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Sep 2002 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

New Urbanist ... Cuba?
By Jason Toon

Picture a city where working-class apartments and corner stores sit cheek-by-jowl with tourist attractions and upscale hotels. Imagine a city whose inhabitants spend more time hanging out on the street than sitting in their living rooms. Envision a city where the average person can walk to all of the public amenities they need in a given day — in short, a place that meets the fondest desires of your average New Urbanist.

Believe it or not, you've just imagined Havana, Cuba. Here's a secret that Jesse Helms would rather you didn't hear: the capital of the Communist thorn in our side actually has a vital and active street culture that puts American cities to shame. Most impressively, Havana is not troubled by the problems of explosive growth that other Latin American cities struggle with: no armies of begging children, no miles of shantytowns, no carjackings. Most of the police don't even carry guns.

the Prado An evening on the Prado provides a perfect snapshot of Havana street life. This boulevard was built in 1852 to resemble a Roman or Parisian street, with a wide center lined with stone benches, terrazzo floors, and ornate streetlamps. Ever since, it's been the collective "living room" for all of Central Havana. There are people on the Prado at all hours, but in the early evening things really get going. Kids in school uniforms chase each other around; young couples make out, oblivious to the world; men stand in groups and argue about baseball. Street musicians and street athletes practice their crafts, whether with drums or skateboards.

A similar scene prevails on the Malecón, which runs along the bay a few blocks away. Here, kids in underpants dive into the crashing surf while their parents fish or just hang out. Linger a moment and you'll get drawn in yourself. Habaneros love to talk, especially, it seems, to foreigners. True, as a tourist, you'll be a target for hustlers selling bootleg cigars or people just asking if you have any used clothes to give away. But even these exchanges are always genial, and a simple "no" will suffice to end them.

Physically, Central Havana remains on the distinctly human scale at which it was built. Much of the gorgeous neo-colonial architecture of Havana is crumbling, but efforts are well underway to restore the entire area, with an explicit emphasis on preservation. It's obvious which buildings have been renovated: their bright pastel-colored facades and white columns positively glow alongside their gray, weather-beaten neighbors. Amazingly, the inhabitants of apartment buildings generally return to the same apartments after their restoration, at the same rent.

So what's the secret? A combination of perversely good luck and presciently good policy. During the 1960s and 1970s, while most other Latin American countries were destroying the older parts of their cities and replacing them with concrete high-rises, Cuba simply lacked the money to do so. Or, more precisely, the Cuban government directed available funding to improve rural areas rather than engage in the then-trendy "urban renewal."

This emphasis had two very positive results for the city of Havana. First, it enabled Havana's old buildings to survive into the 1980s and 1990s, when urban planning circles found a renewed respect for cultural heritage. By then, preservation of colonial architecture had become an explicit priority in Havana's urban policy. Second, it prevented large numbers of rural people from flocking to the city to find work. This dynamic has been disastrous for places like Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, surrounding those cities with miles of ramshackle shantytowns. (More recently, the Cuban government has specifically prohibited citizens from moving to Havana from the countryside.)

Havana architecture Of course, much of Havana's success in preserving the urban fabric may not be repeatable here without drastic changes in the American political climate. Cuba is a command economy, and Havana real estate is not a competitive market. Every Cuban's rent is capped at 10% of their income, period. (Here in the U.S., I pay about 30% of my income for my apartment.) This completely prevents the process of gentrification; even touristy Old Havana has more than its share of working-class residents. The allocation of public amenities — stores, restaurants, medical facilities, etc. — is also planned by the government, not driven by the market. The city life of Havana is simply not a commodity.

Obviously, this sort of thing isn't going to fly here anytime soon. America, we are constantly reminded by The People Who Run Things, is a free market, land-rush, cash-in-quick society. Private property is sacred, everything is for sale, and if you get priced out of your apartment or have to take two buses to buy your groceries, that's your tough luck.

But there is some middle ground here. If they have the will to do it, American city authorities can take measures to curb the worst effects of the free market on urban development while encouraging the best effects. It wouldn't take a revolution — just a city government that did its job.

For one thing, meaningful rent control measures must be explored, even in seemingly loose markets like St. Louis. We have a real interest in maintaining continuity in neighborhoods, and safeguards should be in place now, before gentrification goes any further.

Also, the city government should be in business as a developer itself, and find workable solutions based on what city residents want and need. Every time we're faced with a choice between a K-Mart and a vacant lot, the city is not doing its job of serving the citizens. It's abdicating its natural role to the whims of suburban developers who do not give a damn about city residents. The city government needs to be an active coordinator of citizen-approved efforts, not a pitchman for unpopular, unproductive, suburban-style schemes.

Finally, the same city government that pampers the upper strata of the business community is strangling business at the grassroots. In the recent flap over Bosnian nightclubs on Morganford Rd., Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th) seemed to take the attitude that if a certain small-business proposal could conceivably cause problems at some future time, better to simply kill it than to give it a chance and work on the problems. Meanwhile, storefronts collect dust and sidewalks are empty. This apathy and timidity (not to mention, at times, outright corruption) on the part of our elected officials is a problem we all pay for.

Havana is a wonderful city, and its vibrant urban environment shows St. Louisans that there are some values that should be beyond notions of profitability. It may very well be more profitable to erect a big tin box rather than restore an old brick storefront, but "profitability" has always been the primary criterion for new city development, and look where it's gotten us. The city government is the only agent who can effectively insist that other values be placed at the top of the balance sheet.

Jason Toon is a freelance writer, rock musician, South St. Louis native, and proud graduate of the city public schools.

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