Havana in search of itself

Pending issues for the half millennium.

When there are five years to go to get to the half millennium of its foundation, the city of Havana has a historic debt to elucidate: defining the exact place of its first settlement, though it also has other urgent tasks, strengthened by an important recognition.

As is known, the township baptised since then as San Cristóbal de La Habana was founded on November 16, 1519, close to the site that Sebastián de Ocampo called Puerto Carena (the current Havana bay). The first mass and the first town hall meeting were held there that day; however, five years before that, the city had its first settlement on the southern coast, toward the mouth of the Mayabeque River, in the current province by the same name.

It is not known exactly where the conquistadors established the settlement, though Melena del Sur is a strong candidate and archaeologists are making an effort to discover it. It is an enigma whose resolution is pending.

But, right now, there is expectation in the city apropos something that has sparked off jubilation and astonishment: the inclusion of Havana among the 14 cities opting for being one of the seven cities to be titled Wonders of the Modern World, the online contest organised by the Swiss foundation New7Wonders, which, based on diversity, places emphasis on regional geography and urban culture.

To reach the final stage, the seven finalist cities had to go through several phases since 2012: the nomination (1,200 cities from 220 countries); classification (more than 300); initial selection process (out of 77 they were reduced to 28 by a panel of experts); semifinal (21); and the final (14), open to voting since October 7 to December 7.

As we noted before, ever since the announcement in September, when the Cuban capital classified among the 21 semifinalists, the local reactions to the news have swung from jubilation to astonishment.

Part of the astonishment – even among those who share the jubilation – has to do with the election system in place, since the Internet is still a minority tool on the island; thus, it is expected that the great majority of the votes come from outside the country.

But the biggest share of surprise– bordering on disbelief – is related to the profound construction deterioration of Havana, a city now surrounded by the garbage that emanates from apathy and bad habits; to be read as lack of urban culture.

According to what we have read, New7Wonders has the aim of highlighting the architectural beauty and boosting the tourism of the cities with the greatest charm. No one doubts that Havana has that quality, but it is worthwhile reviewing those charms, that legacy that not all of us appreciate, value and respect.

The fortresses built starting in the 16th century certainly head the list: La Fuerza, El Morro, San Carlos de La Cabaña, Atarés, La Punta and El Príncipe fortresses; and La Chorrera (the site of the city’s second settlement), San Lazáro and Cojímar towers. Though the principal ones conserve their vitality, not all of them have reached our day with the same luck.

The mansions close to the definitive foundation site, the churches, monasteries, small mansions built during the first centuries are also architectural celebrities. The group of buildings of Old Havana, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, coexists with hundreds of constructions from the period in which the city started growing toward the west and for which the passage of time has been inexorable.

We are speaking of that expansion of the city that went up through the avenues of Monte and Reina during the 19th century, creating new spaces in the urban geography toward El Cerro, La Vibora, El Vedado, while, at the same time, it spread through the streets of Belascoaín, Galiano, San Rafael, where other constructions of diverse styles – neoclassic, art deco, neo-Gothic, art nouveau – emerged, making up that eclecticism that Alejo Carpentier called “the style of the things with no style.”

But many of them are a scene of ruins and they appear like quaint postcards in the tourists’ photos, together with the bicycle taxis, vintage cars, maracas, drums and cigars, an all-inclusive that has stopped in time.

The buildings of El Vedado also exhibit architectural wealth, when in the mid-20th century that area displaced toward there the aleph of the city: the Focsa, the Habana Libre, El Riviera, Capri and others form the background of that image so disseminated along the coastline. A camp image, also anchored half a century ago.

The Havana on the other side of the tunnel under the bay is very diverse. Between the Camilo Cienfuegos district and the east boundary of the province one finds everything in terms of architecture: from the excellence of the “Pastorita”1 apartments to the grey buildings built by the mini-brigades in the city-dormitory of Alamar and the unfinished tourist project of Guanabo.

There is no lack of architectural wealth in Havana, a macrocity that spreads out in the plurality of its towns: Guanabacoa, Regla, Casablanca, Campo Florido, Cotorro, Santa María del Rosario, Santiago de las Vegas, El Rincón, Minas, Barreras, Bacuranao, Arroyo Naranjo, Managua, Guanabo, Cojímar; territories that contribute social and environmental diversity but are also deteriorated in their constructive structure, and almost all of which are also stopped in time.

The beaches contribute the environmental wealth, from Bacuranao to Guanabo to the east, but with different qualities by virtue of their economic-social status: Tarará, El Mégano, Santa María and Boca Ciega are clean environments, protected. But the waters of Guanabo are contaminated and its dunes very damaged, while Bacuranao, in its scarce extension, has to withstand the popular onslaught in the summer. Its bridge over the river is the spitting image of constructive apathy since a collapsed part coexists with another built one.

The beaches to the west, without the natural wealth of those in the east, with sand and without it, are a mixed and complicated whole; between Miramar and Jaimanitas there are several universes and to describe them would not fit in this commentary. Hotels, motels, social clubs and other buildings make up a Havana not too well known for those who live on the other side of the Línea tunnel and the iron bridge.

Havana is not just a macrocity diverse because of its geographical composition, but also a construct, an entity whose representation is different for everyone, therefore there are many Havanas in the popular imagination; the Havanas of the different periods live there. Well, that’s OK; perhaps it is even wonderful and that city is given the gift of being included in the group of celebrities chosen online. Perhaps that symbolic capital contributes the financial capital for the city to not continue collapsing. (2014)

1 The apartments built in the 1960s under the sponsorship of Pastorita Núñez, who headed the housing institution, were called Pastorita buildings.

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