PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — 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 Prefete Duffaut, who died last year.
The $1.4 million effort titled “Beauty versus Poverty: Jalousie in Colors” 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 neighborhoods like Jalousie. The government is now trying to spruce up these poor neighborhoods and introduce city services.
“We're not trying to do Coconut Grove. We're not trying to do South Beach,” said Clement Belizaire, director of the government's housing relocation program, referring to Miami neighborhoods. “The goal that we are shooting for is a neighborhood 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 Sen. Moise 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 Petionville. Critics have suggested that the choice of Jalousie is as much about giving the posh hotels of Petionville a pretty view as helping the slum's residents.
Belizaire 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, having a beer, smoking a cigarette — whatever — and you have all of Port-au-Prince at your feet, and you're living in colors,” Belizaire said, sitting in his office.