Alfredo Fernandez Rodriguez

Restored inner courtyard in Old Havana.

HAVANA TIMES, March 31 — Several days ago, while walking through Havana with a London photographer, he told me he didn’t like the restored part of the city because it appeared too much like just another European city.

For this friend, what was different was capturing the municipality of Centro Havana in his lens, an area where the restoration work of the Office of the City Historian has yet to arrive.

“Here is what’s interesting about Havana,” he said while photographing buildings in poor condition and crammed with people.  He also took shots of the horrible posters located all over the city advising us of just about anything.

Without too many hitches, my friend photographed some of the last museums of socialism, though on more than one occasion his pleasure turned into dismay when confronted with the deterioration.  Still, he didn’t cease snapping photos of this part of the city.

Colapsing building in Centro Havana. Photo: Caridad

Although I tried to be explained to him —hoping not to seem overly sentimental— he never completely understood that I would love to see Havana totally restored, without the slightest worry of the city ended up looking European.

His pictures were taken in places where thousands of people’s daily lives are characterized by living packed together in properties lacking the basic infrastructure for ventilation, drinking water, lighting, or elevators, and which are consequently deficient of proper hygiene.

I find it extremely unjust that for a city to be shown unique in the lens of a photographer it has to remain indefinitely submerged in deterioration and abandonment.

I would be thrilled for the residents of Havana if the city appeared the most European possible – especially if that meant the disappearance of its deplorable housing condition, which fills the souls of all with despair.

I don’t know, but if there occurred some miracle and the Cuban capital was restored to the point that it seemed First World, I’m sure that the gift of being born in this part of the Caribbean —plus the intense dynamism of Cubans— would save Havana from seeming like just another city.

9 thoughts on “Havaneurope?

  • For those interested in seeing for themselves, are just nostalgic, there are several nice video walking tours of Centro to on YouTube and CubaJunkty (Potato’s Centro Tour, Parts 1 through 4).

  • Alfredo,
    Your readers are clearly missing your point, that, if the photographer were objective, he’d have taken pictures also in Vedado and, better, in Holguin, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, etc. Centro and Habana Vieja aren’t “museums of socialism.” I think you mean they are museums of the Batista era and ancient history, kept by modern socialist Cuba for reasons that you don’t share. I agree with you. These areas needed to be razed in 1959, so misguided tourists would stop equating them with Cuban socialism.

  • There is a serious and chronic defficiency in building materials, and that really is because of the embargo. But ya, they get to some buildings and not to others before they crumble. Makes some of the waste you see everywhere here such a shame.

    The programs mostly don’t work, like where you volunteer to build homes for “7 years” and get your home built, can take a lot of years of (if any) volunteering before your home is really built.

    I don’t know, it’s a hard call. If you commodify , especially of something as basic as housing, then you gotta be bringing back fetishism and a capitalist perspective. That would lose the soul of the true gains that were made in the Revolution. Centro is a rough district, I’ve spent some time there, but it is also beautiful, full of beautiful, whole human beings, and agreed, most of the buildings are in semi-reasonable repair. I mean hey, La Habana is a world class city. No one can deny that. In so many ways it holds the most special place…

  • I agree with Sami, that decay and gross living conditions cannot be beautiful, but I do love those grand buildings, the Opera House and others, that are a little sad looking but somehow all the more lovely for being there, for being resilient, ornate, and full of character – Cuban character.

    I feel for the people living in some of the dreadful conditions, and there is no way in the world that some of the restored buildings in Plaza Vieja, etc. look European to me. There is a Cuban style that is unmistakeable.

    While I loved Havana, I know I would love it more when it is a little more cared for. I hope there are changes (that everyone can accept) that will bring this about.

  • When in Habana i stay in Centro Habana @Neptuno/Belescoin. Yes in many parts it does look much like a bombed out area. And many people are very poor, yet i have also been inside many beautiful old houses in this area, and admitted some are in better repair than others. Though whenever visit i see new sections of Habana being repaired and restored to their once former glory. And it is mostly the tourist dollars that are paying for it. I know for i have paid for home renovations in Cuba. The London photographer was blind for Habana has some of the best archetecture in all of Latin America, not Europe. Though if he thinks it looks like Europe, no problema, just keep on visiting Cuba and spending your money. And one day hopefully Habana will be all restored.

  • When people own their own residential property, they take care of it lovingly. When employees own their own workplace cooperatively, they take care of it lovingly. When a farming or ranching family owns their own land, they take care of it lovingly.

    This is called “real,” workable socialism.

    When the state steps in and declares everything state property . . .

  • Many of Cuba’s provincial cities and towns seem in much better shape than most of Habana. I know that during the earlier years of the Revolution there was a conscious policy of neglecting Habana in favor of investing in the countryside; apparently this policy has continued on forever. How sad, though, to walk through these many neglected and derelicted neighborhoods, especially considering that most of Havana’s citizens live in them! I was shocked upon revisiting the former Roosevelt Hotel, corner of Amistad y San Miguuel, where I stayed the summer of 1959. Even when i first revisited it, in 1969 or 1970, it was in rough shame. My third, fourth and fifth revisits, in 2004, 2006 and 2008 respectively, revealed further deterioration to the point where it is now almost beyond salvation. The same is true up here, however, when you visit many of our “post-industrial” cities, where factories and jobs have departed, leaving only drugs and hopelessness.

  • I traveled to Cuba from the US in 1999 and the urban decay was very sad. Most of the city looks like a war zone – like Beirut in the 1980s. Truly very sad that the Cuban people do not have the ability to earn enough to repair their homes and buildings. But then again, why would they? It is the property of the state and not their own.

  • Having just returned from Havana (my 3rd trip) I was always surpried by my friend´s and family´s reactions to the condition of the housing and infastructure in Havana. Some,like your friend, take hundreds of photos of dilapidated homes because they find “urban decay” beautiful. For me,having people I love who live in Havana I no longer find the decay of Havana beautiful or photographically interesting. Others surprise me by stating that by latin american standards Havana is very clean,beautiful and unpolluted. I get a little angry at this observation as well because again, even as an extranjera, I know a little bit what those buildings look like from the inside…and how the beautiful decay affects peoples lives and families.

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