In the ’60’s there was the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis, in the ’90s there was Buena Vista Social Club, and now that an ailing Fidel has ceded authority to his brother Raul, after presiding over his country since 1959, our strange relationship with Cuba has taken a new character, travel restrictions have been somewhat eased, and we are seeing a renewed interest in the island.
In September I went to Havana to visit some my Cuban-American boyfriend’s family members who still live there. While I knew I’d have to adjust some of my expectations, nothing could have mentally prepared me, a young woman from Palos Verdes, for a trip to our embargoed frenemy 90 miles from Key West.
Below are some of my reactions to Havana’s built environment. Picture above left: Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara in the Museo de la Revolución; right, me with my boyfriend and our hosts.
1. Restoration work is taking place all over Havana. Some of the results are stunning, but the city has a long way to go.
Havana’s Capitolio, designed by architects Raúl Otero and Eugenio Rayneri and completed in 1929, is currently undergoing intensive restoration work and is closed to the public. Strange how familiar it looks? It was modeled after the U.S. Capitol building.
Pictured above is a park, where youths are oftentimes seen playing soccer or using the red and yellow exercise machines shown in the background. In the left of the photo is another residential building in need of repairs.
Pictured above left, is the hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed when he lived in Havana. It’s an example of some of the finer restoration work that has come about as a result of Havana’s city historian and UNESCO funds. Pictured above right, is a building where locals reside in a building labeled “La Maravilla,” meaning “the miracle” in Spanish. (Were they referring to the tree that appears to be growing out of the second floor window?)
2. Yes, they still drive the classic cars, but some modern luxury cars are becoming available for a privileged few
“Cubans are magicians,” is the common explanation for why these old cars run after all of these years. Pictured from left to right: 1950 Chevy, 1951 Chevy, 1955 Buick.
From left to right 1956 Chevy, 1951 Chevy, 1951 Chevy
Early 1950’s Chevy, 1957 Ford
3. Malibu Should Embrace the Spirit of the Revolution
Often dubbed the “living room of Havana,” the Malecón is a four-mile long seawall that runs along Havana’s coast that draws in habaneros (locals) and tourists alike to chat, romance, fish and most importantly- enjoy the incredible view. At the risk of sounding too idealistic, its worth noting that there are serious and widespread structural problems in Havana that make daily life very difficult for the average Cuban. But still, there is something remarkable about an undeveloped, inclusive coastline in a city as stunning as Havana.
It was astounding to see a public structure like the Malecón after reading about the efforts of some Malibu residents to keep beach-goers off of the public beaches that lie quite literally in some locals’ backyards, this year. This issue came to a head after environmental activist Jenny Price created an iPhone app, “Our Malibu Beaches,” to assist the public in determining where access points and parking was available. Some in Malibu had gone to the effort of creating fradulent “No Parking” signs and obscuring an already scant number of access points. According to the New York Times, 20 of the 27 miles of the Malibu coastline lack access to the public.
4. Speaking of public space, they also have TONS of parks
Promenade of Paseo del Prado
You think people feel passionately about the Dodgers! Just go to the “Hot Corner” of Parque Central where locals gather to engage in heated discussions about baseball.
Park next to Plaza de Armas, Old Havana
Parks in Havana seem to stick to a very basic formula: a statue of an important, usually Cuban, historic figure (Jose Martí, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, and Simón Bolívar are some of the favorites) paired with lush caribbean greenery.
5. Havana has an incredible collection of Art Deco Gems
The style intended to celebrate modernity with its use of machine production, flashy colors, and geometric shapes, is bound up with the period when Americans, including mobsters like Meyer Lansky, used Cuba as their playground. Now it is part of the odd mix of architectural styles that make present-day Cuba. Many art deco buildings in Havana are beautifully preserved and serve as tangible reminders of North American influence on the island, but they noticeably lack the vibrant urban backdrop they were originally part of.
Pictured left, the Bacardi Building built in 1930 in Old Havana. Pictured right, the Casa de las Américas building is located in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.
If you pay the security officer in the lobby of the Bacardi Building $1 CUC ( $1 US), he or she will let you use the elevator to get to the top. The view is incredible (pictured above).
The legendary Hotel Nacional has been the choice location for celebrities past and present including Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Anthony Bourdain, and most recently Beyonce and Jay-Z. The building, which enjoys a stunning view of the bay, is composed of a mixture of architecture styles, including Art Deco.
6. The Russian Embassy is one of the most amazingly weird buildings I’ve ever seen
Built in the Soviet Era by architect Aleksandr Rochegov, the Embassy of Russia in Havana is an example of constructivist architecture, a style that combines use of advanced technology with communist ideals. The embassy is located in Havana’s affluent Miramar neighborhood and sticks out like a sore thumb among its quiet surroundings. The building serves as a reminder of the Soviet Union’s strong influence in the country during the Cold War.
A special thanks to Andrew Gomez and Nic De Carlo for production assistance.