Life Spills Out into the Streets of Centro Havana
The friendly baker next door shouts ¡Hola, amigos! as we leave our apartment each day. Four weeks into our stay in Centro Havana, we feel like we’re part of the neighbourhood. The warmth and hospitality of the Cuban people make us feel at home.
"If you want to know what Havana is like, walk Havana, Centro Havana, the real Havana, you have to walk," say the lyrics to the famous Cuban song, El Solar de California. And indeed, life spills out into the open of this intensely populated area, creating a veritable kaleidoscope of daily life.
Entering the crowded street we sidestep groups of school children and jump out of the way at the tinkle of a bike taxi, hugging the narrow strip of broken cement that passes for a sidewalk. Neighbours chat in doorways while small children play games in the street and chess players hone their game at improvised tables. Chess is deeply ingrained in the Cuban identity.
An eclectic smattering of goods are sold from stoops and steps. Flower sellers abound and their colourful displays look as if they’ve just tumbled out of a Van Gogh painting and sweeten the odours of the street. Young men and women emerge from a plethora of barbershops and beauty salons sporting the latest styles.
Before 2010, much of this kind of entrepreneurship would have been unthinkable. But, in a surprising move, the communist Cuban government privatized 200 occupations that year; from lighter repairman to hair stylist. Many jumped at the opportunity and small businesses sprung up in homes and on the streets.
Habaneros, as the residents of Havana are called, believe coffee is the best way to start the day on the right foot. And now they can purchase tiny cups of expresso for about 10 cents from small bars or through the windows of home coffee shops. They can also visit hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve hearty meals of rice, beans, pork, chicken and soup of the day.
One long established Cuban business, however, is that of frozen treats. Long lines form at ice cream shops where a single scoop cone costs a quarter. Fidel Castro was an ice cream fanatic; he was obsessed with dairy production and kept his own cow—Ubre Blanca or white udder—known for her prodigious milk production and luxurious lifestyle. He also insisted that all Cubans have access to this frozen treat and founded Coppelia, a chain of Cuban ice cream parlours. Its Havana location seats 1,000 people and may be the largest such parlour in the world.
But not all of our Cuban street encounters are so sweet. Early in our stay we begin to notice white headless chickens lying in the street. How did they get there we wonder? Then we spot a pig's head, alone and in the roadway. Curious, I ask my instructor at the language school and she explains it’s connected with Santeria, a religion slaves brought with them from Africa in the 17th century. Since then, some aspects of the religion have fused with Catholic practices.
While strolling the streets we often came across people dressed entirely in white, initiates of Santeria, who are required to dress totally in white for a year.
“Tomates, pepinas, luchaga,” shout street merchants selling tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce as they push carts over uneven cobblestones. Other residents, seemingly averse to climbing stairs, stand in the middle of the thoroughfares shouting to friends and family on upper floors. Dogs delight in adding their barks to these conversations. Salsa, rumba and reggaeton spill from doorways adding to the cacophony.
What's seldom heard is the sound of cars. Vehicle ownership is out of reach for almost all Cubans—only forty-two per thousand people own one in Cuba compared to six hundred and eighty-five per thousand in Canada. The sound of construction is even rarer.
Built in the late 19th century to alleviate overcrowding in Habana Vieja, many Centro Havana buildings have fallen into hopeless disrepair and architectural gems have crumbled. Others are now solares, overcrowded former colonial mansions that have been divided and re-divided to accommodate more and more people.
In spite of numerous ad hoc changes, elegant marble staircases, tiled mosaics, enormous entryways, wrought iron grill work, Moorish archways and pieces of stained-glass windows remain, providing a glimpse of better days.
The limited privatization of some businesses, not coincidentally, coincided with the lay-off of 500,000 workers, something previously unthinkable in a socialist country where everyone was ensured government employment. Some workers never recovered. This, combined with the dissolution of the Soviet Union the loss of Venezuelan support and the continuing US embargo, has left few resources for building repair over the years.
The Cuban government's aversion to democracy, or any ideological change for that matter, continues to exacerbate the situation.
Buildings here collapse on a near daily basis, endangering inhabitants and passersby. During our first week in Centro Havana, three little girls died when a wall collapsed on them. We cautiously avoid overhangs and balconies whenever possible.
What’s never crumbled is the community’s spirit of solidarity. Despite buildings collapsing around them, the people of Centro Havana greet their neighbours like family, exchanging a kiss and hug when they meet, and welcome visitors with a warm greetings of, Bienvenidos a Habana!
The national ethos of resolver or we'll work it out is deeply embedded in the Cuban way of life and perhaps there’s no better place to see that than on the streets of Centro Havana.