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The Promise of Martissant Park

Martissant Park

Chris Stone recently visited the Open Society foundation in Haiti, the Fondation Connaissance et Liberte (FOKAL), which has spearheaded a project to build a park in Port-au-Prince.

Even before I saw Martissant Park I knew it was a big project, but I wasn’t expecting something of this scope. It’s five percent the size of Central Park in New York City, but in ambition and execution it’s as complicated, varied, and aesthetically exciting a place as any park anywhere. There are parts of it that seemed, as I walked through it, to be about the memory of nature, areas of almost-forest. It is the only place like it inside Port-Au-Prince. To say that it is the biggest contiguous green space in the city misses its grandeur.

In a city where open space is so scarce, the park is about building social space as much as green space—whether it’s the benches for people to have a place to talk, relax, argue, or kiss, or the Cultural Center, or the memorial for the some 300,000 victims of the 2010 earthquake. What’s amazing is what has already been accomplished. In Haiti, there are projects that take years to get where you’d think they’d be in 6 or 12 months, and then there’s work that has progressed so far in a short time and looks so good.

FOKAL started work on the park in 2008, and today most of it is not yet opened to the public. That’s a source of great frustration. On the other hand, the memorial to the victims of the 2010 earthquake is open and popular, and the Cultural Center is about to open on a site that was leveled in the earthquake just three years ago, meaning FOKAL had to go right back to the drawing board, redesign the structure, find architects, find builders, and rebuild the site. It is impressive that it’s about to open in the next few months. All of this is combined in the park: the determination to get work done, together with a frustration with bureaucracies that make even simple things take years.

I was struck by what I saw when leaving the park. It was still morning. A couple was sitting on a bench, engaged in what seemed to be a difficult conversation. It was a wonderful, simple, human moment. It could have been any park in the world. But it was happening in Martissant, the only place it could have been happening in Port-au-Prince. Where else is there serene space simply for an ordinary, difficult conversation between lovers in this city?

The first reflex of most people after a disaster is to imagine that people need food, clothing, and shelter. And they do. But there are basic needs that have nothing to do with these physical necessities, yet they are still the most basic needs. One of those needs is respect. People in calamity need us to see their dignity as well as their suffering, need us to acknowledge the dignity in every person and start with that as a building block for whatever else we do.

When you can do that, when you can connect with someone on the basis of mutual respect, when those helping and those suffering can recognize each other’s dignity and set to work together on that premise, you begin to achieve something sustainable, enduring, profound. That is the promise of Martissant Park.

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