Le Grande Rue--the historic buisness center of Port-au-Prince
For the first time in quite a long time, I ventured into the traditional heart of Port-au-Prince. It was a sad sight. Most of the buildings along the main street (Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessaline or Le Grande Rue as it is commonly known) were so severely damaged that they were unusable. Vendors squatted in the shade of the porches selling their goods while sunlight streamed through the shattered building behind them. Although all the loose rubble was gone, there were few signs of the reconstruction.
Even before the earthquake, this area was withering. The streets were a mess and never drained. The roads were blocked by traditional market vendors with stalls extending into the street. Crime had become a bad problem. Most businesses had moved to Petionville.
Then came the earthquake. The New York Times beautifully captured the devastation on Le Grand Rue with a sweeping panarama. As the panorama shows, large number of the buildings collapsed or became unstable. The National Palace is only a few blocks away and also crumbled. Throughout 2010, the government talked of the need to develop a master plan to rebuild the area. President Preval imposed a moratorium on construction to ensure that all new construction would follow the master plan. But then no plan was ever approved.
In 2011, Digicel's CEO, Dennis O'Brien stepped in to rebuild the Iron Market--a bizarre 19th Century Egyptian train station turned outdoor market. He spent $12 million to rebuild the market to make it better than it had ever been--a beautiful symbol of the rebirth of Port-au-Prince.
President Martelly has rescinded the construction ban, but little has been done. The market remains beautiful, but it still stands alone. It wouldn't take much of an earthquake to bring many of these crumbling buildings down on those squatting under them.
I found my visit to the center of town to be quite striking due to the contrast with Petionville. I spend most of my time in Petionville where the traces of the earthquake are largely gone. New hotels, restaurants, and shopping complexes have sprung up all over. It is easy to believe that Haiti is better off now than before the earthquake--Petionville is booming.
Naturally money follows money--people are building in Petionville because others are building in Petionville. Perhaps the rebirth of downtown Port-au-Prince will only start when the government begins rebuilding its home--the palace, the parliament building, and the ministries. We can only hope that this starts soon.