Jewel of Havana re-emerging after decades of decay

HAVANA — HAVANA -- For 50 years, Lina Zambrana has watched life go by from the tiny iron balcony of her second-story apartment in Old Havana.

In the time that Ms. Zambrana has lived on Obispo Street, World War II rewrote the boundaries of Europe, and Fulgencio Batista was elected president for a four-year term in 1940, lived briefly in the United States and ousted President Carlos Prio Socarras in a 1952 coup.


Then Fidel Castro and a band of guerrillas took to the Sierra Maestra; the 1959 Cuban revolution swept away Batista and propelled Mr. Castro into power, and in the last year of the 1980s the socialist world began to unravel.

Now finally, Ms. Zambrana is seeing her historic neighborhood near the Havana harbor change. Old Havana -- once the jewel of this capital city and named a "heritage of mankind" site by the United Nations in 1982 -- is making a comeback.


There were some efforts to restore Old Havana piecemeal in the 1960s, but it wasn't until 1980 that the Cuban government began plans in earnest to restore the colonial plazas, the cathedrals, the mansions and other historic buildings that had deteriorated into a rat's nest of brothels, crumbly tenements and seamen's bars.

In 1979, Cuba began discussions with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization about how to preserve the area. In the early 1980s, the organization began drumming up international support for the restoration of the area's old commercial district, Plaza Vieja.

Old Havana was settled in 1519. For 300 years life revolved around its five major plazas, but by the 19th century the wealthy families that inhabited the graceful mansions with central patios and great wooden portals had begun to leave, and their homes were turned into warehouses. As the years passed, the 100-block Old Havana area became poorer and poorer.

When the government did a survey in the 1960s, 70 percent of Old Havana's residents said they hoped their neighborhood would be demolished. Until the 1970s, typhus epidemics caused by contaminated water regularly swept Old Havana.

But renovation work that has brought back a measure of charm to the brick and cobbled streets and has accentuated a treasure trove of architectural details has flipped those numbers around. Now only 30 percent of the residents say they want to be relocated, said Raida Mara Suarez Portal, who heads the historic investigations department of the Museum of the City of Havana.

"I always had faith things would change," said Ms. Zambrana, a frail-looking woman with a puff of silver hair. So while the paint peeled and the neighborhood crumbled, she kept up her apartment with its 18-foot-high ceilings that gently peak like an Arabian tent.

Ms. Zambrana maintained her small apartment like an island of neatness -- making sure her marble floors were spotless, her ancestral furniture in good repair and the crystal chandelier in the dining area shiny.

The whole building, a 16th century mansion, was "deteriorated. From here to the corner there were 33 families living in the worst conditions," said Ms. Zambrana.


Now the interior patio of the old mansion has been restored with climbing vines and plants, and the first story has been turned into a museum. Ms. Zambrana and a neighbor family still hang their towels and clothes to dry from the second-floor balcony railing, while museum visitors look at old carriages on the floor below.

"You can't imagine the difference now," Ms. Zambrana said. "Everything is cleaner, pretty, decent."

Out on the street, museum official Suarez pointed out the buildings that had been restored: the old barbershop; the water house, where visitors can purchase a drink of water from old ceramic crocks; and the 18th century house of the Tabares Brothers, which has been turned into a silver museum.

"In this building, there used to be 40 families," said the museum official, pointing to the old "Bishop's House" that had decayed into tenement status. "When the work is finished, there will be six."

The buildings that the renovators haven't reached are quite another matter. They may have marble staircases, but thick cobwebs hang from a twisted spaghetti of wires that have been rigged and spliced through the years to bring power, and plaster falls amid disintegrating masonry.

Once-grand rooms with high ceilings have been cut into tiny cubicles -- hardly big enough for an individual, but often the living space for a family. Because of Cuba's critical housing shortage it has been difficult for Old Havana residents to move elsewhere, although the government offers people living in buildings that are being renovated alternative dwellings or temporary shelter if they want to return to refurbished quarters.


One bathroom and kitchen for an entire building isn't uncommon in the untouched areas of Old Havana. At one ancient dwelling near the Plaza Vieja, renovation at a neighboring building has brought extreme inconvenience. The common bathroom in the first building was accidentally destroyed during renovation work, forcing the residents to seek facilities around the corner.

During the first five-year, $11 million phase of the renovation program, 34 buildings were restored. The Cuban government has budgeted $30 million during the current five-year plan, and 700 workers are now restoring 46 other buildings. But there are hundreds of buildings of historical importance or architectural interest that need work.

To save the historical buildings of the Plaza Vieja, UNESCO pledged about $4 million, with another $2.7 million to be provided by the Cuban government. UNESCO also has helped to set up the National Center of Restoration and Museumology and has trained workers to renovate the buildings.

The restoration work has even prompted some residents to take up their own projects. "This was a restaurant-bar -- restored by me," said one man, standing proudly in the door frame of a home that opened directly on the street.

The restoration of Old Havana represents a departure for the Cuban government. In the early years of the revolution, a decision was made to channel scarce resources outside Havana to the countryside and provincial cities.

Havana suffered. The paint scaled from its buildings, the salt air ate at their facades, and the city took on an air of neglect. But the lack of investment meant that the old buildings weren't razed to make space for new, nondescript models.


Money continues to limit the scope of the Old Havana restoration, but Mexico, Germany, Spain, Arab and African countries, cities and private companies have contributed funds and collaborated on the work.

In many cases, families still live above buildings that are now museums or cultural centers.

An old butcher shop that has been restored with a marble counter and a bronze cow hanging above the door still sells meat; Dona Teresa's Casa de la Natilla still dishes out freshly baked natilla custards and steamy thimbles of cafe cubano, and customers can buy plants and herbs at the Santa Catarina French Pharmacy, which is a museum.

Walking through Old Havana is like taking a step back into history. The apartment at the old Ambos Mundos Hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls" when he came to Cuba after the Spanish Civil War has been outlined in white on the exterior of the rose-colored building.

A coffee shop off the Plaza de Armas has been restored and furnished with the wrought-iron furniture inlaid with colorful tiles common in Havana cafes of the 19th century.

One early afternoon, a cigar roller sat in the corner of the Hostal Valencia, a joint-venture renovation with Spain, and sold his handiwork to tourists. Caged canaries serenaded visitors in the interior courtyard. At the Casa de Mexico, a library and cultural center restored with the help of the Mexican government, workers were preparing for a night commemorating Mexican hero Benito Juarez.


A mosque at the Arab House on Oficios Street was empty in the late afternoon, but a few diners lingered at an Arab restaurant on an upper level.

As the day faded into dusk, the huge wooden doors of the neighborhood's family doctor's office were still thrown open to the street. A few children played with toys on the old marble floors of the reception room.

The doctor's and nurse's quarters behind the clinic are new but have been built in the old colonial style. The clinic would be closing for the night soon, but the nurse said, "People know where we are. They can knock any time."