There’s Adley Penner, a West Oakland musician who lives in a shed with Styrofoam walls. There’s also Theo Williams, of the musical group Sambafunk!, who was drumming at Lake Merritt one day when a man approached and asked if they had a permit, pulled the drumsticks from his hands, and called the police. And then there’s writer Tara Marsden, who ditched a full-time job at a tech company in San Francisco and moved across the bay to focus on her art — but now struggles financially and has had to move five times in recent years.
The 2010 earthquake leveled Haitian cities, displacing 1.5 million people. Thousands have now relocated to an area north of Port-au-Prince, Canaan, which was declared to be public domain land in an effort to find more space for shelters. The communities of Canaan are organizing, engaging in urban planning, and building infrastructure. all without the imprimatur (or tax money) of being an officially-recognized city. Jacob Kushner reports from Haiti for the Virginia Quarterly Review.
After four years of waiting, Cherestal and other residents of Canaan 1 decided to build an electrical grid of their own. They collected money from neighbors to buy the materials, then organized a konbit to mix cement, water, and sand to form the concrete poles, which they then raised using a network of ropes. Once the poles were in place, the plan was to pay an off-duty state electrician 15,000 gourdes ($220) to connect people to the grid by siphoning power from a customer who lived down the hill. Every month, the customer would collect money from neighbors to pay his unusually high electric bill. The entire project was estimated to have cost 100,000 gourdes (about $1,500), with families chipping in around 4,000 gourdes (about $60) or donating such supplies as cement or rebar. By the spring of 2015, they’d raised nearly two dozen poles, but needed at least ten more to reach the power grid. Short of funds, the project stalled. “People are saving up,” Cherestal told me last May. “The future we don’t know. Only God knows.”
Seven years in, Canaan 1 still has no electricity. But just a stone’s throw east, in Canaan 5, the houses are powered between dusk and midnight with electricity diverted illegally from the public grid. This, too, was an improvised community’s electrification project, led by a man named Smith Merzeus, who, like Simeus, was someone people turned to with problems or grievances. People referred to Merzeus as “a man of responsibility” and “a big tree in our community.” One woman discretely referred to him as a bit of an opportunist. “He was a tough personality,” she told me. “He said whatever needed to be said, and then did what he wanted.” Merzeus had no qualms about stepping in whenever the government failed to act. As one man who worked with him on the electricity project said, “It was the state that should have done it. But it was us who sat together to make it happen. We broke the law because this was important to us.”
Like most of Allen’s schemes, this one started on a whim. Around Thanksgiving last year, he read yet another newspaper article characterizing Millinocket’s economic woes. “I couldn’t unread it,” he explains. “It’s not like I set out to find a little town to help. It’s more like a little town found me.”
There’ve been a lot of those articles since the Great Northern paper mill closed here in 2008. In the years since, Millinocket has become a symbol for the failure of America’s manufacturing monotowns.
That doesn’t sit well with locals here. And it rubbed Allen the wrong way last fall too. Millinocket needed a boost, sure. But not a handout. And definitely not more maudlin press. So Gary Allen decided to do what Gary Allen does best: he organized an impromptu marathon.
In the spirit of Burning Man, this race was open to all and charged no entry fee. Instead, Allen suggested that participants take the money they would have spent on registration and spend it in Millinocket. He didn’t advertise any of this except to post it to his Facebook page. Nonetheless, about 50 of his friends agreed to show up for what may well have been America’s first flash-mob marathon.