The first vision of Jacmel from the elevated mountain road reveals a small city hugging a dry riverbed and the South-Eastern Haitian coastline. From this distance the city appears especially bright in the afternoon. At night this same view reveals a glyptic burst of electricity against the gas lamp using provincial belt. Descending into the city is exciting as clustered buildings materialize all at once. After reaching the stop-over gas station just outside the limit, the charms of old, crumbling buildings begin to tell a story of a colonial history, thousands of different uses, collapse and renewal.
The mental space of Jacmel relates a wealth of possibilities, local talent and galvanizing spirit. All around the city artists practice and share their work, entrepreneurs strive to achieve their next goal, and forgotten spaces gain new life in the imagination of an inspired person. The well-known Hotel Florita is a prime example.
Walking into the Florita incites mirages of stylish 1950s parties with posh women artfully whispering among themselves and men in fedoras trading jokes over large cigars. The adjacent spaces are paradigms of the roofless Jacmelienne architectural ghosts. Floating staircases leading nowhere relate traces of once existing floors. Dilapidated structures turn to phantom limbs for the passerby who can only dream up the endless secrets stored in the invisible walls.
The decay of the buildings reminds of classic Grecian ruins fitted on French colonial structures. What remains of three-story edifices are one-story walls festooned with cracks. The two upper floors of the Florita’s next-door collapsed after the 2010 earthquake, yet the ground level with pool and bar remains. It is the kind of space that would be the most chill place to be in New York over the summer, and the rustic feel naturally bears an effect that people the world round pay tens of thousands to achieve. Nature has begun to reclaim these building as vines burst through walls and untended trees chew through the floor. That same appeal is visible everywhere outside. Brightly painted rusting doors rhythmically lining the streets are unclaimed works of art. Similar roofless structures are being used by families, shops, artists and for events. Many buildings around town are being privately reconstructed, and I hope that they are largely being restored to their ancien regime greatness.
Life conducted within these doors is as full as any anywhere in Haiti. Artisans avail themselves of the openness and collaborate within studios with relaxed aspirations. At the FOSAJ school of art, lessons are taught to young and old artists alike, and there is a constant exhibition space. The craft papier-mâché and recycled (found) art are two notable movements within the artistic community that manifest in amazing masks and costumes. Jacmel has always been known as a cultural center of Haiti, and to witness the ingenuity and craft of many artists here is very compelling as their work marks the prevailing mentality of the city, which is vibrant and colorful.
The bazaar in the center of the city is housed in the most beautiful iron bodied town square. Residents come to buy meat, seasonal vegetables, flip-flops, cell phones, tennis shoes, suits, cereal etc… (and they are presented in that order). The intensity of the experience within is memorable as it feels like there is never a still moment while people barter, gossip and trade.
Jacmel’s talent and upside is finally being recognized by the Haitian government, which has sought out foreign investors to really engage and capitalize on the opportunity of the port city. According to Haiti Libre: “During her visit in the metropolis of the South East, the Minister of Tourism has announced that the Venezuelan government has about $30 million to of make the city of Jacmel a real pole of tourist destination. “This funding should invest in the expansion of the airport of the city in order to transform it into an international airport and the redevelopment of the tourist port of Jacmel to accommodate cruise ships,” said Stéphanie Villedrouin.”
Once this money is distributed it is a sure bet that Jacmel will take off. The small city has received a lot of attention from real estate developers in the last few years and it is already a highly trafficked destination for domestic vacationers. As the airport is extended to accept international flights traffic is expected to rise exponentially, which ought to spur further expansion. There are several existing plans of how to maintain the grace of this city while accommodating the celebrity it is sure to garner as a beacon of Haitian culture under its growth. Hopefully most who invest in the city will maintain a culturally sensitive approach to building that retains the order given by the existing system. In Jacmel, what is old is now the frontier and the new age of pioneers & artists are responsible to ensure the character originating from its history is not lost in the excitement of new development.