It is easy enough to explain why walking is so appealing in Haiti. The motorized transport that’s available has so little to recommend it. One finds oneself both shaken and stirred while jammed into crowded vehicles that bounce along roads miserably dusty in the dry season, deeply rutted when it has rained. The one reward is the pleasant company. Shared misery is food for conversation, and traveling Haitians love to chat.
But whenever circumstances allow, I walk instead. I think it saves me considerable wear and tear. And I’ve spent much of my first days back in Haiti walking around Port au Prince.
My walking actually started a couple of weeks before I return to Haiti. In my last weeks in Chicago, I wanted to take in the city, really look around. So although December weather in Chicago did not really encourage casual strolling, I bundled up and made due as best I could. I made the thirty-block walk downtime a couple of times, up Halsted or State Street. I went most of the way to the north side once as well. You see much more walking than you do on a bus or the El.
Some of the differences between the two very different cities are too ubiquitous to even attract attention. Chicago has so many more cars, but traffic flows much more smoothly because the streets are so much better. It would be unusual for a car in Port au Prince to be able to pick up a head of steam. Chicago has much more trash, but it obtrudes less because it’s better managed. I once had the thought that an interesting satire would be a grant proposal to the Corleone Foundation that would request support to bring the Soprano Family to Haiti to train Port au Prince’s criminal gangs in the waste management industry. I thought it could take them out of the kidnapping business and clean the city’s streets. Probably not in the best of taste.
But the most dramatic difference between streets in Chicago and Port au Prince is the level and types of activity they sustain. There are, of course, busy streets in Chicago, the major shopping districts along North Michigan Avenue and State Street in the Loop preeminent among them. On the Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I did most of my walking, they are especially crowded.
But for most of the cold winter walk from Bridgeport, the south side neighborhood where I live, towards downtown, the sidewalks are clear. Here and there I cross paths with another pedestrian or two. Every block or so, I pass a bus station where a handful of people wait.
It’s nothing like the streets of Port au Prince, however, especially the busier ones. A trip through rue du Centre, in the heart of downtown, makes that clear enough. The street is wide enough for four lanes of traffic, but even one lane can do no more than crawl. Men and women buying and selling flood from the sidewalks into the middle of the road. Each car or truck that passes must wait as individual merchants drag and push their wares this way and that. It involves a lot of honking, a lot of yelling, and a fair amount of swearing as well.
Everyone is selling and everyone is buying, and all manner of things are available. Young men wander around carrying long poles, with five or six or seven rods fixed to them. On these rods they display cheap sunglasses and watches. Others walking around with sacks, cardboard boxes, or small thermos tubs on their heads, offering water or soft drinks. Or they have platters loaded with meat pies or cupcakes or plantain chips. Women have baskets in front of them, displaying fruits and vegetables or spices or plastic sandals or canned goods or shampoos or soaps. There are shopping carts rigged as hardware stores, with flashlights, bug sprays, padlocks, hand tools, rolls of tape, and bottles of glue. Small, jury-rigged wooden stands line the roads. They hold clothes and shoes and auto parts and house wares of all descriptions. And amidst it all are crowds of people shouting, arguing, negotiating, swearing, making deals, and failing to do so. Even the city’s less crowded streets are liberally populated with street merchants and their customers.
The levels of economic activity that is everywhere evident in Port au Prince is especially striking during these days of economic distress both in Haiti and in the States. These days in the States we no longer avoid saying “recession.” It’s been months since we euphemized by referring to the “r-word” instead. We are all well enough aware that unemployment is up and economic activity is down. The new euphemism is the “d-word,” and I’ve seen it used several times already.
But what exactly is this economic distress? It’s not that I want to take it too lightly. I know people are struggling. People are losing their jobs, their homes, and the savings their retirements depend on. Even many people who would not describe themselves as “struggling” feel a lot worse off than they were just a year ago. But as I walked up Halsted Street, through downtown Chicago, onto Clarke Street, and continued onward north from the Loop, one thing I noticed was an abundance of expensive-looking hair salons and day spas. And many of them looked busy. So as we are entering a recession, there are plenty of us who can choose to spend $25 or $50 or $100 in a day to look and feel a little better than we otherwise would. The stores – like the enormous Target I passed – are full of shoppers, buying a range of things they might or might not need.
Unemployment is miserably high for us: around 10% nationally, I think, and much, much higher in places. My just-out-of-college roommate has been working admirably hard since September to find a job, and he’s had no luck so far, even though he has an admirable range of skills. But in Haiti, employment, not unemployment is sometimes said to be as low as 5%. That is to say that only about 5% of Haitians have jobs in the formal sector. Maybe it’s more. Maybe it’s 15%, or even 20%. But in any case, the 90% employment we still have in the States is something Haiti can only dream of.
But I don’t want my message to be that we in the States are better off than we normally think we are. There is something to that morale, but it misses too much of what is important in people’s lives.
I don’t really want to suggest a message, or morale, at all. I’m much more interested in the way the sights one sees when strolling through two very different cities reflect the very different lives that very different economic situations impose on the people who live within them.
In Port au Prince, little bits of economic activity are everywhere because the Haitians that live here teeter so close, each day, to losing or lacking the most basic things they need to survive. Its streets have a liveliness, their activities have a a sense of urgency, that Chicago, for all its broad shoulders, fundamentally lacks.