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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

(continued from page 2)

In another corner of Habana Vieja, far from the bustle of Calle Obispo, schoolchildren in neat uniforms sit in the courtyard of a modest blue house. It's the birthplace of José Martí, a Cuban patriot martyred in 1895, and they're listening to a teacher tell the story of his struggle for Cuban independence. Inside, old women sit in the small rooms, guardians of Martí's memory. "This is a lock of his hair," one says. The place is a reminder that a humble beginning is no obstacle to a glorious end.

The museum has been carefully refurbished and brightly painted, but in this southern section of the Old City more buildings are falling down than going up. A soccer match swoops up and down the rutted, dusty street. The players' shouts ring with an unusual clarity, and I realize that there are almost no competing noises: no motors, no drills, no jackhammers, no televisions, no radios, no sounds at all generated by electricity or gasoline. But as soon as I begin to decipher this distinctly nonurban silence, it's broken by a new sound, deep and rhythmic, percussive and insistent.

Around a corner, two old ladies are peering through the broken shutters of an old stone house. Inside, a dozen men and women are banging drums, shaking gourds, singing and shouting and swaying. It's a Santería ceremony, part of an Afro-Cuban religious tradition rooted deep in the country's history. These people are not playing for tourists' tips. They don't seem bothered by their audience, but the ferocity of the music drives me back. In the distance, sunlight gleams off water; seeking more familiar ground, I make my way towards the harbor.

The neighborhood seems eerily empty. No taxis, no shops, no restaurants, no neon. Weeds grow in vacant lots. The enormous doors of huge old houses open into dim interior courtyards, thick with columns and balconies and trees and debris, dense with silence, abandoned to the past. I peer into a courtyard, snap a picture, turn around and nearly step on a young girl.

"Take my picture," she says.

I take her picture.

"Give me a candy," she says.

I smile and shrug, patting empty pockets. But turning away, I realize that the solitude I felt is an isolation zone that surrounds only me. When I learn to look, life is all around me. Deep in the shadows of every doorway, every balcony, every window, someone is watching. More children emerge from the courtyard, watched by an old man sitting on a stool, smoking a cigarette; across the street, a woman is writing at a desk in an unlit office; behind tattered curtains, a couple kisses on a sprung sofa; next door, an entire family sits in a tiny room.

Suddenly the narrow street spills into the open sunshine of the Plaza Vieja. Laid out in the early sixteenth century, it became the center of city life in the eighteenth century, an urban ensemble of breathtaking elegance and balance. The Plaza's harmony was badly marred when a parking garage was built in the 1930s, but Leal ordered it destroyed a few years ago and now the beautiful proportions have been restored.

Today, the square is bordered by an eclectic mix of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings, linked by the varying rhythms of a graceful arcade. Some structures are still dilapidated, while others are undergoing renovation. The future is evident in the conversion of the palatial eighteenth-century Casa de los Condes de Jaruco, which now houses galleries of Cuban art and small boutiques. But the past survives into the present; Havana's first café opened in the Plaza Vieja in 1722, and its spirit echoes in a simple peso bar where locals gather for drinks and conversation.

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