May 16th, 2010

“Housing is not a place to live, but a place for living” Miguel Coyula, Architect, Group for the Integrated Development of the City.

 Our first stop today was to see a scale model of the city of Havana created by the Group for the Integrated Development of the City.  Each building and monument in the city has been recreated to a 1/1000 scale out of old cigar boxes (what else?).  When we learned of this visit, I thought it was a bit odd, perhaps even quaint.    I did not expect that this would be an absolutely fascinating window into the history of Cuban, Cuban urban planning and development, Cuban culture, and more broadly the meaning of community.

 If you stand back from the model and squint a little (okay, maybe a lot), it looks almost real, sort of like what you would see from the air.  Closer inspection shows perfectly formed little cigar box buildings with no detail or color, other than the color-coding to demonstrate the historical bands of development.

 Oddly, there is a similar shifting of perspective when you look at the real city.  From afar, if you stand back and squint a lot, there is much grandeur in the city.  As our guide to the model, architect Miguel Coyula told us, Cubans like to do things big.  The neighborhoods we have walked through are full of grand colonial homes, many with ornate ironwork and glasswork.  Each sector of the city contains the remnants and detritus of the dominant power of the time—the grand Spanish villas, the homes of the sugar barons, the elegant hotels and casinos built by the Mafia, and the Soviet style buildings of the 70’s.  

 A closer look, however, shows that there is a pervasive and nearly universal state of decay in the city.  Most of the buildings in our part of the city are literally crumbling. 

The house that perhaps best represented the decay for us was the house we came to call the “cat house.”  This was a once beautiful Victorian home just two blocks from our hotel that looked to be abandoned by human and left to the cats.   There were literally dozens of feral cats on the porch in the windows, and in the yard of the house.  The structure itself looked to be totally inhabitable—broken or missing, windows and a crumbling foundation.

 We learned today that housing is one of the central problems facing Cuba today (that and transportation).  90% of the people in Havana are homeowners, and homelessness is not permitted.  There are no people living on sidewalk grates or on park benches.  After the revolution, rents were cut by 50% and the rent payments were immediately applied to ownership of the property.  But the cost of repair and maintenance is far beyond the means of nearly all homeowners.  Building materials are outrageously expensive in Cuba, and most certainly out of reach for the average person.  According to our guide, even a gallon of paint is unaffordable.

 As a result, people stay in their homes until the homes are no longer fit to be occupied.  There are presently 12,000 people living in shelters in the city.  But there are 120,000 people waiting for a space in a shelter, currently living in what here would be considered condemned buildings—this is about, we think, 10% of the city.   Buildings in Havana have a very high vacancy rate—we see at night huge concrete Soviet “Bloc” type apartment buildings with very few lights in the window.

 These problems with housing are at the forefront of Cuban policy agendas right now, and demonstrate a very interesting type of grassroots urban planning underway.  This brings us back to the scale model of the city.  The point of the model is to allow policy makers, interest groups, and neighborhood associations to see visually the effects of new development on neighborhoods.  Miguel showed us the model of a proposed high rise that some were proposing to be plopped on the coast of the city.  A quick mockup of the building placed on the model convinced the decision makers that this was a bad idea—it blocked the view of others and unduly dominated the neighborhood.

 Urban planning in Havana is done at the neighborhood level (at least this is the perspective we received from Miguel).  His perspective is that “you don’t build buildings that will make people happy, you build to facilitate happiness.”  In other words, find out what the people need and want and help make that happen.    Build homes that are about living, not simply places to live.  Neighborhood groups (much like the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution group we met with this evening) provide ideas of what is important to them and how they want development to happen.  The larger working groups gather these ideas and work towards a master plan.

 Development is from the neighborhood and for the neighborhood, rather than the sort of gentrification we see here.  For example, the section of the city known as “Old Havana” has become a major tourist center since the mid to late 90’s.  The tourist dollars that have been coming from sites in the neighborhood have been reinvested into development.  The residents are not moved out, but rather their homes are revitalized.  With at least one huge development project, one half of a large apartment building offered to house the other half while a portion was being renovated.

 Housing very much demonstrates the Marxist “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” principle (at least in theory).  If you own a house, but find that it is not large enough for your family, or that your family is now significantly smaller, you arrange to swap your house with someone else’s.  It is a sort of “Craig’s list” of housing.   It is not the most efficient of systems–it can sometimes take 2 years to find the appropriate swap.

 There is a refreshing blurring of the private and the public that we just don’t see in the U.S.—the public school in the middle of the tourist district, the fanciest hotels are open to anyone to walk through, the restaurant that is also a home, and the neighborhood group that is a political unit.   In everything we did today we felt a palpable sense of community and the desire to do what is best for the greater good.  We saw it in the vision of urban planning explained to us, in the gay rights rally we participated in (more on that to come), and in the neighborhood gathering arranged for us.


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