Havana Is Latin America’s Detroit, but Poorer
Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them
[My second in a two-part series on Havana, Cuba. Here’s the first article.]
Before taking my trip to Havana, one thing that I was curious about was how a half-century of Communism had affected the built fabric.
While there are obvious disadvantages to economic stagnation, I figured that it would have at least created a charming-looking city. There are, after all, a handful of US cities, and numerous European ones, that have resisted growth, modernization, and the automobile, only to remain quaint and historic.
But it didn’t take even a 10-minute cab ride from the airport to realize that my assumption about Havana had been naïve — even if it is still held by many of the city’s blissfully incurious tourists.
In fact, very little about Havana has been “preserved.” Instead, everything in the city is merely old, and because little gets produced, nothing is replaced.
This applies to the automobiles, furniture, hand tools, manufacturing equipment — and most certainly the buildings.
Collectively, this stagnation has destroyed the look of the city, with a physical blight that stretches nearly every block from downtown to the outer slums.
If I could define in one statement what Havana looks like, after four days of extensively biking and walking through, I’d call it the Latin American Detroit. It was a once-great city that declined because of bad policies, and its pervasive ruination serves as a constant reminder of this.
The houses themselves, while large and ornate, are almost uniformly inadequate by US standards. If they have not crumbled to the ground altogether, many are caving in. The foundations are crooked, full of holes, and marred by broken windows and doors.
Because of Havana’s European roots, stucco is a common material, but on most buildings is falling off, or in some cases has disappeared. Almost every building has dirt and grime, while some are covered in it.
And this is for Havana’s nice parts. Once I began biking out of the central neighborhoods and into the slums, I found that symbols of past wealth disappeared altogether, and were replaced with what in the U.S. would be considered shacks.
These structures were usually patched up with knotted wood, metal scraps, and thatching. One gentlemen who lived in the poor neighborhood of Cerro, and who I spoke with at length, described his area as akin to a Brazilian favela — which I found believable.
Continue reading HERE.