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.
Jalousie, perched above rich Petionville, has become a flashpoint for class controversy in Haiti recently. It is among many slums that have sprawled across the hills of Port-au-Prince in recent decades because governments past and present have failed to provide affordable housing and basic services. Many of the homes crash down the hills every year during the country’s rainy seasons.
Haiti’s class divisions spilled into the streets last year when more than 1,000 people from Jalousie protested in central Port-au-Prince. They threw rocks at a luxury hotel and criticized rich Haitians, threatening to burn down Petionville if the government followed through with a plan to demolish their homes. Officials had wanted to tear down the homes next to a ravine to build a flood-protection project. During heavy rainfall, rocks from the ravine clog the entrance to a private school for the children of diplomats and wealthy Haitians.
The demolition never happened.
These days, most people in Jalousie chalk the protests up to a "misunderstanding," and talk about the project with pride.
"It’s beautiful. Jalousie is not the same anymore," Resilia Pierre, a 53-year-old wife and mother, said as she waited at a well to buy water. "We don’t have the means to do it ourselves. I would like to say ‘thank you’ to the people who did that."
The government’s goal it to eventually paint 1,000 homes and other buildings.
Workers hired by three companies began two weeks ago by putting concrete finishes on the ash-colored facades of the slum’s cinderblock houses. Then they paint over the finish with bright colors using rollers, standing atop wobbly ladders next to buckets of paint. The entire effort is supposed to take six months.
Duffaut, one of Haiti’s most famous painters, was born in the country’s south in 1923. He studied at the Centre D’Art in the late 1940s and his work, appearing in museums worldwide, has long been a source of national pride.
While the project in Jalousie may be inspired by Duffaut, when completed it will still require a bit of imagination by the viewer to see his psychedelic cities in the sky, with their dazzling colors and surreal tiers that seemingly hovering in the air.
What residents will have in their neighborhood high up on a mountainside will be a lot of bright colors and a love of the artist.
"The people of Jalousie," said Jamesson Misery, a coordinator of the project who lives in the slum, "we plan to honor Prefete Duffaut."