BOOKED SOLID - UNDATED
Note : Could not find the exact date of publication for this book review.
Documenting the life and evolution of a city like Port-au- Prince has to be most captivating, but also implies a tremendous amount of historical research. Fortunately for the reading public, the task has been tackled by a prominent Haitian historian in a series of marvelously documented books, the latest installment to date being Port-au-Prince Au Cours Des Ans: La Captitale d'Haiti Sous l'Occupation, 1922-1934 by Georges Corvington, Editions Henri Deschamps, 1987, 323 pp., $15. In the four previously published books, one can find descriptions of Port-au-Prince in the colonial days (1743-1789), under the Revolution (1789-1804), and through the 19th century (1804-1888 and 1888-1915). Another tome is in preparation, dealing with the recent history of the city (1934-1950).
But back with Port-au-Prince under the American occupation. I promised my Editor I would stay clear of heavy politics in my book column, but it is nevertheless essential to say that prompted by internal disorder that threatened its interests in the Caribbean region, on July 28, 1915, the United States dispatched a small contingent of 350 soldiers to Haiti, and thus began 19 years of American occupation. Corvington's book is constructed in two parts. First, a political chronicle of the era situating the reader in the context, then, a second part depicting the daily life of Port-au-Princians in these days. It is this second part, occupying more than two thirds of the book, that we found the most interesting. Not that Corvington lacks depth as a political analyst or historian, but that the narrative description of political happenings during this period has been amply dealt with by many other authors. However, the small details of daily life often escape historical narrators, but not this one.
In the chapter on public buildings, one is surprised to learn that construction of the building occupied by the Ministry of Finance, immediately west of the National Palace, was inaugurated in June 1924, and completed by December 1925. The two-story masonry construction measuring 77 meters in lenght and 21 meters in width cost at the time $120,000 to build! Other architectural landmarks also saw the light during this era: the Damien faculty of agronomy, partially gutted by fire recently (1925-1929), the armed forces headquarters nearby the palace (1925-1927), the Teleco building at the corner of Rue Pavee and Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines (inaugurated in 1927), the School of Medecine (1926-1927), the Port Authority offices (1929). Most remarkable is the City Hall building on Rue du Quai which was designed and built by architect Georges Baussan assisted by engineer Pierre Nazon. It construction took only two years, and cost a mere $50,000. The Hall of Justice building, considered by many the second most grandiose building after the National Palace, took less than two years to build. The doors and windows are made of cypress, and the interior paneling of mahogany wood. Total expenditures, including land expropriation, electrical installation, and furnishing were under $400,000.
The book contains other bits of trivia, just as interesting, just as amusing. The first automobile to reach Kenscoff was a Chevrolet driven by Mr. Tebelfoss, the feat accomplished in September 1925. It was to take another two years for the mountain village residents to see a car climb up the hills, an Oldsmobile this time, driven by Mr. Philipps. It covered the Petionville - Kenscoff distance in two hours and five minutes.
In 1932, Pan American Airways and Eastern Airlines inaugurated a new postal service. A letter mailed in Port-au- Prince one morning would reach New York by 5 AM the next day. Ah! The good old days.
Between December 5, 1928, and April 6, 1929, more than 30 cruise ships stopped over in Port-au-Prince and thousands of tourists invaded the streets, shops restaurants and bars of the city. Major cruise lines like Cunard, All America and Royal Mail joined White Star Line and Canadian Pacific lines and included Haiti on their itineraries.
Georges Corvington also yields a peculiar bit of information on the most popular passtime of the early thirties in Port-au- Prince. "Who would have believed it? The most popular passtime, the one to, in this end of the occupation, impose itself to all the social classes, is a small toy from France called a yo-yo. He who does not have his yo-yo is really not with his time... The streets are full of grown persons carrying their yo-yos. Yo-yos in the families, in the streets, at school, at the Palace, at church... Ah those happy times when, in spite of the uncertainties of the future, one could look at it face to face... all the while making his yo-yo go up and down."
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On this site: May 18, 1997