Sinkor than it is one of Elysian's turboprops.

There are also UN Flights, which are reportedly more reliable, but you have to been on some special list. Its sort of the most-exclusive club in Monrovia, like a speakeasy or something. And its not that cheap, either. I can't even tell you where they go right now, but I am pretty sure they still connect Monrovia with Freetown and Harper, and perhaps Accra and Abidjan.

When Ethiopian Airlines announced its new service to Monrovia from Addis Ababa via Accra, it included an onward destination of Conakry. This never took place, likely because of the troubles in Conakry over the last year. Delta was supposed to link Monrovia to the US via Cape Verde or Dakar, but that ended up changing. Bellview [dead link intended] used to serve Freetown from ROB, and Slok Air used to fly from there to Banjul, but both folded.

A sign above the locked ticket office at Robertsfield for SLOK Air International, A Gambian air company that stopped flying in 2008. Image ©2008 Moved2monrovia

Even Brussels Airlines more recently would triangulate their BRU-ROB runs with a stop at Abidjan's rather stately Port Bouet Airport. However, when SN started their new flight schedule this summer, which added Accra as a destination, Monrovia and Abidjan were decoupled. At the moment, there are no commercial flights between the capitals of these two neighboring countries. It continues to be easier to get to an English-speaking place, even if you can't get to a next-door neighbor unless you flight to Europe first.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Flying to Monrovia -- Its Getting Easier

The ribbon-cutting for Delta at Robertsfield. September, 2010.

I didn't post any celebratory entry on Delta's inaugural flight to Monrovia last month, even after viewing my friend's somewhat surreal picture of a sleek US-registered B767 on the rainy tarmac at Roberts International. At the time, I thought I might be on one of the first flights, and so was just waiting to give a first hand account...and maybe I was feeling a bit left out, as I am not in Monrovia at the moment and couldn't take part in the festivities.

There has been some vocal griping about the pricing and routing of the new service, especially within the Liberian diaspora. Its true that its not very exciting in that it is essentially just another connection to Accra, and only once-a-week. Its certainly not the return to the glory days of wheels-up-at RIA, touch-the-ground-at-JFK connection, which was normal in the golden era of Pan Am's African network.

I could go on at length about Roberts Airport and its history. Not only do I find myself there with some frequency, but I wrote most of the text for the Wikipedia entry, and I even was scolded to pare back my text, as it was deemed to be "unencyclodepic" -- which is a word without a real definition, although don't even begin to argue that with anyone who posts on WIkipedia. Their loss-- instead, I'll provide some of what I know here.

The press coverage of Delta's first landing created a only-in-2010 experience of having an article in quote a local newspaper report, quoting a Deputy Information Minister, regurgitating, nearly verbatim, a central passage of the Wikipedia article. Therefore, I had the bizarre experience of reading my own words back to myself via the internet.

I really believe that Delta should be commended for surviving the multiple twists and turns that is rather typical of getting an investment underway in many parts of Africa. I think they showed remarkable determination to serve Monrovia, especially for a corporation. I am not alone in seeing this as one of the most visible examples of recent progress for Liberia. Its a giant leap forward, and Delta chose Monrovia over Abidjan, and before deciding what to do about serving Nairobi or starting flights to Luanda. But Delta had lifted expectations by announcing at various times that the new service would more directly link Monrovia with New York, or at least, Atlanta.

A January 2009 route map of Delta Air Lines, showing the original plan to connect ROB with JFK via SAL

Therefore, Brussels Airlines continues to provide the only plane that one can board at Robertsfield and land on another continent-- its been that way for at least a decade. Monrovia's flying public are not in love with Brussels either-- some of my Liberian friends have questioned the reasons (security? tropical diseases? racism?!) for the separate T-gate area at Zaventem/National Airport for flights to Africa.

The Brussels Airlines hub at Zaventem has a special gate area for its African flights.

I've also heard tales of cancelled flights leaving people stuck in an African city for half a week as another airbus is flown from Belgium. I myself have had only rather positive experiences on SN. Again, the airline deserves a bit of credit for sticking with Liberia, although I am not naive enough to think its because of anything other than the high airfares (Once, at the Brussels Airlines office in the Episcopal Church Plaza, I was told it was $1347 to fly to Brussels, and $1430 to fly to New York. During holiday periods, I've been quoted over $2K to get back to the US).

At about the same time, I was around the corner at the Kenya Airways office on Broad Street, inside of what is referred to as "The KLM Building" -- recognizable as having a large "G.S.A.- KLM" sign hanging over the sidewalk, and featuring two interlocking full-time ticket offices inside, one for Kenya, one for KLM. As far as I could tell, the KLM office mostly sells tickets for connecting to Amsterdam via Accra on Kenya Airways, its alliance partner.

The KLM Building on Broad Street. "G.S.A. - KLM" sign is visible at rear left, partially obscured by the flag of
the Honorary Spanish Consulate-
- the GSA is also the Spanish Consul.

At the time I was purchasing such a ticket, I asked about KLM coming back, as it used to serve Robertsfield for years. The ticket agent told me a team from KLM had just been visiting the office that week, assessing whether to re-start service. Then I came across, via the Wall Street Journal, an announcement from Air France/KLM that they plan to serve Monrovia by next summer--no word yet on whether this will be a prestigious non-stop, or a routing via another African city. There'll likely be howls of protest if its just another link to Accra.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Liberia Continues to be a Joke

To start, let me say that I decided against entering the fray of the Vice Guide to Liberia controversy earlier this year. Once other bloggers had so thoroughly and eloquently expressed their views, I didn't feel like I had much left to add. Although, as one of just a handful of young, white American males in Monrovia, I felt the whole sophomoric, hyperbolic, melodramatic drivel was especially unhelpful. I don't mean in the sense that I had to worry about being a target for some kind of backlash against me personally. I was not envisioning a scenario where I would be harmed in an Anti-American street protest, or personally attacked. But at the same it also isn't going to make my time or my work in Monrovia any easier.

In my experience, Liberia is a remarkably safe, friendly, welcoming place, with incredibly warm and approachable population who have, in both an individual and communal sense, an ability to put a foreigner at ease, and extend a gracious hospitality that I've not encountered elsewhere--and certainly remarkable for people who have faced and continue to encounter so many problems. I'm not the only observer of this point (see comments), verbalized especially in reaction to Vice's depiction of a dangerous, chaotic hellhole. Liberia has plenty of problems, especially within its still-fragile social realm, and I wouldn't walk down Broad Street at 2AM by myself or anything, but to depict the city as some kind of danger zone is utterly false.

Aside from however annoying and disappointing one finds the lazy sensationalism and gross ignorance of the Vice Guide, it is dangerous to the people of Monrovia, and not the other way around. Once again I am repeating what others have better articulated (see comments), but what we are talking about is Liberia's reputation, how it is perceived by the American public. The Vice Guide's misrepresentations make Monrovia and Liberia seem even worse than they really are, and are therefore doing harm (by the way, Vice eventually apologized). Unfortunately, the Vice Guide is only the most severe and extensive of Liberia's recent appearances in popular video, in which Liberia doesn't get the best profiling.

Earlier this summer, I learned that an episode of a show I had not previously heard of: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, was going to Liberia. I put this up on Facebook and was excited to watch it, and have Liberia gain some exposure, even if it was on one of those American-never-heard-of-this-place-before type of show.

At the end of of the half hour show, having been served palm butter and trying to surf in Robertsport, the schleppy, middle-aged New Yorker concludes:

"Liberia was tough for me, not so much physically as trying to wrap my mind around the place. The past is still too close and the good, I fear, too weak to overcome the bad just yet. This is a place that has endured the worst, that deserves better, much better. I'd like to sum up with hopeful words; a look forward to a brighter future...but I don't believe it."

A lot of people I know were really bothered by that. Of course, what he said was his opinion, and its his show. And I am sure he is not alone in assessing Liberia and feeling that its hopeless. But some of my friends felt that, in a public forum, he could have said something hopeful and encouraging, even if he didn't feel it personally. He might have felt a responsibility, if his sentiments were genuine, to be more positive, and improve Liberia's public profile.

As difficult as it is to admit, I will readily agree that Liberia is a tough place, with challenges so huge that sometimes its overwhelming. I get really frustrated in Monrovia, and I can be very critical and negative at times, and even feel hopeless. But then I go off to spend a lot more time and effort encouraging people to get excited about Liberia, to invest there, to believe in its future. Its therefore annoying when a celebrity chef from Manhattan drops in for a few days with a production crew, and informs his followers that Liberia is hopeless.

My third example is from the Daily Show, where Ellen has appeared previously. In an otherwise ingenious (and surprisingly enlightened, considering the judicial ruling at the end of the segment) report by Wyatt Cenac about Staten Island's lack of Supreme Court Justices, Liberia unexpectedly comes up.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Staten Island Supreme Court Justice
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

At the beginning of the segment, a Staten Island Assemblyman, when asked by Wyatt to list some of the good things on Staten Island, almost immediately mentions the Liberian Community as one of the borough's main assets. I was momentarily optimistic, but I could already see that the Assemblyman had completely served up a softball for the comedian to swat back. Just as I thought, Wyatt, whose job is specifically to look for any joke he can crack, took the opening provided by the Assemblyman, and offered up another laugh at Liberia's expense:

Assemblyman Matthew Titone: We happen to have a lot great things going on here.

Wyatt Cenac: Talk to me about some of those great things.

Assemblyman: [pause, audience laughter] Staten Island is immensely diverse..we also have

THE largest Liberian population outside of Liberia.

Wyatt: No offense, but its Liberia.

Assemblyman: Well, clearly people coming from a civil-war torn country prefer to be on Staten Island then Liberia [audience laughter].

Wyatt: Its kinda like saying, 'Oh, do you want to get punched in the face, or punched in the balls?' [audience laughter]

Please read Palaver Hut's post, as I largely share the view expressed there. But beyond those comments, what I am talking about is the specific damage that can be done when Liberia is mentioned in American popular culture, in a negative connotation. Personally, professionally, and emotionally, it bothers me and worries me that Liberia continues be portrayed in this light, and used as a punchline. For large audiences of young people, such as the Daily Show, this might be one of the only contexts in which they hear about Liberia at all, and the country was served up for a laugh.

Do these personalities, entertainers, and programmers have a responsibility to use their platform to help Liberia? What about the Daily Show, with its flirtations with serious journalism, such as inviting President Sirleaf, only to equate the place with a kick in the groin a year and a half later? These wisecracks are more than unhelpful-- they are, I feel, actually harmful.

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