An English visitor to Haiti in the year 1842 described the Port-au-Prince of Boyer’s time as a city of “wooden buildings, with the pavement dislocated or broken up, the drains neglected, filth and stable dung interrupting your steps in every direction.” With all its matchless advantages of situation, this disappointed tourist added, “with every inherent capability of being made and dept delightfully clean, it is perhaps the filthiest capital in the world.” An American visitor thirty years later reported Port-au-Prince to be a breeding place for malaria and yellow fever, without sanitary codes of any kind, where in the open squares “sick animals are taken and left to die and rot without hindrance to anyone.” Even as recently as 1939, James Leyburn described the capital as having “hardly half a dozen buildings which would detain the lover of architecture,” and he concluded that while as a whole “the city is not a blemish; yet not to have seen it is to have missed no great aesthetic experience.”
None of these three passages describe accurately the Port-au-Prince of today. There are still wooden buildings and broken pavements and unsanitary conditions in parts of the city, founded in 1749 and now having an estimated population of 150,000. But a visitor would have to be jaundiced indeed to deny that the present-day capital – from its magnificent bayside esplanade, through the bustling but orderly shopping-center, to the spacious Champ de Mars with its imposing government buildings, and on into the necklaces of wooded hills the city then so gracefully climbs, enfolding as it goes the elegant shrub-shrouded villas of past and present – is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Only Naples, crowned by Vesuvius, or Rio with its Sugar Loaf, can boast a comparable background. And neither city can offer as breath-taking a reverse view, the panorama that unfolds from vantage-points high above the city. From one such, Le Perchoir, the capital itself lies directly below, dazzling in daylight or sparkling by night, the burnished sheet of mountain-banded bay focusing the sky’s deep blue like a giant reflector; and Gonave Island, cloud-capped, misty, hugely mysterious, provides just enough punctuation to keep the picture within its frame and the eye from roving uncontrollably.
Nor is this all. From here, or better still from one of the crows nests above Petion-Ville, you were looking west. Now turn to your right and look north and east into the Cul-de-Sac. Instead of the bay’s cerulean plate, you look down upon a perfectly flat carpet of intensest green, a gridded geometry of sugarcane dotted with barely distinguishable clusters of cailles stretching as far as one can see – except on the clearest of days, when this most pastoral of perspectives is capped at its misty verge by the great salt lake of Saumatre shimmering with the ghostly unreality of a mirage on the distant Dominican border.
Come down to earth again, and out of the city’s murderous noon drive south and west under a canopy of almonds, flamboyants and palms, to Carrefour. Turn left, and when you have gone as far as the road goes follow on foot the rushing Rivière Foride along a narrow jungle path where you will never be alone – nor ever want to be. If you prefer mountains and the long view, the longest you may ever see lies beyond Pétion-Ville, beyond Kenscoff, beyond Furcy, and still less than an hour for the Palace’s glittering domes. There the trade wind howls in the pines and La Selle’s eight-thousand feet tower less than two-thousand above you though across chasms dwarfing the craters of the moon. Or, if it’s desert you prefer – but wait! There is that, too, but the city itself deserves at least a perfunctory promenade …
Selden Rodman, Haiti: The Black Republic (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1954)