Haitians don't make iron buildings–the French do. Or they did in the 1890s and even then the French wouldn't make iron buildings for Haiti, they'd make them for Egypt. About the same time the Eiffel Tower went up a French company was commissioned to fabricate the parts for an enormous open-air train station for installation in Cairo. It's a bit of a mystery how an Egyptian-destined structure ended up in downtown Port-au-Prince, but it became one of Haiti's most iconic buildings. Of course there's speculation, a number of urban myths, but at the end of the day you've got the equivalent of an alien spaceship landing in a concrete orchard.
"Our objective," Darren briefs us in the car, "is to find out the REAL history of the Iron Market." We've been invited to tour the newly-rebuilt open-air facility, a $12 million private venture undertaken by the family of the Chairman of Digicel–by far the most-generous-to-Haitians international company in the world. (Digicel is also known for providing cell phones to the country at large at great discount–revolutionizing Haitian connectivity–and plastering their distinctive red logos on nearly every vertical surface and graphic tee in the country.) The rebuilt market was subject of an opening ceremony last week on the anniversary of the earthquake–President Bill Clinton officiated. It's quit a symbolic milestone for the lagging Haitian recovery–that the merchants that currently line the streets might be able to repopulate some uncontestedly-public space. The Iron Market being an evocative representation of economic activity, I found this passage particularly charming:
"Marche en fer (Iron Market) A densely packed market of vendors selling everything from crafts such as voodoo paraphernalia to fresh food such as turtles. It's a challenging, stressful, and maddening place to walk through as throngs of desperate merchants grab you and tight huddles of shoppers, stalls, and moving goods impede your every step, which requires you to swim through humanity. You will find a breathtaking inventory of hand crafted art: sculptures, masks, staves, paintings, globes, tea sets, coconut belts, etc." (wikitravel.org)
So we were excited to see this thing. Especially after a week of not-leaving-Pétionville, and some of the volunteers jokingly speculating they'd never see Port-au-Prince during their stay. Yesterday we all climbed into the Tata to descend into the vast urban basin cradling the capital. The Market was almost at the water's edge, smack between the Cathedral and the port–two landmarks that have both seen better days. On our way through town, Darren was able to point out some local landmarks as they once were before the earthquake–many of these were now destroyed, condemned, cleared or repopulated with tents and tarpaulin. It became clear that the Iron Market was the only refurbished project in this part of town, and to finally see it squat and glistening behind a battalion of ware-salers was an experience bordering on sublime.
For the Iron Market was glossy and spotless–as much dark orange as it was aquamarine, and sitting in the sky the way it was, it seemed as though the four elements were having an epic showdown that consumed an entire city block. A closer look to the exterior beheld some telling details–columns capped with distinctly-Egyptian palm tree abstractions, and arched bays matching those in train stations across Europe and its former colonies. But perhaps even more notably than this nearly-indescribable presence was the fact that it was gated off–closed. Our truck inched through a gate protected by armed guards to pull along a very vast and very empty market. Our host, a very articulate and affectionate Haitian architect named Georges, offered a formal introduction to the building.
There are two ends to the new Iron Market–North and South–enormous open-air halls linked together by a two-story archway and dirt courtyards. The South Market was the redone original 120-year-old piece and the North Market was its contemporary reflection, effectively doubling the capacity of the market, now estimated to support 900 merchants. The halls were empty–white painted metal interiors calmly weathering the climbing heat of the day. A couple sets of scaffolding reached into the vaulted ceilings. Below, rows of concrete booths, separated by woven metal dividers, striped the concrete foundation. Intricate wrought iron webs and details brought a sense of tactility to the lofty connections between column and rafter and enormous ceiling fans made an effort to touch back. The North Market, built from scratch this past year, was assembled in steel and had a more muscular feel to it. Some of the partitions in this end reached up 15-20 feet, framing what would be an impressive hanging display of crafts. Also scattered around the floor were black bins with various white signs on them: "Manje," "Boutey," "Papier," "Plastik." I wasn't aware Port-au-Prince had waste separation–perhaps the Iron Market was presaging some reforms.
Most impressive, though, would have to be the arched gateway attaching the North and South markets. The gate was a taller element, flanked on four corners by orange octagonal minarets and crowned with a pediment and a clock face. Georges led us up a flight of spiral stairs in one of the minarets to an observation deck running the length of the gateway. From here you can see once more what was happening beyond the Market's temporary walls. Boulevards running East and West would converge on the archway, but at the moment told two different stories. To the east, inland, was a throng of street merchant stands, scores of dirty red Digicel umbrellas reaching several blocks into Port-au-Prince. Tap taps wove through all the people. You could hear the tropical Kompa beat making its way from somebody's stereo system. The street stretching West, towards the waterfront, was cloaked in blue and white tarps and flanked by collapsed concrete buildings–everything was motionless, and the sunlight working through the ruins gave an eerie painterly quality to the whole scheme. Beyond, we could see the cranes at the Port. Georges mentioned how the street would some day act as a link between the Market and the Port, and that the whole area would likely be redeveloped around this central axis.
For the moment, though, people are living there with nowhere else to go. But with the Market inching its way to opening to the public, there is change in the air. It's an incredible achievement getting one of Haiti's icons back on its feet–a heartening prospect for the country. As for its mysterious beginnings: Georges wasn't sure. He's heard that the Haitian president took advantage of a broken deal between France and Cairo, and he's heard that [then-President] Hyppolite acquired it by other means. He'd have to ask the City Historian who was was sure knew the truth. I don't think any of us were disappointed. The Iron Market is entirely Haitian now.