Colin Kent

Most of the photographs we see of Havana capture its architecture at the cost of its urbanity. They depict an aesthetically unique but empty and impersonal city, left to crumble, anticipating some scour of archeologists and amateur European and Canadian photographers. This Havana, with its faded grandeur and quiet culture, is surely unrecognizable to Cubans and equally so to anyone who has ever spent a decent amount of time in Cuba’s political, economic and cultural gravitas. 

Havana is not by any measure, at any time, a quiet city. It is, in fact, teeming with life, with astonishing varieties of people. It would be difficult to hyperbolize the city’s attributes: its immense beauty, deep cultural identity, South American fervor. It is a delight on foot, vaunting a seemingly endless urban landscape of narrow three/four-story-gorgeous-stone-building lined streets. It enjoys an utterly euphoric atmosphere. One evening in the city is overwhelmingly persuasive: residents pour out of their apartments at dusk and start bar-hopping, drinking, smoking, dancing and doing their thing all in one striking surge. There is nothing sexier than a Latin city in the evening. It is thus that a certain trap is set. Enamored and awed, it is not hard for a foreigner to overlook some of the city’s less glamorous, less amorous sides. Urbanites in particular tend to completely forget that there is something undeniably controversial about the state of Havana. One person’s ‘grit’ is another’s ‘ruin’, and lacking certain perspectives it is easy to forget that in certain aspects the city truly is falling apart. I will not address the reasons for this here there are important arguments to be made from several vistas on the matter but the physicality of it cannot be ignored. The line between well-worn (‘aged’) and decrepit or dilapidated is anything but objective but it is impossible to dismiss the dangerously undermaintained shape of a serious number of the city’s buildings many of which collapse or become uninhabitable and unusable each year.

Theodore Dalrymple’s essay Why Havana Had to Die addresses this more depressing view rather eloquently. Dalrymple writes of ‘the Ruins of Havana’ and bluntly reminds us that, “Forty-three years of totalitarian dictatorship have left the city of Havana one of the most beautiful in the world suspended in a peculiar state halfway between preservation and destruction.” His adoration for the city is reflective in his emotional comparisons of ‘crumbling’ Havana to war-ravaged Beirut. He describes beautifully what all photographers note when they spend time in the city:

No words can do justice to the architectural genius of Havana, a genius that extended from the Renaissance classicism of the sixteenth century, with severe but perfectly proportioned houses containing colonnaded courtyards cooled and softened by tropical trees and shrubs, to the flamboyant art deco of the 1930s and 40s. The Cubans of successive centuries created a harmonious architectural whole almost without equal in the world. There is hardly a building that is wrong, a detail that is superfluous or tasteless. … Cuban architects understood the need for air and shade in a climate such as Cuba’s, and they proportioned buildings and rooms accordingly. They created an urban environment that, with its arcades, columns, verandas, and balconies, was elegant, sophisticated, convenient, and joyful.

He adds, insightfully: “What is so striking about Havana’s grandeur and beauty is how extensive it is, and how wealthy (as well as sophisticated) the society that produced it must have been. The splendor of Havana, rather than being confined to a small quarter of the city, extends for miles.” Dalrymple is equally passionate and perhaps rightly so, though I personally am not entirely convinced in his articulation of the city’s decomposition:

The city is like a great set of Bach variations on the theme of urban decay. The stucco has given way to mold; roofs have gone, replaced by corrugated iron; shutters have crumbled into sawdust; paint is a phenomenon of the past; staircases end in precipices; windows lack glass; doors are off their hinges; interior walls have collapsed; wooden props support, though not with any degree of assurance, all kinds of structures; ancient electrical wiring emerges from walls, like worms from cheese; wrought ironwork balconies crumble into rust; plaster peels as in a malignant skin disease; flagstones are mined for other purposes. Every grand and beautifully proportioned room—visible through the windows or in some places through the walls that have crumbled away—has been subdivided by plywood partitions into smaller spaces, in which entire families now live. Washing hangs from the windows of what were once palaces. Every entranceway is dark, and at night the electric lights glimmer rather than shine. No ruination is too great to render a building unfit for habitation: Havana is like a city that has been struck by an earthquake and its population forced to survive among the wreckage until relief arrives.

Though he admits that the Cuban people themselves are genuinely and by large comfortable, joyful and social, he writes of his ‘profound sorrow’ of the ‘contentment among the ruins’. This is where, obviously, opinions differ. Nevertheless, it would be dishonest to divorce Havana from the complex political context in which it according to some suffers.  

But forgive me for setting that aside. I would now like to offer a more comprehensive portrayal of the city itself in particular, its mood and character.

Havana is cosmopolitan only in a strictly Cuban sense outsiders never really lose their ‘other’ status, no matter how friendly and welcoming the city might be for them. Nonetheless is by no means homogenous, simply because the Cuban people themselves are not. Havana’s citizens come largely from Spain or from Africa, but a large number of them share both ancestries and foreigners often note the beautiful exotic mixed-ethnicity look that seems to prevail.

There is a state presence in the city that is undeniable. I was told to avoid photographing police officers (a respectful gesture in any country, democratic or not, but perhaps more serious in Cuba) and so my photos are lacking in that aspect. The officers stand [I saw few if any police cars] like security guards on every fifth or sixth block. They are not an oppressive presence necessarily sometimes they are even a benevolent and welcoming sight, at night for instance but nonetheless they are watching everything.

Revolutionary propaganda is less omnipresent than it was in, say, Stalin's USSR, but not absent from daily life. Bookstores sell either new copies of the Motorcycle Diaries or old Spanish-language histories of the soviet union. Che's image is everywhere (Fidel's almost nowhere), and the billboards, statues and monuments are hardly subtle.

The people of
Havana seem to self-censor themselves to a great degree, and in general are prone to avoid politics. They are a nationalistic people, but very open to other cultures and especially other languages I was used in dozens of situations by locals who wanted to practice their English, their French or their German. (The schools and universities are of course public and languages and music seem to be especially cultivated). Their city is safe and easy to explore, and is always full of pedestrians, as the photos in this feature demonstrate (many were even taken on a Sunday morning, which in most North American cities would yield little if any activity). Havana does not feel like an explicitly 'poor' place. There are probably less homeless people in Havana than in your typical large Canadian city. The large majority lives at a more or less low-middle-class standard, and they are crisply dressed (in old but well-washed clothing), with TVs in their living rooms and a seemingly large amount of leisure time.

I felt least comfortable in the tourism-drenched parts of old Havana, where I was harassed most often by those wanting to sell me this or that (cigar? tour? taxi?). In the more local areas where I spent most of my time I was either ignored, greeted with slight, benign curiosity, or greeted happily and boisterously. In Havana English-speaking tourists are assumed to be Canadians and receive a warm welcome from most everyone who bothers to notice.

A few blocks from the Universidad de La Habana, I crept rudely into an exceptionally designed residential courtyard to take a few pictures of the elegant (but of course crumbling) tilework, marble pillars, random vegetation and wrought-iron railings, when the owner, in a white shirt, suddenly appeared. I tried, pathetically, to get out before he saw me, but on the street outside he called to me and I risked turning around and facing him. When we’d established that I wasn’t an American photojournalist (for some reason he mentioned CNN specifically), he was ridiculously gracious. Daniel. Perfect English. Invited me in for coffee (I declined politely), told me the history of his house (was a hospital in the 19th century ). Charming and kind.

If you tell locals you’re from Montreal there's a decent chance they'll tell you what they know about Oscar Peterson and start speaking to you in French. I'm generalizing, of course, but it wouldn't be a stretch to call the atmosphere friendly and relaxed. 

As far as it is appropriate to make the claim, I'd say Havana feels vibrant and alive (as opposed to downtrodden, depressed and/or oppressed). The government is not invisible by any stretch of the imagination, and the few Cubans I met who were brave enough to criticize things were not impressed with things like the forced military service and the lack of travel freedoms, but the arts are certainly thriving in Havana (except perhaps the literary arts), and generally the people seem proud of their city and their nation's accomplishments.

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