PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A year after the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, just 5 percent of the rubble has been removed. The National Palace still sits in a half-demolished pile. In its shadow, on the Champs de Mars plaza, tens of thousands of Haitians live under torn or frayed tents and tarpaulins. All over the city, buildings remain pancaked, keeled over, smashed – just as they were after the earthquake on January 12, 2010.
But in the main commercial district, a few blocks east of the sea, a huge and beloved 19th-century bazaar called the Marche en Fer, or Iron Market, has risen again, its whimsical exterior, including clock tower and four minarets, gleaming with fresh paint. In the coming days, this wonderland of commerce – once packed with nearly a thousand merchants selling art, pigeons, turtles, dried starfish, herbs, potions, perfumes, produce and cheap Chinese housewares – will bustle back to life.
Built in the late 19th century in France, the market, also known as Marche Hyppolite, was apparently intended to be a railway station in Cairo. It is not clear why it landed in Haiti instead in 1891, but for the 119 years that followed, it served – as Denis O’Brien, the Irish billionaire who has poured $12 million of his own money into the restoration, put it – as “the economic and cultural fulcrum of the city.”
The project has become a lone bright spot in Haiti’s stalled reconstruction. Built to international codes, equipped with solar panels and resistant to hurricanes and earthquakes, the renovated Iron Market epitomizes the hope of the international community that Haiti might “build back better,” in the words of former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy for Haiti.
O’Brien’s deep pockets – his company, Digicel, dominates the Haitian cell phone market and he himself is worth an estimated $3.5 billion – allowed him to hire hundreds of workers, import materials and not flinch too much at cost overruns. He flew in every few weeks for site visits, and constantly hounded his project manager, George Howard, for updates and photographs.
“When you go down that main street there, and see tens of thousands of people milling about the place, with barely an umbrella; these people, they’re just incredible, selling every day to make a livelihood,” O’Brien said a few days before the inauguration recently. “Every day that we delay, it’s just more misery for the people outside the gate.”
He is also keenly aware of the financial upside to getting Haiti up and running again. “As a company, we’re more aligned to the masses than to the elites,” O’Brien said of his interest in the market.
Like so much of Haiti’s architectural heritage, the Iron Market was in bad shape long before the earthquake. It had suffered for decades from lack of maintenance, and in May 2008, a fire devastated the north hall. A year and a half later, that section was still a jumble of detritus, barely shielded from scavengers by a brick wall. By then, it had attracted the attention of O’Brien and a London-based architect, John McAslan, who together had been batting around ideas for renovation projects with Haiti’s historical preservation institution.
The earthquake came two months later. A concrete deck that had been added to the market years ago collapsed, killing several vendors. The force of the canopy’s collapse also pulled down part of the southern hall and wrenched the tower and minarets over, as though they were prostrating themselves to the street.
But the quake galvanized O’Brien’s interest and he moved quickly. According to the mayor of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Yves Jason, O’Brien proposed the project a week after the quake. Jason says he saw the project as vital – “Anyone born in Port-au-Prince, who has shopped in Port-au-Prince, they all have a story, a memory, from the market” – and he helped O’Brien through the morass of paperwork required. The partnership has worked well; O’Brien calls Jason “the most effective elected public servant I’ve met.” (It may have helped that Digicel made a point of paying its 2010 city taxes in advance.)
Within a few weeks, O’Brien had assembled a group of engineers, architects and managers. He also hung a big red placard on the site announcing a completion date: December 2010.
“An impossible target,” said McAslan, who worked on the project. “Even in the States it would take three to five years.”
Workers salvaged much from the ruins, including original bricks and cast-iron columns from the north hall. For the market halls’ louvres, a Haitian artist, Philippe Dodard, designed cutouts based on the original 19th-century design and on symbols from Haiti’s indigenous Taino population, casting delightful shadows on the market floor. Howard, the project manager, managed to get new tiles from a French company that bought the original tile manufacturer.
The most delicate parts of the renovation concerned the tower and minarets. Over the summer, they were disassembled, loaded onto flatbeds, and driven to the workshop Dodard runs with an engineer, Dimitri Craan, for renovation by local artisans. The cast-iron columns also ended up at Dodard’s workshop, where a dozen specialists in cast-iron welding refurbished them for reinstallation in part of the south market that had collapsed.
A week before the inauguration, there remained much to do. Six days before the inauguration, the clock and the tower had yet to be painted.
But Howard barked, joked, reprimanded, made phone calls, and – somehow – the building was ready enough. Already, hundreds of the original market merchants, registered after the 2008 fire and the quake by Jason’s office, were lining up inside the market to reclaim their stalls. O’Brien wanted them at the inauguration. The oldest is expected to formally open the market, alongside Clinton, and the hope is for them to move back in a matter of days, close to the one-year anniversary of the quake.
O’Brien says his commitment to the market will go beyond the reconstruction: He has also signed on to help organize the management of the market for the next 50 years. In doing so, he held focus groups and surveyed the vendors, most of them women.
“People were asked their opinion. And people cower a bit, because they’ve had to cower for centuries,” he said, alluding to the country’s long history of inequality. He added: “But the Iron Market will be a cower-free zone.”