UNDER THE HAVANA MOON
Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S.
cities through market urbanism. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.
taking my trip to Havana, one thing that I was curious about
was how a half-century of Communism had affected the built fabric.
While there are obvious disadvantages to economic stagnation,
I figured that it would have at least created a charming-looking
city. There are, after all, a handful of U.S. cities, and numerous
European ones, that have resisted growth, modernization, and
the automobile, only to remain quaint and historic. But it didn’t
take even a 10-minute cab ride from the airport to realize that
my assumption about Havana had been naïve -- even if it
is still held by many of the city’s blissfully uncurious
fact, very little about Havana has been preserved. Instead,
everything in the city is merely old, and because little gets
produced, nothing is replaced. This applies to the automobiles,
furniture, hand tools, manufacturing equipment -- and most certainly
the buildings. Collectively, this stagnation has destroyed the
look of the city, with a physical blight that stretches nearly
every block from downtown to the outer slums.
I could define in one statement what Havana looks like, after
four days of extensively biking and walking through, I’d
call it the Latin American Detroit. It was a once-great city
that declined because of bad policies, and its pervasive ruination
serves as a constant reminder of this. The houses themselves,
while large and ornate, are almost uniformly inadequate by U.S.
standards. If they have not crumbled to the ground altogether,
many are caving in. The foundations are crooked, full of holes,
and marred by broken windows and doors. Because of Havana’s
European roots, stucco is a common material, but on most buildings
is falling off, or in some cases has disappeared. Almost every
building has dirt and grime, while some are covered in it.
this holds true for Havana’s nice parts. Once I began
biking out of the central neighbourhoods and into the slums,
I found that symbols of past wealth disappeared altogether,
and were replaced with what in the U.S. would be considered
shacks. These structures were usually patched up with knotted
wood, metal scraps and thatching. One gentlemen who lived in
the poor neighbourhood of Cerro, and who I spoke with at length,
described his area as akin to a Brazilian favela -- which I
what is it like to live and work in these buildings? As one
might expect, the outside decay permeates to the inside. The
best access I got was through a 24-year-old working-class woman
named Indira. I met Indira on my first night in Havana when
stopping to ask directions, and after noticing that she spoke
good English, took her to dinner. We became friends, and she
invited me into her downtown apartment, where she lived with
her mother and father-in-law. The apartment was roughly 150
square feet -- far smaller than a typical New York City micro-unit.
Because it had a high ceiling, the family had built a horizontal
wooden floorboard halfway up the wall that served as the second
floor, and added a makeshift staircase leading up. This upstairs
room was for the mother and father-in-law, while Indira lived
in the main room below, sleeping crammed against the kitchen.
in such a small space, there were numerous malfunctions. There
was no hot water, either for cooking or showering. In fact,
the shower did not even work, meaning that the family instead
took scrub baths. Because the toilet didn’t flush, they
had to pour water into it each time after use to accelerate
the draining. The built-in wooden floorboard was clearly sagging
under the weight of the upstairs furniture, raising concerns
that it would one day collapse. As for the actual roof -- it
had been crumbling for years, and was fixed recently by a neighbourhood
handyman. To pay for the work, the family had to spend over
a year saving up $150.
as peoples’ private houses were crumbling, so too was
the public infrastructure -- again, much like Detroit. The public
spaces, while well-used, were typically full of trash, overgrown
weeds, and broken objects. Many parks, for example, were defined
more by concrete than grassland. Streets, if they were even
completely paved, were filled with potholes and had such poor
drainage that, after it rained, they would gather into huge
able in my short time there to analyze the underground infrastructure.
But if it is like everything else in Havana, I would assume
that it, too, is crumbling. For example, contrary to what tourist
brochures say, Havana’s tap water is considered undrinkable
by locals, and I was routinely offered bottled water to avoid
Indeed, the substandard nature of Havana’s built entities
were so common that after awhile I stopped noticing. For example,
when I attended a rainy futbol match at a renowned Havana stadium,
I sat underneath a roof that leaked constantly, getting soaked
alongside other fans. Can anyone imagine this being tolerated
at a U.S. arena? When I used bathrooms even in nice establishments,
I would often find toilet seats were missing, along with door
locks, and (you guessed it) toilet paper. Schoolyards had swimming
pools without water and basketball hoops without rims. And on
This is how life is in Havana. And I soon realized, given this,
how buffoonish it would have been to go around looking for examples
of ‘historic preservation.’ Such preservation is
an aesthetic notion from the First World, driven by those who
are willing to pay more to retrofit attractive old housing.
But in a city of extreme poverty, preservation is the pragmatic
steps people take to prevent their roofs from caving in.
HOW DOES HAVANA COMPARE TO . . . SAN FRANCISCO?
you ever read an article that was so hilariously wrong that
you wanted to pick your laptop up and chuck it across the room?
This was my reaction to one article I read several days after
returning from Havana, with the city’s horrific conditions
still on my mind. On June 8, MarketWatch.com published an article
by columnist Therese Poletti called “New Tech Money Is
Destroying The Streets Of San Francisco.” Poletti explained
that a flood of wealthy executives were moving into San Francisco,
buying old homes and altering the interiors.
is now hard to find a Victorian home for sale that has not been
gutted, its architectural details stripped and tossed. And owners
or developers -- looking to sell at a premium in the frenzied
real estate market to techies with cash -- hope to appeal to
the tastes (or lack thereof) of current buyers, by turning once-charming
homes with detailed woodwork, built-ins and art glass, into
clones of Apple’s minimalist retail stores.
trend has been developing for several years, but it seems far
more prevalent today, with construction sites sprouting across
the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco. And in addition
to the remodeling frenzy, older buildings appear to be disappearing
at a scary pace.
even addressing Poletti’s point, let me just set the record
straight: San Francisco is not being destroyed. I can testify
from having lived there in 2012, and visiting several times
more, that the city is an architectural gem that has largely
stayed in character since being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake.
Much of the city --including almost the entire northeast portion
-- is an oasis of historic Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman
and Art Deco construction. These buildings roll along the hills
flanked by clean, well-paved streets and small, impeccably-landscaped
yards. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, San Francisco surpasses
any other major U.S. city, and perhaps any European one.
reason for this is two-fold. San Francisco has expansive historic
preservation laws that make it difficult or illegal to alter
thousands of structures. Compelling arguments have been made
that the city takes this preservationist impulse too far, to
the detriment of adding new housing supply -- although such
laws help maintain its unique character. But the other factor
-- to which Poletti seems oblivious -- is that the city has
a large professional class with the financial wherewithal to
maintain these homes.
argue that this second factor, more than the first, has preserved
San Francisco. You could put a historic overlay designation
across Detroit, and it wouldn’t change much. The Motor
City suffers from decay because it has undergone six decades
of depopulation, and this has left no one around to preserve
its own large historic stock. But the Bay Area has been flooded
with capital during this period, and this has strengthened its
culture of preservation. Maintaining a historic home, after
all, can be an expensive endeavor that requires ripping out
floorboards, replacing pipes and other structural changes. It
is usually done by educated, well-off households who have either
the money to fund repairs, or the time to dedicate sweat equity.
Perhaps not every family its their homes precisely to Poletti’s
specifications since it is difficult to live in a floor plan
that was laid out a century ago. But she should not miss the
broader point, which is that San Francisco has remained as it
is because of the demographic it attracts.
she claims that these groups are destroying the city. She is
thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic
preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth
and gentrification work against preservation. But a fair-minded
look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks
at America’s most notable historic neighbourhoods -- the
Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in
New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan
and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston
-- a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth.
Meanwhile, there are numerous cities -- Baltimore, Philadelphia,
Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland -- that have a similar number
of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because
same could be said when comparing Havana with Poletti’s
San Francisco. Both cities have similar architecture and planning,
but their differing economic histories have led to opposite
preservationist destinies. Wealthy and growing San Francisco
is a city where thousands of structures remain in superb shape,
and where people grieve over minor alterations. Havana’s
system has produced a crumbling city where the desire for preservation
gets lost in a sea of basic needs. If Poletti really wants to
see a destroyed city, she should visit the latter.