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Havana, City in Amber

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Cities live. Each is born, grows, gets old. They escape mortality, unlike us, by periodically reemerging from periods of somnolence and can, even when ancient, be surprisingly sprightly and cheerful. Havana, Cuba, old but colorful, awaits this rebirth, hinting at future glories while holding on to its present like a life preserver.

The tension between the past and the future drapes across this beautiful city like a damp wool blanket. As cities go, its population of two million plus souls makes it on the small side of national capitals. Unlike sprawling cities in the US, there is an edge to Havana, a separation between former fields of sugar cane and human construction. From its old, dense core of narrow streets and sun-faded walls ("Old Havana") a Caribbean city stretches across the coastal plain, petering out before it descends into the more typical sprawl. Everywhere there is history, a city full of tales. Everywhere, also, there is a sense that the future will come and may be glorious. Or not.

Walking Havana's streets taxes one's ability to see and understand a thousand different threads at once. During my recent trip there, I spent time in both Old Havana, that almond-shaped core of the colonial Spanish capital, and Vedado, an extension of the city to the west along the coast, built much later. The old city, redolent with character, is a dense collection of homes, offices, hotels, and public institutions, ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The street pattern (deserving of more study) comprises narrow pre-automobile pavements and stones, narrow sidewalks if any, and a relatively consistent building height put in place before elevators. Each street, each facade cries out for consideration. Centuries of uses, layers of paint, improvements upon improvements, stones shaped and worn by humans are evident building by building. There is a classic, almost perfect thousands-year-old design to these blocks of homes - entrances from the streets open into foyers that open into rooms beyond that open out into an internal patio, open to the sky. Doors conceal homes or small alleys to interior structures. The profusion of doors is confusing. The number of doors might be two to three times a more typical, modernized city. But in Havana, this chaos of entrances just heightens the mystery of what lies beyond. So many doors to go through! So little time.

In Vedado, built in the last 100 years and marginally adjacent to the old city, the impression is more of a decayed urban masterpiece, with pockets of humbler uses. Vast palaces of stone and paint interspersed with apartment blocks; palms and bougainvillea adorning walls, iron fences with actual yards. Unlike the confined spaces in the heart of Havana, Vedado shares its private space - its yards and gardens and parking areas - right out in front. This is more like a typical US suburb, where there is indistinct delineation between private and public. Vedado has a San Francisco meets Savannah vibe - tropical air, ocean views, big houses now empty or subdivided. Like the old city, Vedado has many surprises, and it is worth turning left or right when you least expect it to let the hidden be revealed.

Both areas, Vedado and Old Havana, feel encumbered by the past and the future. The past is visible, essential to the nature of the community. Buildings may crumble, sidewalk heave with growing trees, and the infrastructure slowly decay in Vedado. Stones may tumble, buildings might lean or be gutted, and doors permanently broken open in Old Havana. The race of entropy is strong and gaining momentum. And yet, the future is there. The feeling in each closed window or broken fence rail that if the money and effort were present, the future would be surpassingly amazing. The few attempts to upgrade and renovate both areas show what can be done. These changes, generally for the better, are the belles of the ball, dressed up and showing their dowdy cousins for what they are not. But the vastness of the need, the sheer money and time is overwhelming.

So the city waits. Tension builds. Havana knows what was and what can be. It is trapped today in amber, awaiting some future, either that of continuing decay and eventual transition to where even its rebirth is hopeless or, less gloomily, into one of energized rehabilitation and preservation. For the observant, evidence for either direction is written into the urban fabric.

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