Hustle and bustle of Port-au-Prince brings sense of normalcy to Haitian capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Despite huge mounds of rubble where buildings once stood and an estimated 800,000 people living in overcrowded and squalid tent settlements in the most devastated parts of the city, a sense of normalcy has returned to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

A woman buys produce at a market in Port-au-Prince March 11. (CNS/Bob Roller)

The evidence?

Traffic galore, streets crowded with pedestrians going about their business and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of merchants who have set up curbside shops in an effort to eke out a living.

In the weeks after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the congestion on the streets was seen as a good sign. It meant petroleum products were starting to get through and people were at least getting back to their routines. But one thing that was missing was the merchants.

Only a few had set up their stands selling clothing, street food, fresh fruit and vegetables, drinks, cosmetics and toiletries within a month of the magnitude 7 quake. These days, merchants seem to have taken over the every major thoroughfare as well as many side streets — some with approval of the city government and some not.

With the capacity of the Port-au-Prince government diminished by the earthquake because offices were destroyed and workers killed, there is limited ability to make sure that anyone who goes into business at least gets a cursory review. Nowadays if someone wants to make a few Haitian gourds, they simply set up a street-side shop and hope enough customers stop by to pick up their daily necessities.

To a certain extent it means the entrepreneurial spirit is strong. It means people have overcome the shock that washed over this overwhelmingly poor nation 14 months ago.

At the same time, with so many merchants trying to scratch out even a meager living, one wonders if the local economy can support so many businesses. There was only so much money in the Haitian economy before the quake. With unemployment still languishing perhaps as high as 80 percent, there’s hardly enough money percolating through the economy for all the merchants to survive.

But such is the Haitian way. It’s a society built on hope that a better day is ahead and that Haitians are willing to try anything to bring it closer.

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