Reports from Cuba: San Lazaro and Perseverance Streets, another bomb-out corner of Havana

Nelson Garcia reports in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

San Lazaro and Perseverance Streets, Another Bombed-Out Corner of Havana

The house has deteriorated badly due to poor maintenance and salt air.

Oscar sleeps “with one eye open and the other closed” in case the roof ends up collapsing on this 67-year-old Havana resident and his family in the middle of the night. The retiree, who lives at the corner of Perseverancia (Perserverance) and San Lazaro streets in Central Havana, has spent years complaining about the poor condition of the building, now a ruin due to poor maintenance and salt air.

Sitting in the doorway to his lower-floor apartment, Oscar describes in detail the anxieties he feels living amid bare brick walls, balconies that have fallen to pieces and exposed, rusty beams. “There is still a family up there on the roof,” he says, pointing to the upper floors that have no doors or windows.

The retiree fears “tragedy could occur” on any given day, that the building could collapse, taking with it the lives of its residents. “My wife and son live with me and we spend our days in total fear. When it rains or when a hurricane is approaching, we’re terrified,” he says as he shows passersby some avocados he has for sale.

The only signage identifying the name of the street is hand-painted on the side of a dilapidated building.

“Every time we complain and demand officials come up with some solution, they tell us the shelters are at full capacity. We don’t have anywhere to go. We either stay in this building or live on the streets,” says Oscar. Guillermo, his 41-year-old son, looks through the window and confirms the story. “This piece here fell off two days ago,” he says, pointing to a hole in the wall.

Oscar and his family’s situation seems to repeat itself wherever you look. San Lazaro is one of the most important streets in the Cuban capital. It is also one of the thoroughfares with the most visible deterioration. Although the damage extends from the beginning of the Malecón to the grand outdoor staircase of the University of Havana, it is the section from Paseo del Prado to Belascoaín Street that is the most affected.

Almost fifty buildings have been either fully or partially lost along this stretch of San Lazaro Street. Proximity of the sea, governmental neglect and the poverty of the area’s residents have left the avenue looking like it was bombed. The holes in building facades, shattered cornices and collapsed balconies seem like relics from a city at war.

The scene repeats itself on the side streets. In spite of the extension of neighboring Lealtad Street and the importance of nearby Galiano Street, Perseverance is one of the most dilapidated routes in the city. Where once there was a butcher shop, there is now only a bricked-up door and a hole that used to be a window through which residents throw bags of garbage. Pedestrians must navigate around the sidewalks’ potholes, sewage and debris from falling balconies.

“You have to walk in the street. Even if you get hit by a car, it’s better than having a piece of the building fall on your head,” complains a young woman who has just come out of a boarding house. At the corner, she has to dodge a pile of trash that has been growing ever larger for weeks because there has been no garbage collection. As she approaches, dozens of flies take flight. They return a few seconds later, settling on the bags of waste.

The townhouse, remodeled in 2013 as a high-end tourist hostel that charges as much as a hundred dollars a night, is an oddity amid the grime and destruction surrounding it.

A produce vendor pushes a cart that bounces every time one of the wheels hits a pothole. When he reaches number 156, a woman inquires about the price of his lemons. She is leaning out of a window of a fully restored mansion that now serves as a tourist hostel. “The Charm of Perseverance” — with its bright yellow facade, elegant doors and spotless railings — looks like a shiny spaceship that has just landed amid of the grime and destruction.

Built in the early 20th century, the townhouse has a wide central courtyard, antique pendant lights hanging from its high ceilings, several rooms for rent and a 40-square-meter (430-square-foot) suite that in peak season can go for more than $100 per night. From the rooftop, guests can enjoy a view of the sea and escape the desolate landscape of the street below.

In June, seven people died, including two children, right in front of the house, at 159 Perseverance Street, when an electric scooter caught fire inside one of the dwellings. The tragedy has left deep wounds among the neighbors and added one more ruin to the street, where the only things that seem to persevere are destruction and hopelessness.