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Brave Old World: Havana's Old City

An Ambitious Renovation of Havana's Old City Tries to Reconcile Grit and Glory, Squalor and Splendor
Thomas Matthews
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

Worlds collide on Calle Obispo, the main street of Old Havana. A spiffy new store sells compact discs and souvenirs, dollars only, please, and no locals allowed. In the dingy shop next door, old women wait in line for meager rations of rice and flour. Armed police stand watch on nearly every corner, but hustlers and prostitutes emerge whenever their backs are turned. Musicians in cafés filled with foreigners play endless versions of "Guantanamera," while Santería devotees bang drums and chant in a ragged parade down the crowded street. Tourists search for adventure; Cubans struggle to survive.

"Hey man!" A wiry man of indeterminate age materializes out of the crowd. "You need a place to stay? I can rent you an apartment, very clean, very cheap."

I try to brush him off, but Leonides is tenacious. He says he grew up hanging around U.S. servicemen at Guantánamo Bay, learned English, dreamed of America. He lowers his voice. "See all these people standing in the doorways? They have nothing to do--except hustle the tourists. You can't live on pesos anymore; everybody wants dollars. If Castro doesn't open the doors, this place is going to blow up."

If the friction between scarce dollars and worthless pesos lights the fuse, Leonides is standing on ground zero. The narrow streets and crumbling mansions of Habana Vieja, the historic heart of Cuba's capital city, hold the secrets of Havana's past and clues to its future. Contrast and contradiction are the keynotes of this densely populated neighborhood, built between Havana Bay and the remains of the old city walls. After decades of neglect and deterioration, an ambitious renovation and restoration effort hopes to reconcile glorious history with gritty reality, and satisfy the demands of visitors without shortchanging the needs of inhabitants. What appears from a distance to be an urban landscape frozen in time, can be seen at close range as a turbulent work in progress.

Calle Obispo begins in the Plaza de Armas, where the city was established in the sixteenth century, and ends at El Floridita, Havana's most famous restaurant and bar. When asked if they lived where they worked, the sommeliers at Floridita simply shake their heads. "Habana Vieja is too crowded, and too dangerous," they say. "It will become a wonderful place--but it will take 10 or 15 years of hard work and significant investment."

In the meantime, the Old City remains a colorful juxtaposition of rich and poor, fluid in its character and uncertain of its future. Is the Benetton store in the Plaza de San Francisco an omen of capitalist chains to come? Will brightly lit McDonald's replace the dim, cool bars where laborers throw back shots of rum? Can tourist dollars repave the streets without driving away the old men who smoke cigars on the sidewalks? Habana Vieja has survived nearly five centuries of rollercoaster economic cycles, foreign invasions, shifting architectural styles and ruinous neglect. But now it faces the ultimate challenge: saving its substance without losing its soul.

Today's Havana is a sprawling city of more than 2 million people. Most of them live in areas developed and built during the era of U.S. influence, a period that began after the Spanish-American War, of 1898, nominally gave Cuba its independence from Spain, and ended abruptly when Castro expropriated all foreign-owned property in the first few years of the revolution.

Habana Vieja, the Old City, is the urban legacy of an earlier period, Cuba's Spanish colonial era. Relocated in 1519 from the Gulf of Batabanó on the south coast to the western shore of a protected, deep-water bay, Havana became the most important Caribbean outpost of Spain's New World empire, a transit point for troops and treasure. As the city became wealthy it grew insecure, and, in the 1670s, it began construction of a wall on its western, landward edge. When the fortifications were finally completed, in the 1760s, they were already too small, so the city immediately began tearing them down, an operation that took until the 1860s to finish. The diamond-shaped neighborhood within the embrace of the old walls, less than two square miles in area, is known today as Habana Vieja.

Up to the twentieth century, the Old City was the center of Havana's wealth, power and social life, containing the major government buildings--many dating to the eighteenth century--the most magnificent churches, the finest shops, the mansions of Spanish grandees and sugar barons. At the same time, poverty and crime have also been constants, nourished by the harbor's wharves, where hard labor and vice went hand in hand. Over the centuries, the Old City grew dense and multilayered, colorful and contradictory, a place where refinement and raffishness walked side by side along the same narrow streets.

After the walls came down, the upper classes began leaving the Old City for the spacious new developments of Vedado and Miramar, stimulated by the construction of the Malecón, a seaside boulevard laid out by American engineers after the 1898 war. While mansions, international hotels and flashy casinos flowered in the new city, the historic core slid into disrepair and increasing poverty. In the 1950s, the Cuban government briefly considered a radical urban renewal plan that would have transformed the shabby remnants of Spanish rule into a modern city of skyscrapers and superhighways.

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