It was a town that was technically accepted as a World Heritage Site candidate. Jacmel, the fourth largest city in Haiti, still carries its people on its cultural wings after the 2010 earthquake distorted the city. Well known for its historical and cultural heritage, Jacmel is well on its way to continue being a cultural hub for Haiti.
The city was founded by Compagnie de Saint-Domingue in 1698 and was initially the capital of Saint Dominque, the south-eastern part of the French colony. The city’s heydays were glorious as it was a top player in sugar trade and production before the coffee industry picked up.
However, in 1896, Jacmel suffered its first major setback when a great fire devoured most parts of the city. Jacmel rose from the ashes like a phoenix and today it is celebrated for its strong cultural heritage, Creole Cuisine and Creole architecture. Now, the streets and cast-ironed furnished buildings that were rebuilt in Jacmel are mirrored in the iconic street of New Orleans.
Jacmel, a city with about 40,000 inhabitants, also comes with beautiful gingerbread townhouses which are just a part of its artistic legacy. Its school of music, painting and film is revered in Haiti and ranked among the best, not to talk of the 200 papier-mâché artisans.
The carnival scene in Jacmel is second to none as the city has poured its creativity, artistry, and passion through such festivities for generations. Jacmel is well known for the Festival Film Jakmèl which started in 2004 and the international music festival ‘Festival Mizik Jakmèl’ which launched in 2007.
Awarded globally, the film festival honors contemporary world cinema infused with Haitian creations. It draws into the city around 50,000 people every year, including directors from more than 30 countries.
Everything seemed to be on track for Jacmel until things went downhill in 2010. Haiti experienced a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on January 12 that year that threw the island country into disarray. Many lives were lost with about 70% of homes damaged. It was chaotic for the whole country, and though the world’s focus was on the capital, Port-au-Prince, the devastation was not limited to it. In fact, Jacmel was affected as well. The very architecture that inspired New Orleans’s French Quarter was really damaged but it got back on its feet as it started to rebuild itself.
By December 2010, a group of organizations pledged to revamp the city to its glorious days. Miami’s Capponi Construction Group and authorities from Jacmel started reconstructing the city while preserving its arts, culture, and traditions.
They were joined by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which partnered with actor Sean Penn, Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti, and founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) for a re-housing project in 2012.
“Large historical areas of Jacmel were virtually demolished by the quake,” said IOM Haiti Chief of Mission, Luca Dall’Oglio in 2012. “Helping to get it back to its feet as a thriving cultural center is one of our objectives in helping the homeless to find alternatives to the camps.”
Haiti’s leaders at the time also pitched in and invested $20 million to restore accessibility and infrastructure in the city which included its art centers and historic city center.
Gradually, Jacmel bounced back with more help from donors and the city began to celebrate its historical carnival that is “a living heritage, popular, human and social event sought,” Michaelle Craan, Consultant to the Office of Tourism South East, said.
“This folkloric event, after a long oral tradition, constitutes a real rite, which gives the feeling to participants to be unique,” she added.
Jacmel applied to join the UNESCO Creative Cities initiative in March 2014 which made it the first Caribbean city to have its cultural heritage honored by such an international organization.