photo: Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
photo: Amy Wilentz

Both of the photos above are of the Jalousie shantytown, arguably the most photographed shantytown in Port-au-Prince. They are before and after photos of the recent government paint-over of Jalousie (after and before, actually, in order of appearance).

Why is Jalousie so photographed, one might wonder. Jalousie is not the biggest, or even necessarily the poorest, of Haiti’s sprawling slums. But the tumbledown, terraced shantytown looks dramatic and also happens to face one of the two major roads that connects downtown Port-au-Prince with the wealthier suburbs of Petionville, Bourdon, Montagne Noire, and others even higher up the hill.

You can pull over, as I have done, and take a picture of Jalousie without (and this is the great convenience for nervous outsiders with their cameras and phones) ever having to get near the shantytown. In fact, there’s a kind of a look-out point off the road there, next to some shops, as I recall.

Many, many outsiders have taken photos from this point — in fact almost all pictures of Jalousie are taken from this one spot. (It’s hard to see it in these pictures but major swaths of Jalousie were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake). When I took one such picture (just above) people who were sitting on their roofs in Jalousie enjoying a moment of leisure and ostensible privacy in their own homes, or hanging laundry on the clotheslines you can see in the picture, gave me the finger and otherwise made warding off gestures, because (I assume) the 45,000 or so residents are sick of their neighborhood being offered to the world as Haiti’s poster-slum.

Last month, in a moment of astounding cynicism, the Haitian government, which is loathe to make any move on behalf of the Haitian people, began a $1.4 million effort to put a bright face on Jalousie by painting scores of facades in an array of pleasing Caribbean colors.

Today, Jalousie is a target neighborhood for earthquake camp depopulation, which is to say that people from the 3-year-old makeshift earthquake camps that sprang up de facto around town after a million people were made homeless by the quake are being moved into Jalousie and a few other neighborhoods. The target neighborhoods that are not so visible are not getting the paint job.

Most of the people who work in service for the wealthy residents of Petionville and Montagne Noire and Bourdon live in Jalousie: the drivers, the housekeepers, the tailors and handymen, the locksmiths, the blacksmiths, the cobblers, the groundsmen, the cooks, the caregivers, the nannies, the hotel elevator operators, the wait staff, the bartenders, the busboys, the street sweepers, the market ladies, et al.

While the masters and mistresses of the suburbs live in graceful walled houses or mansions that look like the south of France, their servants live in Jalousie, with no running water and no sewage or power systems. The sewage flows in open canals, and the power comes (as it does in other shantytowns and in the camps) from dangerous freelance wiring that pulls stolen power from the weak, unreliable municipal grid. The water comes occasionally from the municipal twiyo, or pipes, where women and children line up with plastic buckets on their heads.

Now in the old days, before globalization destroyed the Haitian economy, Haitians themselves used to paint their cement block houses. One year, pink paint would be cheap. And the houses that year would be pink. The next year, green. Sometimes, blue or yellow. Hence the famous paintings of the great Haitian painter Prefete Duffaut, that depict fantasy Haitian cities rising up into the heavens. When Duffaut first painted these tableaux, they weren’t so fantastical.
Prefete Duffaut
painting: Prefete Duffaut

This (above) is what inspired the Martelly administration (if you can glorify President Micky Martelly’s regime with that noun) in its repainting of Jalousie: the newly painted slum is supposed to look like Duffaut’s cities in the sky. It’s a nice idea.

Who remembers New York City’s controversial program — in 1983, under the late Mayor Ed Koch — to beautify the abandoned buildings that bordered the Cross Bronx Expressway by putting vinyl decals in the jagged remains of the punched out windows? Crack addicts and smack heads shooting up inside, but — for the outsiders passing through on their way from suburban Jersey to suburban Long Island, decals decorated with pretty shutters, pastel flower pots, drawn-back pleats of curtains, and half- pulled-down shades.

There was an uproar, of course, about the cynical program, the racist implications, the city’s failure to help the poorest residents better their lives, etc., etc., but at least no one was living in those buildings when the decals went up. The program cost the comparatively rich New York City $300,000.

Ricky Flores
photo by Ricky Flores

I have to say that for whatever reason, a free paint job for your house is a lot better than decals covering the shattered windows of economic blight. I have no doubt that the Haitians who live in Jalousie are glad to have a few brightly colored houses interspersed with the rest of the dull, crumbling, half-built, unsafe, stifling, and still unpainted beige or gray cement-block homes.

As Clement Belizaire, director of the Haitian government’s camp relocation program, told the Associated Press: “People are sitting on the balcony, having a beer, smoking a cigarette — whatever — and you have all of Port-au-Prince at your feet, and you’re living in colors.” Of course, the problem with this daydream is that the guy on the Jalousie balcony in Belizaire’s imagination is unlikely, in reality, to be able to afford the beer, or even the single cigarette (that’s how cigarettes are often sold in Haiti).

Anyway, the aim of the officials in Haiti in 2013 and New York in 1983 is the same: to prettify their economic failures with a makeover, a kind of urban Botoxing. In Haiti, the cosmetic effort is especially grating, since billions have been promised by the international community to help with earthquake recovery, and millions have actually been spent.

And yet this, THIS, is the best that can be done to improve a camp-relocation target community?

It’s shameful, really. It’s not so much that the bright exteriors are bad in themselves. It’s simply that the cheery, slapped up paint is meant to hide — but actually highlights — the profound failure of the earthquake recovery effort.

This paint job is for passersby, for people with cameras at a distance, for outsiders — for tourists, business investors, journalists, and development workers. If it were intended to help the guy on the Jalousie balcony (relaxing with his supposed beer and his cigarette), the improvement effort would consist of toilets, sinks, sewers, and generators. And not pink paint.