Jewel of Havana re-emerging after decades of decay

October 28, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

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.

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