Pitt Street for me, as a child growing up in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, in the 1950’s, was the most colourful and exciting street in town. Pitt Street, also called Market Lane, was the busiest street, even more busy than The Strand, to which it was adjoined.
Some say Pitt Street was named after Sir William Pitt, a former British Prime Minister, while others claimed that it was named after William Pitt, a New Amsterdam resident. It was developed in the early 1900’s because of its proximity to The Strand, the other major commercial street, and the municipal market which was located below the Town Hall. In the early years, the premises were neatly fenced and had bridges over the gutters which led to their interiors. Portuguese and Syrians dominated Pitt Street at that time, with a sprinkling of Chinese and East Indians. Syrian and Portuguese hucksters also bought merchandise in wholesale quantities from the merchants of Pitt Street and sold them to households.
Pitt Street was destroyed by fire for the first but not the last time in 1923. The fire reportedly started at the first floor above Ferrell’s jewellery store and rapidly spread through the street. Only Hikel’s, David’s, the Mendoncas at each head (The Strand and Main Road), and De Jesus were saved. De Jesus refused to leave his premises during the fire, praying loudly and earnestly. A mother and her two children reportedly perished in the fire.
Ferrell re-opened business and a jeweller – Jaichand Diyaljee from Bombay, India – opened in one of the buildings rebuilt by Hikel on the burnt site. Some of the other businesses on Pitt Street were cookshops which changed hands over the passing years.
By the early 40’s, the tenants from the eastern half of Pitt Street from The Strand were Sue Ho and above it, Budhu’s Boarding House, George Bahadur, Rambharrack, Gajadhar Singh, Diyaljee, Robert Rampersaud, Jacob Hanoman and later Harry Hanoman, J.N. Anaamanthadoo, Latchman, Hughes’ Drug Store, Thelma Rambarran, Chinapen, and Mendonca at the head of the street.
From the Main Road, the southern portion of Pitt Street included Nicholas George – a Dry Goods store, Carrington’s Jewelry, Juman Bacchus’ Boarding House, Ahmad Hoosein called Tailor Man, Pat Miloo’s Restaurant, Mark’s Tinware and Garage, the Palm Beach Store, Juman Bacchus’ Parlour, Foonoo and Boyce Bacchus, J.Z. Bacchus, George Hanoman, the Cosmopolitan Store owned by Cecil Bahadur, La Bennetts later occupied by Milton Persaud and Mendonca’s at the head.
There were also businesses like Seecharran’s Barber shop, David Jankie’s Barber shop, Daniel and Moses Moakan, Milton Griffith’s Record Store, George Eadie, David Singh, Smally’s Restaurant and Parlour, Bacchus’ King Sailor Barbershop, and Bass Eddo’s Jewellery shop. Rose Ceres sold root vegetables, plantains and fruits on the pavement in front of Sue Ho’s grocery from 1932 to 1965.
George Hikel at the head of Pitt Street by The Strand, was sold to Sonny Lalman in 1961. Lalman sold the building to Roy Hanoman in 1977. Henry Alphonso left Mendonca in 1940 to manage Pat Ferreira’s Sawmill located up the Berbice River. By 1911, the population of New Amsterdam had exceded 8,600. Gone were the days when New Amsterdam was thought to be a place where three people standing together was considered a crowd!
In my novel Walk Good Guyana Boy (1994), I dedicated an entire chapter to life on Pitt Street. It was where my father used to take me to get a haircut at Jankie’s Barber shop. He used to padlock his bicycle – the Gallows which he called his “feet”, to a sturdy railing beside the barber shop. As I recall, Pitt Street was not paved at that time.
There was at least one Portuguese pawnshop on Pitt Street that got a lot of business from my struggling family during those years in the 50’s when I was a child. My mother’s wedding band, her gold neck chain which seemed to shrink with each visit, her diamond engagement ring, all made frequent visits. Things got to a head when my family had nothing left to pawn, leading my father to exclaim in frustration and anger, “All ah have left tuh pawn is meh balls!” It is difficult to say what those would have fetched on Pitt Street.
On Pitt Street, you could get from a needle to an anchor. The rumshops did brisk business. The peddlers were busy outside shops and up and down the street. A relative of mine once bought a gold chain from a peddler on Pitt Street at a bargain price, only to discover that after one shower, his “gold” chain had turned to brass, and a few days later, it had turned black!
When I was getting my hair cut at Jankie’s Barber shop, the place was full of limers, catching up on news and spreading gossip. Not far up the street, across the road, was a kind of bawdy house. It blasted East Indian music all day and night from a juke box. Women, many scantily dressed, paraded regularly from the open veranda above the street. They called out to passers-by. Some were young and buxom, others older, ropy and worn.
My father called these women “rats”. The men in the barber shop feasted their eyes on the women. Shoppers on the street and especially females, hurried by, not daring to look up at their “sisters” shouting for business. The regular limers in the barbershop said that the women liked white men particularly. When sailors and British soldiers were in town, they had a field day. They would take anybody who had money. Sometimes a local businessman could be seen emerging discreetly from the premises, straightening his tie and brushing his hair, and looking up and down Pitt Street furtively.
An older brother of mine, who was a radio technician was instructed by his employer to go and check out a radiogram at this bawdy house but got “chicken feet” and said that he was afraid to go in. A well known minister and man of the cloth, was once seen coming out from the building. This became the talk of the town for weeks and months even though the minister said that he had gone there “to save souls”.
My father’s kettle really started to boil and hiss when he saw a white woman in the building. He exploded, “What is dat white rat doing in deh! Dat woman got nuh shame.” The limers in the barbershop assured him that she was the Madam in charge.
I will never forget the haunts, the humour, the drama and excitement of Pitt Street. The most tasty meal and meat could be got on Pitt Strret, however you defined it. I sat on a board that the barber placed across his barber chair as he cut my hair. He clipped away with a manual clipper, on occasion pulling out hair by the roots, before taking out a six inch razor which he sharpened on a leather belt hanging nearby, stroking it up and down.
Pitt Street was the Broadway of New Amsterdam. Even the beggars and drunks on Pitt Street had a certain class. They were always polite, never insistent or rude. Later I learnt that every town and city in the world had a Pitt Street, a place where a dollar could be made and lost, a place to buy and sell, a place to eat and drink, a place to pass the time with friends old and new.
Pitt Street was a place for survivors and the pawnshops on Pitt Street helped my family to survive, in a fashion, during those “guava years” in the 50’s. I left Pitt Street but Pitt Street never left me; the sights, the smells, the rush of humanity on a hot, sweaty afternoon, the flood of water down the drains after a tropical downpour, the bicycles, honking cars, donkey carts, hucksters, the shoppers, the regulars, the smiles, the occasional curse, the bustle of life, born and re-born daily.
It was with great regret that I learned that Pitt Street had been hit by fire again on Friday March 7, 2003, destroying 19 businesses, and leaving in its wake billions of dollars in losses and over 150 persons without jobs. The fire moved east and west, hitting many establishments including Ganpatsinghs Drug Store which had stood for decades on The Strand by Pitt Street. It was a Black Friday for many New Amsterdamers.
Before that, the last major fire on Pitt Street was in the early 1960’s when a fire destroyed Lallman’s Store at the corner of The Strand and Pitt Street and Hazrat’s General Store, razed again in the 2003 fire.