The first thing you notice about Havana is much of it is falling down. Colonial houses with ornate plasterwork, pretty inner courtyards, carved doorways and wrought iron balconies are crumbling around their long suffering inhabitants. Another city might have knocked the whole lot down and started again in concrete, steel and glass – Bangkok and Shanghai spring to mind. Not Havana. An enlightened City Historian the late 1970s started what has turned out to be an almost miraculous restauration push in the old town (La Habana Vieja) – especially miraculous given a period of involvement by the Soviet Union (not renowned for beautiful modern architecture) and then some dire economic times in Cuba.
The project started with the classy renovation of a few upmarket hotels (the Hotel Ambos Mundos, for example, where Hemingway is said to have written For whom the bell tolls, and the Santa Isabel, which was once owned by a Spanish count). Around 50% of the tourism dollars generated from these state-run hotels was funnelled into more renovation, with buildings around some of the beautiful central city squares being returned to their former glory. Pavement cafés and quality restaurants opened up catering for foreign visitors. And his in turn fed more tourism, and therefore more dollars for renovation projects. Clever, huh?
(Obviously there is a bit of a moral issue around creating an area of town where the local population can’t remotely afford the food, drink or accommodation on offer, but the other 50% of the tourism profits goes towards social projects.)
But what a task! Government estimates suggest a quarter of Havana Vieja has been restored, but that means there is three quarters to go. Plus some formerly lovely buildings lining the once-fine Malecón – Havana’s 8km seafront promenade - are in desperate need of TLC. And there are a myriad of other formerly beautiful streets outside the old town. Walk a couple of blocks from a Havana plaza where tourists drink beer and mojitos and eat seafood in surroundings that could rival what’s on offer in France or Italy, and you are back among the crumbling stonework, rickety balconies, dilapidated courtyards and precarious stone staircases. Some buildings have fallen down completely and the sites are now being used to dump rubbish, house skinny cats and piss against the wall.
Being the City Historian would be a seriously daunting job. But I for one really hope he is successful.