Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis

Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis

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One of the oldest and most celebrated cities in the Western Hemisphere, Havana is a fascinating metropolis where history has left its handprint on every corner. Here, an international trio of well-known architects and planners assesses nearly five hundred years of development in the Cuban capital. They offer an insightful introduction to Havana's historic architecture and modern buildings, its social and economic fabric, its diverse people, and its contemporary challenges and opportunities.

From the colonial and early republican periods, through the 1959 revolution, and into the post-Soviet era and today, the authors trace Havana's physical evolution and place it in the context of important political, economic, and cultural developments. This new edition—which has been completely revised, redesigned, and updated since the book's original publication in 1997—also highlights recent restoration efforts in Old Havana, commercial development projects throughout the city, and the wide-ranging effects of international tourism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469620640
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Joseph L. Scarpaci is Emeritus Professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, and serves as Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture + Economy, also in Blacksburg.
Roberto Segre (1934-2013) was professor of architecture and urbanism at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Mario Coyula (1935-2014) was an architect and planner in Havana, Cuba.

Read an Excerpt


Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis
By Joseph L. Scarpaci

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 Joseph L. Scarpaci
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0807853690

Chapter One

History, Geography, and Society

Yet it was something else to stroll through the city. Behind those formidable and sad walls was a world of color and gaiety. A kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of races and ethnic shades of historical stages. In brief, there lay the riches and misery of the capital's face, where foreigners could find what they had left behind in their countries, plus the entertainment and universal vices that characterized Havana's infamous lifestyle. - Julio Le Riverend, La Habana: Biografia de una provincia, 1961

San Cristobal de la Habana is a beautiful world city where history's hand has left a mark on every corner. For nearly half a millennium, its built environment has shown capitalist grandeur and plunder, as well as the mediating successes and failures of socialist planning. Havana is unique in many ways, and this book explores those defining features.

The city defies most of the conventional schemata that classify cities by their shape or skylines. Urban geographers and literary scholars (Cabrera Infante 1991, 300-301), for instance, are intrigued by its polycentric structure. Its lack of a discernible center, central business district, or some semblance of a core is noteworthy, as are the many changes in the location of the center over time. Habaneros lack a consensus about where el centro might be; references to it form part of the daily parlance among commuters, cyclists, and bus riders. More perplexing is that while the debate over defining Havana's central region is relatively new in the city's historical geography-arising only this century-the wandering of the city's former centers has left vestiges of an urban landscape. What the built environment reflects is rich in architectural and social history, making it inviting even for a novice to "read" the built environment as if it were text (Segre, Cardenas, and Aruca 1981). Havana was on its way to developing a skyline of steel-and-glass towers, but that process ended abruptly. Understanding why that is so speaks volumes about the history of both Havana and Cuba (Segre and Baroni 1998).

The discourse about Havana, like Cuba in general, is often emotionally and intellectually charged, depending on the "lenses" one uses to interpret the city. Marxist students of the city, for instance, claim that public spaces had become "decommodified" under socialist rule; that is, Havana was isolated from market forces that produce nonessential consumer goods and prestigious private shops, restaurants, and clubs. That characterization was accurate from the early 1960s until the 1990s. In response to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, however, the Cuban government legalized the circulation of the U.S. currency and limited private markets. This new direction of economic development is called the "Special Period in a Time of Peace" (or simply "Special Period") and is changing the face of Havana significantly. Despite the reintroduction of a market economy, many architects and urban designers consider Havana to be a city of eclectic and decentralized neighborhoods that are joined by roads, public services, and urban culture. Regardless of the perspective, San Cristobal de la Habana is undeniably a modern, world-class city. Its cultural landscapes, art, theaters, universities, public institutions, and Afro-European roots distinguish it from the world cities of Europe, Latin America, and North America. The urban historical geography of Havana invites the reader to experience the delights and intrigues of its spaces, buildings, natural settings, and the transformation of its social content.

The aims of this chapter are modest considering the arduous task implied by its title: to identify the forces behind nearly five hundred years of urbanization in Havana (Carley and Brizzi 1997). Accordingly, the approach is broad, selecting key points in history and urban geography to anchor the chapters that follow. The chapter begins with a survey of pre-Columbian Cuba and the level of material culture that Columbus may have seen in 1492. The settlement of Havana over the next three centuries follows, calling attention to significant historical events that tied Havana to the Spanish colonial economy.

A central argument is that Havana served first as a transfer point for wealth coming from other Spanish colonies and subsequently from the rest of the island. Generating little wealth of its own, the island did not develop a formidable resource base until the sugar boom of the nineteenth century. Although Havana has always had a large service economy (today it has just one sugar mill), it benefited from the wealth generated by sugar barons throughout the island (Marrero 1975a, 1975b).

In the latter half of the chapter, attention turns to the spread of the city. Havana's fortifications included a vast network of forts, castles, and watchtowers (Segre 1968a). Ultimately, a wall was erected between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only to be torn down in the mid-nineteenth century. The rise and fall of the walled city marked both Havana's urban growth and its political challenge to Spain about serving as its American warehouse. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Havana no longer grew at a leisurely pace that could be contained in the colonial core. The city spilled over the crumbling walls and pushed west and south. A service economy tied to agriculture, not industry, filled Havana's coffers and enabled an ambitious governor, Miguel Tacon, to lay out a template of public buildings and a street plan that ushered Havana's urbanization into the present century. Last, the chapter offers a glimpse of twentieth-century Havana, enticing readers to pursue those themes more fully in the chapters ahead. In brief, the urban historical geography of Havana identifies the nuanced transitions of a city originally designed and ruled by the Spanish, modernized by the United States, and, ultimately, governed by a centrally planned Cuban government. We begin with the physical backdrop and the dawn of European conquest.

The Physical Context

Cuba is the largest island (114,524 square kilometers) in the Antilles archipelago. It is three times as large as Hispaniola, nine times larger than Jamaica, and twelve times the size of Puerto Rico. Straddled to the north by the Florida Straits, to the south by the Caribbean Sea, to the east by the Windward Passage, and to the west by the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba's main island is complemented by more than 1,600 small islands and keys. Cuba spans 1,250 kilometers from east to west at its maximum and has median width of roughly 100 kilometers.

More than half of the island's topography is plain; the rest is in mountains and hills. Cuba, like the 2,400-kilometer stretch of the Greater Antilles, is linked tectonically with the eastern flank of the Yucatan Peninsula. Mountain-building processes from the Cretaceous period were associated with the plate tectonic movements of North and South America and produced Cuba's mountains. Eastern Cuba is both the most rugged area of Cuba and the oldest core region in the Caribbean. Its deeply folded and dissected Sierra Maestra range is in the southeastern corner of the island. West of the city of Santiago de Cuba is the highest elevation of the island, Turquino Peak, at 2,005 meters (6,570 feet). Other orographic features include the Escambray Mountains in south central Cuba, near the colonial city of Trinidad. Another range, the Sierra de los Organos in the western part of the island, can be seen from western points of the province of Havana and on a clear day from Havana city when arriving by airplane.

Western Cuba and the areas surrounding Havana are composed mostly of Cretaceous limestone that has produced a karstic topography of caves, caverns, underground streams, and resistant surface remnants known technically as monondocks (called mogotes locally). Despite more than two hundred bays and 5,746 kilometers of coastline along the main island, the bays of Havana, Matanzas, Mariel, Nuevitas, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and Nipe are the only major deepwater ports. The preponderance of the island's limestone base makes for acidic soils that, coupled with heavy precipitation, can lead to the leaching of valuable soil minerals and nutrients. In addition, Cuba is well endowed with extensive nickel reserves, discovered in the twentieth century. Nickel ranks as Cuba's fourth or fifth export, depending on prevailing market conditions. Copper, iron, cobalt, and manganese are also found, but in smaller quantities. Although in 1993 a record of 1.1 million tons of oil were extracted in Cuba-some twenty-two times larger than production levels of the late 1950s-the island only satisfies about 10 percent of its consumption demands (Portela 1994, 6; Rivero 1994, 7).

Located just within the northern limit of the Tropic of Cancer, Cuba exhibits a classical wet-dry tropical climate. Average monthly temperatures always exceed 18C (72ºF), with heavy summer rains produced from convection. The maximum temperature ever registered officially in Havana by the National Observatory was 35.8ºC in May 1923, though there was an unofficial reading of 42ºC in Sagua de Tanamo in 1927. The minimum temperatures for Havana hover around 10ºC in the winter months, though Rancho Boyeros in southern Havana registered 0ºC (32ºF) during a cold wave in 1939. A long dry period ensues in the winter months, and a short dry season prevails in the summer. These pronounced wet-dry periods produce a savanna landscape with distinct drought-resistant (xerophylic) species (Marrero 1981b, 70-73).

Havana receives an average of 45 inches of rain per year, with pronounced convectional downpours in the warmer months (May-October) and dry weather between December and April. Havana's location (23ºN, 82ºW) on the Straits of Florida exposes it to the prevailing northeast trade winds. Havana's average monthly temperatures range from 27ºC (81ºF) in July and August to 22ºC (71ºF) in January and February, with an annual average of 24.5ºC (76ºF) (Wernstedt 1961, 33).

The coastal plain surrounding Havana yields to rolling hills as one moves inland. Enhanced with large water supplies, the city of Havana is drained by two principal rivers: the Almendares, between Vedado and Miramar municipalities on the north shore, and the Luyano, draining much of the southeastern corner of the city before emptying into Havana Bay. Numerous freshwater reservoirs (embalses) provide the city with most of its water. New wells are sought in a large aquifer, El Gato, lying outside the city proper. Other minor water resources provide Havana and the rest of the island with only limited hydroelectric energy.

Because Cuba is a long and narrow island with rapid precipitation runoff, its water resources are threatened by saltwater intrusion. Of the hundreds of catchments for fresh water, only about 15 percent are larger than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles). As a result, one of Cuba's gravest environmental concerns is the provision of fresh water for cities, industry, and farms. Noncyclical periods of drought brought devastating consequences to cities and agriculture in 1964-66, 1970-71, 1973-76, and 1986-87. Cuba's extensive underground water resources, however, compensate for rapid runoff and supplied 6.5 billion cubic meters (1.7 trillion gallons) in 1994. Underground water lies in basins that require pumps and costly fossil fuels for its distribution. Overuse of these underground sources aggravates saltwater contamination.

The island's total water resources appear to be underutilized because of the relatively high energy costs in pumping the water. Perhaps half of Cuba's water may be polluted, although the industrial slowdown of the 1990s may have limited pollution sources (Diaz-Briquets and Perez-Lopez 2000). The gravest environmental threat to the drinking water in Havana comes from the saltwater intrusion in the South Havana Aquifer, the city's main source of drinking water. Estimates are that the water table has fallen about 30 percent, and seawater has invaded some well fields ("Cuba's Water Resources" 1995). As if these problems were not sufficiently daunting, an estimated 55 percent of the water pumped through Havana is lost through leakage (Perez and Fernandez 1996). We discuss water problems more fully in Chapters 5 and 10.

Geologists describe the northernmost shores of Cuba, including those around Havana, as a region that is in a "process of emergence." This means that between Mariel Harbor, 30 kilometers west of Havana, to Matanzas Harbor, some 100 kilometers east, a gradual rising of the landmass has contributed to small, sandy beaches. Differential erosion produced from the rise and fall of water levels during the last ice ages has carved out a moderately scarped coastline, characterized by marine erosion that leaves rock outcrops and fine-sand beaches. For centuries, these rocks have provided the city's builders with ample limestone that could be crushed and used for mamposteria, a building block made of compacted rubble. Quarries operated at many of these sites until as recently as the early twentieth century (fig. 1.2), and the remnants of one are still visible at the base of the Hotel Nacional and the Malecon (Havana's oceanfront promenade) in the Vedado section of Havana. A series of well-defined marine terraces from which these outcrops derive is evident along this stretch of shoreline (Marrero 1981a, 59).

The marine terraces produced by the sea's recent rising and falling have shaped the layout and settlement of Havana. A series of capes and escarpments-still quite visible despite landscape modification-characterizes the main settlements, neighborhoods, and roads of contemporary Havana (Tingle and Montenegro 1923). Old Havana (Habana Vieja) sits on a cape on the western side of the bay. The cape is a structural remnant of a marine terrace. In Vedado, one can easily walk inland (e.g., south) from the oceanfront along the Malecon-preferably along Paseo Avenue or Presidentes Avenue because of their gardened pedestrian medians-and encounter a series of these gentle platforms. Linea Street, about five blocks from the Malecon, marks the first separation between the coastal level and the first prominent escarpment. Seven blocks farther along, one arrives at Twenty-third Street, which marks the beginning of yet another marine terrace (fig. 1.3). In fact, the entire city's irregular grid twists and turns to accommodate the marine terraces, resistant outcrops, and low-lying areas prone to flooding and occupied by swamps. Old Havana's oval shape stems from the curvature of the bay and the construction of roads running parallel to the shore. Although the "grid" of the old city resembles the perpendicular principles of modern street design, the curvilinear imprint imposed by the waterfront has endured nearly five hundred years of urbanization (fig. 1.4).



Excerpted from Havana by Joseph L. Scarpaci Copyright © 2002 by Joseph L. Scarpaci.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Andres M. Duany
1. History, Geography, and Society
2. The First Half Century: The Rise of an Antillean Metropolis
3. The Havana of January
4. Socialist Havana: Planning, Dreams, and Reality
5. City Government and Administration: Old and New Actors
6. The Hope and Reality of Socialist Housing
7. The Changing Nature of the Economy
8. The Value of Social Functions
9. Habana Vieja: Pearl of the Caribbean
10. Havana's Future: Risks and Opportunities

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Perhaps no three scholars are better qualified to describe and explain the reality of Havana to social scientists interested in urbanity than the authors of this extraordinary book. . . . Such fruitful collaboration between Cuban and American scholars is rare, and in this case the results are rich.—Review of Radical Political Economics

An authoritative urban history that covers its development through colonial, republican, and revolutionary periods. . . . This important book is especially relevant in light of anticipated changes that may come to pass in the post-Castro period.—Colonial Latin American Historical Review

Studded with fascinating photos from the authors' personal collections. . . . A welcome addition to the literature of both international urban studies and the regional geography of the Caribbean Basin. Recommended as highly as possible for Latin America, architecture, planning, and urban studies collections. All levels.—Choice

A rich resource on a wide range of issues associated with the nearly 500 years of growth and transformation of Havana. It is a seminal work that belongs on any Cubanologist's bookshelf, and an essential text for anyone reading to prepare for a trip to the island. . . . It is also an important work for scholars with only a passing interest in the specifics of Havana's built environment, but who also focus on urban history, architectural forms, state socialism, or Cuba's post-Soviet transition.—Environment and Planning A

This book is an extraordinary document, not least because its subject is a truly great city, perhaps the most interesting in the New World.—Andres M. Duany, from the Foreword

The best available reference on the urban development and planning of Havana since its foundation in 1519. . . . What emerges is a complex portrait of Havana's polycentric structure and the processes that have defined it.—Journal of Architectural Education

An exciting portrait of one of Latin America's most important cities, Havana takes us beyond the usual coffee-table-book photos of crumbling eighteenth-century archways, emphasizing instead the private experience of Havana's denizens.—Lingua Franca

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