When I was in London, one of the particulars of life that made a deep impression on me was the existence of private parks there. In the middle of the British capital, one would often stumble upon an entire block full of leafy and flourishing trees, but they would be surrounded by high fences with locked gates. A bold sign would make it all clear: “Private Property.”
A German friend of mine at that time commented that this was a practically unique phenomenon in all of Europe. Almost centuries ago, the rest of the continent had socialized their urban parks, while on the British Islands there still exist parks that are closed to the public by virtue of their being privately owned.
Havana had its private clubs and beaches long before the 1959 revolution, however, for as long as I can remember, the parks have always been public. And that’s how they are today.
As far as I know, it’s occurred to no one to privatize the city’s parks. But that’s not what I’m describing here. However at the same time our capital has begun to remind me of my London experience. This is because of an increasingly widespread practice here of fencing in large parks and public squares, limiting access and posting the hours for their use. This is always under various pretexts, usually those related to upkeep, general hygiene and “social discipline.”
The park dedicated to Antonio Maceo —the greatest general of our anti-colonial wars— a landmark for many years, even to the point of having been referred to by Vladimir Mayakovsky (the futurist Soviet poet of the 1920s) in a poem dedicated to his visit to Havana.
The equestrian statue of Maceo, with his back turned on the Florida Strait and him facing the city, is a position interpreted as a sign of that great hero’s popular character. The park, bordered by the Malecon seawall and San Lazaro Avenue, is a highly emblematic and visible site; in fact, it constitutes one of the symbols of Havana. It was always a place to sit down to rest, where children played and couples met. Also converging there are several bus routes, and erected to the front of it is the towering Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. In short: it is decidedly a place of the people.
Yet months ago, maybe even years now, Park Maceo has been fenced along its entire perimeter. Likewise, there is a strict visitation schedule, which reminds me of the schedules for visiting the sick in hospitals.
It seems that we should begin familiarizing ourselves with the new image of parks – an urbanistic and psychological image. The same thing is happening to several other Havana parks, especially those located in the historic district, where seeing trees inside fences and locked gates has become increasingly common.
I recognize that the green spaces of the old city have acquired a certain air of mystery thanks to their closings, as opposed to Maceo Park, and this hasn’t been bad for them. It’s only that sometimes when fatigue or the desire for intimacy invite you sit on a bench under a tree, the fence stands there as an impediment. I suspect that certain officials will say that without fences there would be neither benches nor trees, as has occurred in other more public parks.
Although the iron fence enclosing Maceo Park was made with “aesthetics” in mind, the current image of the park provokes anguish in me. It isn’t easy to get used to the idea that from now on, the image of the brass statue of Maceo can only be viewed through metal bars.
The anguish is even greater when going by these grounds on the bus. I find it impossible to escape the memory that Maceo died while facing a column of the Spanish Army, one that he was not able to avoid because the field was crisscrossed with fateful containment fences.