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/ARTS WEEKLY/CUBA: Restoring Old Havana – With a Social Twist

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Dec 1 2005 (IPS) - Colonial era houses converted into hostels, pharmacies that double as museums, concerts in colonial era courtyards, taverns and coffee shops: all of these have sprung up from the ruins of the historic city centre in the Cuban capital.

But remodelled buildings popping up at every turn in Old Havana, surprising even local residents themselves, are only the most visible facet of a project that goes far beyond restoration work to rescue Cuba’s historical heritage while preserving the social and cultural environment.

Unlike what has occurred in many older cities around the world, the programme to develop Havana’s historic centre is aimed at restoring the buildings while keeping in mind the people who live in the area.

“We have decided in favour of a living historic centre,” architect Patricia Rodríguez, director of the Master Plan for Revitalising the Historic Centre at the City of Havana Historians’ Office, explained to IPS.

A maternity home, more than 10 refurbished schools, and a rehabilitation centre for children with degenerative diseases of the central nervous system are among the social projects initiated and supported by the institution in the last few years.

“They came to fetch me on Sep. 19, 2002, in the middle of tropical storm Isidore. My son lives outside Cuba and I was living on my own,” Ida Baeza, 77, told IPS. Since that day she has lived in the first sheltered residence to be opened in Old Havana.

A dozen people are living in the sheltered apartments, built with international cooperation. They have TV sets, refrigerators, stoves and an on-site medical clinic, and are provided with laundry and cleaning services, meals and personal care

Baeza must follow the residence’s rules, but otherwise she maintains her independence. She receives her nurse’s pension, buys State-subsidised food, and is free to decorate her apartment with the paraphernalia of the Afro-Cuban religion she professes.

Optional activities include relaxation exercises, exercise classes, board games, cognitive rehabilitation, films, crafts workshops, and “love among the elderly” lectures.

“The residence is open to the community. About 50 people from the neighbourhood Grandparents’ Group come here to work out. The medical clinic treats the people who live in the neighbourhood, and we hold video shows for children in the area,” Esther Ruiz, the administrator of the residence, remarked to IPS.

A similar home is planned with the aim of continuing to build on this experience, seeking to meet the needs of older people who are economically and socially vulnerable.

Providing assistance to more than 16,100 elderly people living in the historic centre is only one of the aims of the humanitarian affairs officials at the City of Havana Historian’s Office, located on the site of the old Belén Convent.

Hundreds of people visit the Convent every week. Some, like Lourdes Scull and Gilberto Jorrín, come to the morning exercise sessions and stay on for the weaving, art or singing workshops. Others come looking for help.

The office received 2,605 requests for help from the population at large last year, and distributed 1,154 free medicines and 13,101 other articles, also free of charge. These included 129 special carriages for disabled children, wheelchairs and home appliances.

Belén Convent, an 18th century building which is still in the process of being restored, will soon add to its present functions a home for 50 elderly people, physiotherapy and opthalmological services, as well as a hotel.

According to the 2001 Population and Housing Census results from the historic centre, more than 66,750 people lived in 21,005 dwellings in an area of 2.1 square km. Furthermore, 16.5 percent of the population were then aged 60 or older.

The ageing of the population is identified as one of the greatest challenges facing Cuba. Fifteen percent of this Caribbean island nation’s 11.2 million people are elderly now, and that proportion is projected to reach 25 percent in 2025.

“Plans for a sustainable city must take into account the society it houses. It has to be a place where economic aspects, culture and the housing inventory all coincide,” commented Rodríguez.

With 21 years’ experience working as an architect in Old Havana, Rodríguez recollects that the current management model arose as a “creative response” to the Cuban crisis in the early 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc which had been its principal trade partners.

Faced with the risk of loss of continuity of a process begun in 1981 with public funds, the Council of State awarded the Historian’s Office special prerogatives so that management of the historic centre could be self-financed.

More than 11,000 jobs were created in Old Havana over ten years, and the Office made over 160 million dollars in profits through tourism, services and tax income.

“The State contributed 341 million pesos (in Cuban currency officially valued at parity with the dollar), over 60 million pesos were raised as bank loans, and about 14 million dollars were provided in international cooperation,” explained Rodríguez.

Forty-five percent of the total revenues was spent on productive projects and real estate, 30 percent on social programmes, and the remainder went to State reserves or remodelling efforts in other areas of the city. “Today, one-third of the area has been restored or is actively in process,” she stated.

Housing is the most serious problem facing Old Havana today, as is recognised by authorities, specialists, and residents who are the most affected by the deteriorated state of the old buildings.

“When it rains, I’m always afraid that the building is going to collapse around my ears,” Alba Osorio, a resident of the historic centre, told IPS.

One proposal, based on a study of all available sites in the area, recommends building 2,000 homes between 2006 and 2012.

>From 1994 to 2002 the Historian’s Office carried out work on 3,092 dwellings, including renovation, conservation and new construction.

Even so, more than 45 percent of dwellings covered by the 2001 Census were deemed unfit for habitation, and half of them were tenements or “ciudadelas”, the Cuban term for old buildings where several families live in one house and share common areas, including the bathroom.

According to Rodríguez, “‘ciudadelas’ indicate structural social problems, health problems and overcrowding.” Without housing for relocation, no progress can be made on plans to rehabilitate the area, including increasing the number of square metres of living space per person, she remarked.

In the meantime, an emergency programme to restore structural stability in the endangered buildings is under way. In the opinion of the Master Plan’s director, in such cases, “to preserve the building is to preserve life itself.”

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