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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
| By Thomas Matthews | From 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.

Then came Castro's revolution. The socialist government placed its highest priority on improving living conditions in rural parts of the country, largely ignoring the cities. In Habana Vieja, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mansions were carved up into ciudadelas, rabbit warrens of small apartments that crammed scores of poor, extended families into the once-magnificent structures. New building simply stopped; old buildings fell down; Habana Vieja was reduced to a ragged shadow of its former glory.

But there were benefits to this policy of benign neglect. All over the world, the 1960s and '70s saw the historic centers of old cities razed in the name of progress. Because Havana lacked the financial resources to rebuild, Habana Vieja was left largely intact, and the consequent deterioration was less destructive than massive urban renewal would have been. When the Western world finally awoke to a greater appreciation of its architectural heritage, the Old City was revealed as a jewel of history, chipped but still shining with the authenticity of the past. In 1982, the United Nations named Old Havana a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When the economic exigencies of the so-called Special Period (which followed the collapse of the communist governments in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the subsequent disappearance of Soviet subsidies to Cuba) drove the government to revive the island's moribund tourist industry, the Old City became its natural focus. Eusebio Leal, the official historian of the city of Havana, has been given enormous power to lead the restoration and revival of Habana Vieja.

"We have four main goals," Leal tells me. "First, protect our architectural patrimony, balancing our own cultural values with the requirements of socio-economic development. Second, maintain the residential character of Habana Vieja. Third, create a new technical infrastructure to satisfy contemporary urban needs. Finally, accomplish these objectives through projects that rely on and will help stimulate the life and the economy of the neighborhood."

Through a government-run company called Habaguanex, Leal selects sites for renovation, supervises the architects and construction companies that carry out the work, and chooses hotels and restaurants to occupy the refurbished buildings. The profits these projects generate through the tourist trade then finance improvements throughout the Old City and Havana as a whole.

It's slow work, since restoring a major building generally involves rebuilding it from the ground up, modernizing the infrastructure while maintaining historical integrity. Recent projects include transforming an eighteenth-century mansion into a hotel catering to cigar smokers, a public library in the Plaza de Armas, and new housing in the poorer southern section of Habana Vieja.

"In the last five years, our projects in the Old City have generated $70 million," Leal says. "During this period we have invested as much as in the twelve years prior. Last year, we reinvested 45 percent of our revenue in new profit-making enterprises, while 33 percent was devoted to social projects."

Today, a visitor can follow a route through Habana Vieja that takes in the major historical monuments, stops for souvenirs and refreshments at new stores and restaurants, and finishes in a refurbished hotel. Some critics have described this as "apartheid tourism," a rigid separation of opposing cultures marked by dollars and pesos. But Leal argues that the social integration of his approach will prevent the old city from becoming simply a quaint stage set for tourists, and he insists that tourism's revenues will be used to benefit and strengthen the community as a whole.

Besides, as even the most timid tourist quickly discovers, the Old City pulses with a vitality that is not so easily ignored.

"Leal is great, man," enthuses Leonides, still following me down the street. "Look at these old buildings shine! The restoration is beautiful. And it's not only for rich tourists. He's given work to lots of people; he's building new places for them to live. And there's a place not far from here where you can get a coffee for 10 Cuban centavos [10 cents]. Come on over and I'll buy you a cup, compliments of Leal."

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.

The sunny plaza seems at once an oasis of serenity and a battlefield, where history and hope struggle to find living space between the threats of extinction and exploitation. No visitor to Habana Vieja can deny its desperate poverty. It's an open question if the deteriorating infrastructure can still be saved even if massive funds are found. The inflow of tourist dollars today is only a trickle in a desert of need.

But the Old City's low buildings cradle the landscape and never block the tropical sky. The scarcity of cars leaves plenty of room to play in the streets. Broken-down doors encourage easy movement from house to house. The urban scale is human, and devoted to human uses. Activity flows unimpeded from street to building, building to balcony, allowing people to interact with each other and the spaces they inhabit in a way that an influx of money might only impair. This integration of constructed environments and living environments is a gift from the past that contemporary cities now struggle to recover. It may not be utopia, but it is a kind of freedom, after all.

Thomas Matthews is senior editor of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.

"Visit you" —September 30, 2010 16:59 PM

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