Funky beach town of Jacmel could be key to Haiti's economic revival

By William Booth
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; C01

JACMEL, HAITI -- Behind the peeling facades and louvered shutters of its faded mansions and crumbling warehouses, this little beach town was a happening place before the earthquake -- and if Haiti is to ever revive its shattered economy, planners say Jacmel needs to draw some tourists again.

"Tourism will not be the cure for all that ails Haiti," said Eduardo Marques Almeida, head of the Haitian office of the Inter-American Development Bank, "but Haiti has a lot to offer a foreign visitor, and Jacmel is one of places where the country should put its resources."

Three hours south over the mountains from Port-au-Prince, Jacmel was starting to revive after years of coups, violence, despair. A few foreigners were moving in, with money from places such as New York and Paris, investing in properties that look like a Haitian version of New Orleans, with high ceilings and wrought-iron balconies alongside the old wharf.

Jacmel was funky, with a bit of a bad-boy reputation as a drug-transshipment nexus, but mostly it was famous for its Carnival, the lively weekend beach scene and the vitality of its voodoo.

Here is Haiti's only film school, a respected art institute and a movement to preserve the town's historic Creole architecture. It is the center of Haitian arts and especially handicrafts. But what hurricanes and years of neglect could not destroy, the earthquake tried to snatch away.

There is severe damage, especially in the downtown, which was short-listed as a possible Unesco World Heritage site. Now the 19th-century Victorian structures are tilting and cracked, the filigree detailing down in the rubble piles and wrought-iron railings bent and broken. Engineers from city hall swept through recently, tagging buildings with spray-painted circles and dots. Red for danger, for destroy. Gold for good, fix, repair. There is a lot of red.

"Our old buildings have big problems," said Jean Ruid Senatus, manager of the Hotel Florita, an 1888 townhouse built by the Vital merchant family. Before the quake, there were 15 guests at the Florita, decent WiFi and beer so cold there was ice inside the bottles. Now Senatus and a crew are shoveling plaster out of the stairwells and propping up the roof. He vowed to reopen next month.

Before the earthquake struck, the locals say the sea suddenly withdrew and the beach was covered with flopping fish. The French clock on the cathedral stopped at 5:37 p.m. when a big aftershock hit.

Dieusone Denejour is a fisherman who was knitting a net the other day in his yard. In the months before Carnival, Denejour, like many residents here, spent his days making the papier-mache masks that the town is known for. In a tin-roofed shed, he shows off his work -- puffer fish, mermaids, sea horses.

"No Carnival, just three days of prayer," he said, so no sales.

Richard Morse, the proprietor of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince and the leader of the voodoo rock band Ram, walked around Denejour's neighborhood as residents came out to greet him ("Papa Richard!") and kiss him on the cheek.

"That's where I was initiated," Morse said, pointing to the voodoo peristyle, or temple, where he was formally brought into the religion. The place is now in ruins.

Morse bought an old historic house in Jacmel a few months ago and was relieved to see that it was still standing. When his friend the musician Jimmy Buffett visited Haiti a couple weeks ago, flying in his plane to deliver a load of tents, he said he was looking for a place to help and maybe invest in -- and he thought that Jacmel, with its Key West Caribbean vibe, might be the town. "I like it," Buffett said.

They need the help. At the empty Hotel la Jacmelienne, the guard dog is sad and won't get up. The Samba Shop dance club is closed. The Sleep Late bar is shuttered. Giant pigs are snuffling around on the beach.

In front of one of the handicraft galleries, Wilson Sanon was painting tap-tap buses onto wooden trays. Asked how it is going, Sanon said, "The tourists are not coming, and my home fell down." Before the quake, "things were getting better for Jacmel. Now the city is not the same city."

At the Cine Institute, where Haitians are being trained to make movies, documentaries and commercials, there are cracks in the building, but it is still standing.

At the edge of Jacmel, one of the film students, Marjorie Lefleur, lives among the banana trees in a one-room dollhouse, without electricity or running water, that she built with her mother. This is where she writes her scripts. "Since I was young I always wanted to make a movie. I always said I wanted to be an actor and work in film," said Lefleur, who is 25.

In the quake's aftermath, the aspiring filmmakers were tasked with interviewing survivors of Jacmel. Lefleur found "a young man who knew the earthquake was coming, who said he had a dream that the earth would shake and buildings fall down. His parents thought he was acting crazy. He said someone in his family would die, that he will be trapped between two walls, and he drew a picture of this."

Next to the film school, there is a big dance hall. When some visitors stopped by, the bar staff began to play the new version of "We Are the World," a song recorded to raise money for Haiti. They also turned on the disco ball, which spun around a couple of turns and then got stuck.

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