By Mike Di Paola | Bloomberg
“There might be 50 families living in there,” says my Cuban guide, Osmin. He points to a squalid Havana building on the Plaza Vieja, one of Old Havana’s grand colonial squares. Almost all the surrounding buildings are sparkling and freshly renovated. Standing beside its glammed-up neighbors, one three-story eyesore looks like a tramp in a chorus line.
Soon, though, the casa will be sparkling like the rest. The families will be moved out during renovations; many won’t be allowed to return. ``One of the big problems in Havana has been overcrowding, and they don’t want to make that mistake again,’’ Osmin says.
While the government of Cuba has committed many sins, allowing the decay of the country’s architectural treasures is no longer among them. The Plaza Vieja is a case in point, the last of the old city’s four main squares to be renovated. The square reflects a confluence of styles—baroque, art nouveau, neoclassical—brought back to life in the stately balconies, limestone columns and wrought-iron gates of the 19th-century mansions. Some of them looked ready to fall down not so long ago.
Bullfights, public executions and assorted fiestas once took place here. Now, it’s one of the crown jewels of Old Havana, both a key tourist attraction and a moneymaker—no small feat in a communist country.
The government recognized Old Havana’s value in 1977, declaring it a national monument; Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site five years later. Since then, the city historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, has headed the ambitious renovation project that will likely be many decades in the making. Leal wields considerable power over the entire effort. With atypical autonomy, he decides which buildings get restored, oversees the work crews and has a say about who occupies the revitalized structures.
Critics say the historian’s office has disrupted neighborhoods and displaced longtime residents, giving priority to museums, hotels and cafes. It may seem unfair, but it’s a strategy designed to be financially self-sustaining, since about a third of the revenue generated from tourists is reinvested in more preservation. So far the system works and the pace is picking up: only 57 buildings were restored between 1981 and 1993, but another 300 over the following decade.
Ironically, the Cuban revolution and subsequent failures of the Cuban economy have helped preserve some of the best of Old Havana. Castro never liked the city much, so he concentrated his development projects in rural areas, leaving Havana mostly alone. While hundreds of historic buildings were left to decay, at least they weren’t demolished and replaced with concrete boxes.
The restoration of the Plaza Vieja is now almost complete. Besides the casa, only a 1906 structure on the square’s southeast corner awaits repair. The Palacio Cueto, with its gaudy, and perhaps Gaudiesque, art nouveau facade, will be a premier hotel when restored, but today it looks like a trauma patient, more scaffolding than building.
``The interior fell in,’’ Osmin tells me. ``Collapsed, roof and all. It’s amazing the outer walls did not fall down with it.’‘
Through the scaffold I can see the solid, intricately carved telamones propping up the archway over the main entrance. ``That kind of craftsmanship has to be relearned if they are to restore it accurately,’’ Osmin says. He explains that specialized trades lost to Cuba—carpentry, stone, iron and woodworking skills—are being resurrected throughout Havana. In 1992, the city historian, with help from the Spanish government, set up a school for artisans, La Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos.
Plaza Vieja’s centerpiece, a fountain of Carrara marble that is an exact replica of the Giorgio Massari piece destroyed in the 1930s to accommodate a parking garage, is a testament to the city preservationists’ attention to detail.
Old Havana is packed with about 66,000 residents. Nearly half of them might be displaced because of renovations. Yet preservation efforts are also spawning new opportunities for Cubans: Artists are getting gallery space all around Old Havana. Nelson Dominguez, for one, a modernist painter, has a prime spot right on the corner of the Plaza de San Francisco, another of Old Havana’s grand public squares. The other winners are tourists from Canada, Europe and Latin America who have witnessed the city’s remarkable revitalization.
Americans, of course, are largely left out. Cuba has been steadily building up its tourism infrastructure and now attracts more than 2 million visitors annually. Only about 40,000 are from the U.S., most of them sneaking in via Mexico or the Bahamas, as I did. The beauty of Havana’s preservation strategy is that as more visitors come, more cash is generated to fund more preservation projects, and thus attract more visitors—a positive feedback loop if ever there was one.
(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)