What does a park mean to people who have never benefitted from public services in their community?
To answer this question, you must understand what it means in Haiti to lack a sense of public space.
In the waning years of the Duvalier dictatorship, all over our country, peasant fields and plots could no longer produce enough food to feed the families dependent upon them. And what happens around the world when this happens? People flock to cities.
After the dictatorship ended, hundreds of thousands of people moved into Port-au-Prince. These were mostly illiterate people, people from far off mountainsides, people who had minimal education and few skills, and little feel for what it meant to live in an urban area.
But these are also people who have an awe-inspiring will to survive and adapt, to find their way over a mountain, to work very hard, to apply their creativity and ingenuity in order to build better lives for themselves and their children, and by this I mean lives that would include schools, lives that would include health care, enough food, a broader social life, a life connected with the world outside of their village and, for some, a life beyond the borders of our country. You have not seen a people hungry for education until you come to Haiti. You have not seen a people so desperate for their children to learn to read and achieve and raise themselves up.
The post-dictatorship governments never attempted to organize the massive influx of rural people young and old. They squatted wherever they could. They built homes of reeds and scrap lumber and corrugated metal dangerously close to flood plains and on steep hillsides. And, of course, you have rich people who seek to profit from the situation: people who are owners of land, who throw together houses, and rent them out. These are invisible people, like the slumlords in the novels of Charles Dickens.
Long before the earthquake, broad swathes of the slums functioned without sanitation, without water lines, without an organized electrical service, without streets, without police, without schools. Criminality became endemic, and gangs formed, both predatory and vigilante. Political leaders attempted to co-opt the gangs into their service as armed thugs. If someone got a job, the gang members would come knocking to demand their take of his pay, and kill anyone who didn’t hand it over. Justice on the hillsides is an alien concept.
I spent part of my childhood in a house my father built for our family on part of the land that has become Martissant Park. I saw the people on hillsides above the park cut down the trees to clear space for their homes and use the lumber to make into charcoal and sell in the market. I have seen the chaos from political revolts. I have seen the destruction and suffering wrought by the earthquakes, hurricanes, and flash floods.
These events inflict terrible suffering, and afterward people need help in practically every form. But beyond the basic needs people have during such turmoil is the need for dignity and respect. This is often lost in the rush to provide humanitarian assistance and basic services, and during the subsequent period when donors grow weary when they grasp the levels of corruption and waste. But basic dignity and respect, along with justice, are fundamental.
We saw the treasure of the green space where I grew up surrounded by the chaotic hills above, crowded with people scrambling to survive. We saw the vegetation, the orchids and hummingbirds and tall palm trees and birds, and the spring of fresh water people here revere as a place where spirits reside. And we came to the conclusion that the best thing to do with the green area surrounded by the slums—and in danger of being consumed by the slums—was to open this space to the public in a slow, controlled, and almost counter-intuitive way. We decided to try to establish a place to help the slum dwellers and others to coalesce into a community.
We started by working out a way to remove people who were squatting in the area designated for the park. Then we began inviting people from the slums to meet with each other, a dozen or so at a time, and simply talk about their concerns, to share their experiences—some of them traumatizing even to hear, and to contribute their vision of how this green, breathing space, this park in the making, might best benefit the community. These group sessions focused on questions of freedom, rights, citizenship, and respect for the law.
Many people wanted a library. Many wanted a quiet place to get away from the one room where they lived with members of their family. Many said they wanted a school, and others a health center for mothers and children. Practically all of them expressed interest in a job. And then it became obvious to everyone that Martissant Park would be an unparalleled place to build a memorial to the many thousands of victims of the earthquake.
Slowly, the park took hold. And today, for me, it is a personal utopian dream that has begun to come true. Martissant Park is giving new life and new meaning to a place that might easily have been destroyed.
In Haiti, during my lifetime, I have seen things with meaning fall apart. I have seen homes crumble, and buildings burn. Being able to breathe new life into a green area and have it serve a bedraggled, traumatized people and strengthen their dignity and confidence as they face the daily struggle to survive, this is rare anywhere. This is joy.