Life Goes On During Old Havana Renovation

Salsa music dances over wet laundry flapping from the open second-floor windows of Old Havana’s crumbling buildings, mixing with the harsh sounds of workers scraping, hammering and drilling in the spaces below.

While using foreign money to renovate centuries-old plazas and build new ground-floor shops and restaurants that will attract tourists to the city’s once-seedy historic center, the city is allowing many neighborhood residents to stay in the floors above.

The result is a mix of contradictions: Canadian and European tourists stroll through narrow streets crowded with Cubans, including special police officers and black market hucksters selling illegal rum and cigars.

Bands play “Guantanamera” and ballads to revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara late into the night in front of Baroque churches, Romanesque forts and art deco hotels.

“We want to recover everything we can, but not to create a movie set. We want to recover the life of the city,” says Patricia Rodriguez, an architect and coordinator of the City Historian’s Office, which is overseeing the renovation.

Renovations in other Latin American colonial cities, such as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Cartagena, Colombia, were elitist, she says. “The residents were expelled; the buildings were bought by the rich. They restored them but left the center like a beautiful body with no soul.”

Pouring Money Back Into Old Havana

The office founded by City Historian Eusebio Leal operates a construction company and a real estate firm as well as hotels, shops and restaurants, all aimed at raising money to pour back into Old Havana’s restoration.

Workers strip old masonry structures of rotting wood and buckling plaster and then reconstruct the buildings practically from the ground up. Halting Old Havana’s slide into ruin will take at least 20 more years more, says Rodriguez.

“It’s a race against time,” she says. “Every three days or so we have a couple of collapses, anything from a room or a piece of a balcony to an entire building.”

The few blocks now fully restored constitute about a fourth of the old city center and are occupied mostly by hotels, restaurants, shops and offices. In the blocks still to be restored, more than 75,000 people live in old buildings, many of them crumbling.

Tiny, makeshift wooden lofts built inside the high-ceilinged old buildings divide living spaces into cramped warrens. In some areas, wooden splints prop up entire facades.

Makeshift kitchens and bathrooms are built on patios originally designed to reduce humidity in Havana’s steamy climate. As humidity works its way into overloaded masonry walls, buildings fall apart.

Factory worker Mayra Hernandez lives with her three grandchildren in one of the divided apartments.

“I’d like to see Havana restored, see it beautiful again like it used to be,” Hernandez says. She also wouldn’t mind a job in tourism, and the chance to earn a salary in U.S. dollars.

Beyond Subsidy

The average monthly salary for Cubans is about 230 pesos, or the equivalent of a little less than $11. It would not cover a dinner for two at one of the sidewalk cafes in Old Havana’s white limestone San Francisco Square.

Most of Cubans’ economic necessities are heavily subsidized by the state, including free health care and education. They pay little or no rent, and receive about half of their food heavily subsidized by the government through a ration system.

Still, Cubans covet dollars to obtain the many things that the ration card and limited government salaries don’t provide: cooking oil, shampoo, a birthday cake for a child, a nice skirt or tennis shoes.

Because tourism puts them into such close contact with dollars, few Old Havana residents relish the idea of leaving the neighborhood. Still, some will have to be relocated to reduce overcrowding and allow for further renovations.

Along with holding legitimate jobs in tourism, some locals sell stolen cigars and rum to tourists for dollars. Before the police presence was beefed up about two years ago, tourists became targets for thieves.

“There was street crime, truancy, people snatching things from tourists, wallets and cameras,” says Manuel Coipel Diaz, a sociologist who works in the San Isidro district, a corner of the old city once home to dock workers and prostitutes.

But things have been cleaned up, and since 1995 the City Historian’s Office has made a special project of San Isidro.

Swaying to Traditional Rhythms

Officials hope to rescue traditions like the Rumba de Cajon, or Box Rumba, a swaying percussion music developed by San Isidro dock workers who banged out rhythms on wooden crates. They also want to introduce visitors to the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria.

“We don’t want to do just the typical rumba and religion,” says local dance teacher Ernesto Acea. “We want to expose our people to world culture. We teach you salsa; you teach us rap.”

Reconstruction continues amid struggles to get building materials, especially paint.

“Havana was always a multicolored, vibrant city,” Rodriguez says. “In colonial times, painting your house white was against the law, because the sun here would dazzle pedestrians.”

Still, Rodriguez admits a fondness for Old Havana’s present state: “There is a ‘ruins’ aesthetic that I personally like, with all the layers of peeling paint.”