For the buildings that do still stand, the long process of restoring Habana Vieja has begun. City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler – who has been working in the city since 1982 when the district gained World Heritage status from Unesco – set up a holding company called Habaguanex in 1994 to raise finances through tourism, with proceeds split between repairing crumbling buildings and social projects in the city.
Habaguanex is in a unique position in that it runs 20 historic hotels, numerous restaurants and over 30 museums in the city. It officially receives no money from central government, but it benefits from all the revenues that tourism brings in. And even though the culinary standards and service levels may not be up to scratch in its establishments, at least the more visitors that spend money in the old city, the more the district benefits.
The ‘before’ (uninhabitable shells) and ‘after’ (fully restored buildings) photos on each of the properties in Plaza Vieja – which was laid out in 1559 – are testament to the progress that has been made. It has a replica of a fountain with stained glass as its centre piece. And an array of popular bars and restaurants (many with first floor terraces) can be found around the square, along with a primary school and housing.
But one of the most popular draws when I visited seemed to be a micro-brewery (La Factoria Plaza Vieja – the only such establishment in Havana), serving a choice of three home brewed beers. Some groups were sharing plastic towers filled will beer, with taps at the end so they could serve one another. With a little more of the afternoon sun remaining, I opted for the lightest brew and grabbed a ring-side table at the edge of the cobbled square. It was a great spot to take in the fruits of this wonderful restoration project, while being entertained by a band playing La Bamba.
One famous institution that Habaguanex re-opened in 2013 after a big restoration programme by the City Historian’s Office was Sloppy Joe’s, a bar that gained a notorious reputation amongst Americans during prohibition who came over to Cuba to drink alcohol (which was prohibited at the time back home). Cocktails were plentiful, but the venue – opened by José Garcia in an old warehouse on the edge of Habana Vieja – suffered from a sloppy lack of sanitation, hence the name.
The bar remained popular in the 1930s and 1940s (with the Mafia – who enjoyed soggy shredded sandwiches known as the ‘Sloppy Joe – becoming important customers. But it closed down in the 1960s after a fire gutted the interiors and stood board up for some 50 years.
Thankfully the white stone, neoclassical façade survived the blaze. And there has been an attempt to keep the bar’s ambiance and decoration as close to its 1920s and 1930s heyday, with a long mahogany bar installed down one side. High tables and stools are positioned around pillars with countless signed pictures of those that have visited (the likes of Frank Sinatra, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemmingway – who seemed to drink in every bar in Havana – visited).
In truth though, the place doesn’t feel that authentic and it seems like the restoration team tried just that little bit too hard (I felt like I was walking into a polished theme bar straight out of a new build hotel in Dubai). The glass cabinets around the edge are filled will expensive cigars and rums for visitors to buy. And I found the service far from sloppy, but slick and efficient.
But I wanted to see how money from tourism was having a real impact of the lives of those that count Habana Vieux as their home, so I went on a “conversation and social projects” tour with one of the City Historian’s official guides.
From our two hour walk around the district, it’s clear that the office acts as much more than a body that protects and restores buildings. The body selects crumbling structures that it deems are important and provides the manpower and materials for the work to be done, even if they are in private hands. For homeowners in Habana Vieux being told their home is to be restored is like winning the lottery.
Residents are offered temporary accommodation while work is undertaken (I saw one such development, with plastic modular units, where some people are living until their home is ready again). And if homes come tumbling down (which seems often in Havana, where visitors are told to avoid the pavement in certain places) the City Historian’s office can step in and find alternative lodgings for the displaced family. In exchange, the body can negotiate ownership for the vacated land and – if the building is beyond repair – may then decide to build new homes.
The City Historian’s office is also an influential provider of day care centres for elderly people. I visited for example an 18th century former convent which until a few years ago was a ruin. Following restoration, it now welcomes hundreds of elderly people who, for a nominal fee, enjoy a lunchtime meal, plus numerous activities through the day, such as craftwork and drama classes. Workshops are often run in partnership with primary school children.
What impressed me about the work going on Havana is the City Historian’s office does not want to create a giant museum that only tourists and the wealthy can afford to enjoy. Habana Vieux is a living district, with ordinary people living in the renovated areas. In other places in the world, the apartments in Habana Vieux (where I visited the micro-brewery) would be rented out or sold for extortionate sums.
The Revolution had a terrible impact on buildings in Habana Vieux leaving many in a terrible state of repair, as I found when I first entered this district. Some were knocked down, to be replaced with brutal, Soviet-style structures that are a blot on the landscape. But it’s great to see that parts of the old city are being preserved – albeit one block or street at a time – with historic institutions re-instated. And projects are also helping improve the lives of people living in Havana.
On Monday: I find out about the pleasures American tourists enjoyed in Batista’s corrupt 1950s Cuba.