By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, Oct 6 (IPS) – Even with her house practically in ruins, Isabel García wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. She’d rather stay where she knows that no matter what corner she turns she’ll always be able to gaze out into the blue sea or raise her eyes up to the green mountains that shelter her beloved city of Santiago, in eastern Cuba.
“I love this place; it’s where I grew up and where I’m now raising my four children. Ours is a good neighborhood, in a good location; everything’s close by, and the people are great.”
García, 41, lists all the reasons for staying put, as she sits in what will soon be the rebuilt living and dining room of her rundown house in the historic centre of the country’s second largest city, some 861 km from Havana.
But her determination to stay is probably reinforced by the fact that her house is one of the 200 buildings included in a project that architect Omar Lopez, director of the city’s Conservation Office, described as aimed at “making the city livable” and “improving the quality of life” of the residents of the historic centre.
In Los Maceo, Garcia’s neighborhood, some 80 buildings are being partially restored thanks to a program financed by the government of the province of Galicia in Spain, which includes the purchase of material for roofing and electrical and sanitary installations.
“We have to do a little bit at a time, because resources are limited,” Garcia said.
Up until five months ago, her house had a leaky roof, was a total fire hazard and on the brink of collapsing. “Now I feel a little safer. I can sleep in peace, because the roofs in all the rooms have been repaired, and the water, sewage and power systems have been fixed. We’re reconditioning the bathroom and the kitchen now,” she said.
The residential district takes up over 51 percent of the 320 hectares of total surface area of the historic core of the city, which was originally founded in 1514. But the 16,600 or so buildings used for residential purposes represent just 15 percent of all housing in this provincial capital. Of those, only 1,053 are in good condition.
Another 8,794 are in fair condition, and 5,916 are buildings in poor technical and structural conditions. Studies by the Conservation Office warn that a large proportion of the people housed in these buildings are living in precarious and overcrowded conditions.
But they’re also very deeply attached to their homes. A sociological survey prepared in 2000 as input for a master plan for the restoration of the city revealed that over 52 percent of the residents were born in the historic quarter, and nearly 80 percent are Santiago natives.
According to the same study, 64 percent of the people are still in the same house they lived in 20 years ago, while a similar percentage of people say they are unwilling to move. Only slightly more than three percent want to live elsewhere. Garcia is one of the residents that have put down roots, as she has lived in the same place since she was seven.
Santiago de Cuba – the second most important city after Havana – is wedged between the sea and the mountains, which gives it a special quality that according to Lopez “puts the city in a constant dialogue with the natural environment it is set in. Which is why we call this a scenic city.”
Its central streets, often winding and sloping, turn suddenly into natural scenic lookouts that provide spectacular glimpses of the city from different perspectives, allowing viewers to rest their eyes on an old building still in need of repair, or on the bay’s deep Caribbean waters, or farther inland to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
It was in this mountain chain that the guerrilla warfare commanded by Fidel Castro against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was played out between the years 1956 and 1958, before the final victory on Jan. 1, 1959. Santiago’s revolutionary history earned it the name of Heroic City of the Republic of Cuba.
The rich cultural heritage of the Caribbean island’s colonial period is reflected in the unique architecture of this eastern city, which holds constructions from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, including what is said to be the oldest-standing house built by Europeans in the Americas – the residence of Diego Velasquez, one of the earliest Spanish conquistadors, who in 1511 became Cuba’s first colonial governor.
The Conservation Office was created in 1996 with the mission of protecting the city’s scenic, urban and architectonic treasures, as well as recovering and preserving its traditions and history. The master plan – which Lopez describes as “a key working guide” – was finally completed in 2008.
The restoration work is financed in part with the office’s own funds, which are in turn provided by companies and institutions connected with the colonial quarter, which contribute two percent of their income. International donors – namely Spain and Italy – also contribute significantly to these efforts.
Lopez admits that although a lot has been done towards restoring the city, there’s still much left to be done. “I’d say that about 80 percent of all constructions and spaces are still in a fair to poor state,” he estimated.
Repair work on residential houses was slowed down somewhat by the three hurricanes that swept the island in 2008, which diverted resources to other regions with more pressing needs.
A livable city
Lopez rejects the idea of having a beautifully restored and well-preserved historic quarter purely for the enjoyment of tourists. “We give great importance not just to the houses, but to the environment as a whole, to the public spaces; we want to improve the living conditions of the area’s residents,” he said.
Santiago’s conservationists view the city as “not merely a collection of monuments, but as a Collective Monument. This may sound like wordplay, but it’s not; it highlights the priority we give to the wealth that the city represents as a whole.”
In that “whole” Lopez includes the city’s scenic and architectonic assets, but “fundamentally” its houses.
Because of the importance placed on housing, the office’s “major programs right now are aimed at ensuring that buildings are livable, towards enhancing as much as possible the living conditions of the residents of the historic centre. Steps in that direction include the ‘centre project’, which was halted by last year’s natural disasters but will be resumed as soon as resources are available,” he said.
Renovation works sometimes require residents to temporarily evacuate their buildings. “If evacuation cannot be avoided, we try to relocate residents to similar lodgings. Now we’ve set up a transitional house, which allows us to move a family out of their home while we restore it to make it inhabitable again,” Lopez said.
The Conservation Office’s strategy includes community work and education to generate “civic awareness” and instill a strong sense of belonging among Santiago residents, allowing them to have a say in what their city should be like, and transforming them from mere “spectators” into “active agents” involved in the project.
“Santiago residents are proud of their history, their music, their architecture, their city. But we want to enhance that feeling of pride, backing it with knowledge; because we want people to fully understand its value and know what it’s founded on,” Lopez said.
As another positive aspect, Isabel Garcia noted that in her neighborhood the restoration project has brought people together. “We are constantly in contact with each other, sharing information, organizing car pools and giving a hand with materials anyone needs to bring in. Just generally helping each other out,” she said.