An Ungoverned City

Community leader Evenson Louis poses for a photo in the recently completed public plaza in the Canaan 1 neighborhood. Louis and other leaders worked with the American Red Cross to design the park. “It’s the beginning of the future for this area,” says Louis. (ALLISON SHELLEY)

Can cities function without a government? In Canaan, Haiti, residents give it a try.

CANAAN, HAITI — NINE years ago, Canaan 1 was little more than a nameless, hilly swath of land patchworked by boulders and cinder blocks marking where people hoped to one day see proper houses, a hospital, a school, a police station and a basketball court. The land was so rocky that only motorcycles, trucks and the rare four-wheel-drive vehicle could pass.

Today, the neighborhood is one of many rapidly expanding areas of Canaan, Haiti’s newest city – named for the biblical promised land – home to between 280,000 and 320,000 people. Soda stands, two-story houses and hardware stores line many of the dirt roads, and a handful of public plazas dot the city. The crown jewel of the Canaan 1 zone is a beautifully painted public plaza complete with benches, a table for playing checkers – and the basketball court residents had hoped for.

“We wanted to show the state who we are – that we can put down more than just one or two dollars here,” says Evenson Louis, a smiling man with a soft voice and big plans as a member of Canaan’s informal city council.

But what the city doesn’t have is running water, legally wired electricity, a hospital or many of the other basic amenities cities in Haiti offer. That’s because, since the city’s inception as a haven for people who were displaced by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, its residents have been largely left to themselves.

Read the feature story at U.S. News & World Report. Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.