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Rowan Moore Gerety Headshot

Is Port au Prince Functional?

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On Tuesday, my mother wrote me after watching a piece on the News Hour about the psychedelic pop art that decorates most public transport here: "This report makes Port au Prince looks as if it's actually a functioning city -- do you get that impression?"

Functional, perhaps not. Functioning, without a doubt.

Moving about Port-au-Prince, the hum and buzz of laughing, working, buying, and selling are enough to make the visible damage from the earthquake seem almost surreal. People pray and sing, yell, cook and drink beer. Vast Quantities of grapefruits are sold and juiced each day, along with art, laundry soap and roast corn, cell phone credit, buckets, books, wheelbarrows heaped high with sugarcane and piles of secondhand clothing. Traffic is horrendous, yet if you need to go almost anywhere at all, there will shortly be a pickup or a van full of people trying to do the same.

This, amid buildings threatening still to topple over on passers-by, whole hillsides of broken concrete blocking roads and concealing human remains. Each time it rains, tens of thousands of people who will get up and go to work the next day are soaked through with much of what they own. With the amount of money and manpower that has come to Haiti to help, the evident failure of the relief effort to provide even cursory shelter to so many of the displaced is confounding. But come 6 AM, the market vendors, social workers, masons, security guards, drivers, accountants, and barbers who slept "à la belle étoile" are up and about in pursuit of a day's wage. They don't have much choice.

Yes, Port-au-Prince is clearly functioning, but it is also functioning poorly, probably in many of the same ways it did so before January 12, 2010. The city's resilience is inspiring and a little frightening. Recently, I saw a cinder block maker getting back to business on the roadside. He was adding water and cement to a pile of sifted rubble, then laying the resulting blocks out to dry in the sun.