Haiti shantytown gets a bright, art-inspired makeover


By Trenton Daniel, Associated Press, published in The Globe and Mail, March 25, 2013

One of Haiti’s biggest shantytowns, a vast expanse of grim cinderblock homes on a mountainside in the nation’s capital, is getting a psychedelic makeover that aims to be part art and part homage. Workers this month began painting the concrete facades of buildings in Jalousie slum a rainbow of purple, peach, lime and cream, inspired by the dazzling “cities-in-the-skies” of well-known Haitian painter Préfète Duffaut, who died last year.

The $1.4-million (U.S.) effort titled “Beauty versus Poverty: Jalousie in Colours” is part of a government project to relocate people from the displacement camps that sprouted up after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. The relocation has targeted a handful of high-profile camps in Port-au-Prince by paying a year’s worth of rent subsidies for residents to move into neighbourhoods like Jalousie. The government is now trying to spruce up these poor communities and introduce city services.

“We’re not trying to do Coconut Grove. We’re not trying to do South Beach,” said Clément Bélizaire, director of the government’s housing relocation program, referring to Miami neighbourhoods. “The goal that we are shooting for is a neighbourhood that is modest but decent, where residents are proud to be from that area.”

While most residents welcome the attempt to beautify Jalousie, a slum of 45,000 inhabitants, critics say the project is the latest example of cosmetic changes carried out by a government that has done little to improve people’s lives in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. “This is just to make it look like they’re doing something for the people but in reality they are not,” said Senator Moïse Jean-Charles, an outspoken critic of President Michel Martelly, arguing that the money could have been better spent.

Amid its narrow corridors and steep steps, Jalousie has no traditional sewage system or electric grid. The slum is lit at night by candles and a web of wires that tap illegally into the public power system, dangling above the concrete homes. Water is provided by an outdoor spigot where people line up with buckets. Some people wonder why Jalousie was chosen for the makeover, though officials say they plan to expand the project to other Port-au-Prince shantytowns.

Jalousie is unique in that its mountainside presence makes it visible to people living in the wealthy district of Pétionville. Critics have suggested that the choice of Jalousie is as much about giving the posh hotels of Pétionville a pretty view as helping the slum’s residents.

Mr. Bélizaire said he welcomes controversy, adding that the project’s visibility is important. It’s a concrete accomplishment for the government and he contends that it does indeed help Jalousie residents. “People are sitting on the balcony… and you have all of Port-au-Prince at your feet, and you’re living in colours,” he said.

Jalousie has become a flashpoint for class controversy in Haiti recently. It is among many slums that have sprawled across the hills of Port-au-Prince in recent decades because governments past and present have failed to provide affordable housing and basic services. Many of the homes crash down the hills during the country’s rainy seasons.

Haiti’s class divisions spilled into the streets last year when more than 1,000 people from Jalousie protested in central Port-au-Prince. They threw rocks at a luxury hotel and criticized rich Haitians, threatening to burn down Pétionville if the government followed through with a plan to demolish their homes. Officials had wanted to tear down the homes next to a ravine to build a flood-protection project. During heavy rainfall, rocks from the ravine clog the entrance to a private school for the children of diplomats and wealthy Haitians. The demolition never happened.

These days, most people in Jalousie chalk the protests up to a “misunderstanding,” and talk about the project with pride. “It’s beautiful. Jalousie is not the same anymore,” 53-year-old Résilia Pierre as she waited at a well to buy water. “We don’t have the means to do it ourselves. I would like to say ‘thank you’ to the people who did that.”

The government’s goal is to eventually paint 1,000 homes and other buildings.

Workers hired by three companies began two weeks ago by putting concrete finishes on the ash-coloured facades of the slum’s cinderblock houses. Then they paint over the finish with bright colours using rollers, standing atop wobbly ladders. The entire effort is supposed to take six months.

Mr. Duffaut, one of Haiti’s most famous painters, was born in the country’s south in 1923. His work, appearing in museums worldwide, has long been a source of national pride.

While the project in Jalousie may be inspired by Mr. Duffaut, when completed it will still require a bit of imagination to see his psychedelic cities in the sky, with their dazzling colours and surreal tiers that seemingly hover in the air.

What residents will have in their neighbourhood high up on a mountainside will be a lot of bright colours and a love of the artist. “The people of Jalousie,” said Jamesson Misery, a co-ordinator of the project who lives in the slum, “we plan to honour Préfète Duffaut.”

See another article on this subject, by Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye ('Noise Travels, News Spreads):