The Run Off: Race, Class, and Water in 1970s Port-au-Prince

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:50 AM
Flatiron (Sheraton New York)
Claire Payton, University of Virginia
This paper offers a case-study of urbanization in Haiti to analyze the origins of a disaster that is increasingly shaping life across the planet: chronic flooding. As deforestation and erosion transformation landscapes, and as sea levels threaten low-lying neighborhoods, regular inundation is becoming a common feature of life in the Caribbean and around the world. Coastal cities around the world are increasingly prone to flooding, but within each city, how risk is distributed locally exposes the nature deeper social and political frameworks.

By examining patterns of urban growth in Port-au-Prince in the 1970s, this paper demonstrates how politics, class, race, and environment interacted to generate a crisis that disproportionately affected the city’s poorest communities. It traces the specific geographic dynamics of a boom in construction in the Haitian capital to show how chronic flooding in Port-au-Prince has its origins in an elite-driven construction boom that disrupted the city’s watershed. In the process, this research challenges mainstream narratives of “urban crisis” that focus on rural-to-urban migration as the primary cause of declining living conditions in cities in the global south.