Approaching Titanyen from afar, the land’s unassuming beauty seems to overshadow its morbid past. Rough hills patched with grass are set against a backdrop of jagged mountains. Across from them lie the dark waters of the Caribbean Sea. In between, on a long-deserted stretch of land, a new city is taking shape.
Several miles north of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Titanyen has long been a dumping ground for the bodies of people who fell out of favor with Haiti’s gangs, its political leaders, or anyone with a gun. Its name carries a menacing aura, with parents telling unruly children to shape up or they’ll send them to Titanyen.
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince in 2010, it sent the concrete floors of buildings toppling down upon one another, crushing people beneath. It sent mothers and fathers digging for their children, sent tens of thousands of people abruptly into early graves. Their bodies were buried by the thousands at Titanyen.
But a place with space for the dead is a place with space for the living, and in post-earthquake Haiti, space was in short supply. Only slightly larger than Vermont, Haiti is home to roughly 15 times as many people. Some 1.5 million of them—one out of every six Haitians—were displaced by the earthquake, and many were left homeless.
International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began eyeing the vast stretch of vacant land east of Titanyen as a place to house them, and with the help of the United States Navy and the United Nations, they erected hundreds of small, temporary structures to house 7,500 people at a spot called Corail-Cesselesse. Haiti’s president used eminent domain to declare the land public, which Haitians took to mean free. Within days, people began flocking to the area around Corail, building shacks out of tarps and wood. Soon thousands of people were migrating north to this once-empty landscape, lying down bricks that would become the foundations of their future homes.
Haiti’s earthquake shattered several cities, but it also birthed another. Called Canaan, after the biblical holy land, a place defined by death has come alive.
One of Canaan’s early pioneers was a woman named Carmen Cean, who everybody knows as Madame Roy. The day the earthquake struck, Roy saw her Port-au-Prince neighborhood felled to ruins in an instant. “I felt a big thing like a big truck had run into my house,” Roy told me one morning at an empty Port-au-Prince restaurant down the road from where she’d been living at the time. “I ran out of the house, and I saw that my entire country was white. The dust! All the walls had fallen.”
The death toll of Haiti’s earthquake was wildly disproportionate to that of similar seismic events. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck a similarly populated part of Northern California at almost precisely the same magnitude, killing 63 people. Haiti’s earthquake killed an estimated 46,000 to 316,000. No one knows exactly how many.
The difference between the two wasn’t natural, but political: Haitians had been kept poor and deprived of affordable safe housing by centuries of poor governance, often exacerbated by predatory foreign policy—much of which continues to this day.
That’s why Canaan presented such an unprecedented opportunity: space upon which people would “have more possibilities,” Roy says. “They can make their own little house. People never thought of that before.”
When Roy first visited to scope out the land, she found a group of fishermen and their children living in tents near the sea. She asked them what the area was called. Village du Pecheur, they replied—fisherman’s village.
“It’s a beautiful village that overlooks the ocean,” Roy says. Rather than sit back and wait for some NGO to build shelters, Roy consulted with an architect and began designing the new neighborhood herself. The morning we met, Roy unfolded one enormous architectural map after another onto a small table, the product of a topographical study she’d commissioned of the terrain.
Wearing a blue bow in her hair that matched her shirt, Roy, who is 53, has thin eyebrows and a single wrinkle on her forehead. She gestures grandiosely as speaks, leaning in close to place a finger on the spot she planned to build a gate, for security. She deferred to the architect as to where to place the roads, the houses, the cistern, the soccer field. But the primary school, set aspirationally upon the highest hilltop, was her own design.
To get started, Roy went around collecting money—500 gourdes, about $8—from each person who wanted a place in the city-to-be. Many were skeptical of the idea. But when Roy hired a tractor and set to work on the entry road, short and unpaved though it was, people took it as a sign that the land was indeed becoming something. And so, “they all came to take a little morsel of land for themselves.” Next to a graveyard, a neighborhood arose. Continue reading