Syndicated columnist Neil Peirce's article released Sunday, December 30, 2001:
Habana: The Urban Gem We Should All Care About

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HAVANA -- An international architectural emergency should be declared. This city’s 500 years of wondrously varied architecture, including the globe’s largest collection of Spanish colonial buildings, is in peril from the forces of heat, salt, humidity and hurricanes -- and Cuba’s poverty.

The saving of a great urban space, a few miles off our shores, hasn’t registered with Americans. All the talk’s been about Fidel Castro’s longevity, little Elian Gonzalez, or the clear futility of our embargo policy.

Indeed, because it’s so tough for American citizens to visit Cuba, few of us are aware that Havana is one of the urban treasures of the planet. In all, it has some 1,700 architecturally distinguished castles and forts, homes and churches and theaters and palaces, ranging from the earliest Spanish colonial styles of the 1500s and 1600s to some of the most adventuresome earlier 20th century designs.

New Urbanist architect Andres Duany, himself a native Cuban, argues Havana offers such masses of intact, distinguished structures that its urban quality exceeds any Latin American metropolis, and also any U.S. city south of Washington.

Duany’s enthusiasm was echoed by a group of U.S. journalists and urbanists visiting Havana in mid-December. And we were pleased to find that preservation and restoration work, dating to the 1930s, has accelerated dramatically in recent years under the leadership of Havana’s official historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler.

Desperate for foreign exchange after the loss of Soviet subsidies in the early ‘90s, the government let Leal set up a corporation empowered to run restaurants, hotels and other properties in restored buildings, then reinvest the profits in restoration projects. Duany sees Leal as a quite unsocialistic “Robert Moses of Cuba.”

But despite the very high quality and extent of the preservation work that Leal has overseen, it’s almost impossible to keep pace -- there are so many old buildings, the elements are so hostile, and all of Cuba seems to suffer from appalling lack of maintenance.

Visiting very poor residents, we walked into buildings where balconies and ceilings seem in imminent danger of collapse. In early December a five-story historic building collapsed, taking six lives. Some 20 percent of Havana’s population, the government acknowledges, live in structures that are considered to be in “precarious condition.”

Yet there is real charm to the chaotic but beautiful jumble of mansions, cigar factories, forts and small hotels in Old Havana. It’s probably the only place on earth, a writer for Preservation magazine noted, “where one can look through an austere neo-Classical portal and see a rooster standing on top of a Soviet refrigerator.”

The charm extends to the streets, where most vehicles are American cars of the ‘40s and ‘50s, old Chevys and Fords preserved by loving owners because few other vehicles (save some marginal Soviet autos) ever got around the U.S. blockade.

A lot less charming are the masses of drab, faceless, sometimes rotting five-story pre-fabricated buildings on Havana’s periphery, especially in Alamar, the “model” town that Castro once declared would be the triumphant model city of his Cuban socialist experiment.

Havana’s salvation was that Castro wanted this Soviet-inspired, concrete-faced housing to be locaated outside the city. It’s “socialist sprawl,” says John Gilderbloom of the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, and leader of the “CubaNow.org” tour organization. A visit to Alamar quickly confirms most residents feel isolated and would far prefer to live in the city, close to friends and jobs and diversion.

Cuban socialism gets credit on one score -- it slowed down demolitions in historic Havana, including a “modernization” plan born in the 1940s that would have caused destruction of no less than a third of the city’s most important structures.

And before Soviet-influenced ideology got in the way, Castro’s government permitted the building of the fascinating National Arts School on Havana’s western flank. Architect Richard Porro sought to celebrate both Cuba’s African roots and secondarily the socialist revolution as an era of sexual liberation. Communist ideologues objected to the rounded, suggestive brick structures; Nikita Khruschev even forced Cuba to stop using bricks because they recalled the Spanish imperialist colonial era.

Today portions of the Arts School are mouldering, eerily overwhelmed by the tropical jungle that surrounds them. But students are now to returning to some of the buildings. The work of some gifted modern Cuban architects is resulting in a handful of quality projects.

But the compelling issue, in which the United States has legitimate, enduring interest, should be historic Havana. Millions of Americans should one day visit there -- and Cubans be free to visit our shores too. The distance, by air or water, is minimal. Andres Duany once even challenged me to think of a binational “Miami-Havana citistate.”

For most of the 20th century, U.S.-Cuban relations, from American occupation to threatening Soviet weaponry to the embargo, were simply terrible. The emergency condition of today’s historic Havana is an issue we both, finally, should care about.