Centro Habana looks to me something like the atomic blast–shadow of capitalism. Not just because most of the buildings have a bombed-out appearance due to decades of dilapidation, but also because so much of this newer part of the city west of the Prado is a vestige of capitalism’s heyday in Cuba.
A detail that slowly dawns on you after about a day in Havana is that there are no advertisements. There are some understated shop signs, but mostly these are painted on the glass or on the building’s façade or hung from a modest board.
The absence of the trappings of modern commercial culture that we’ve all come to expect has a strange effect. It’s a bit like reading Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic masterpiece La disparition (A Void): About a paragraph in, you sense something unusual is happening, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then after half a page or so it hits you—there are no e’s!
On our first afternoon in Havana, my workshop partners Sue and Linda and I walked back toward the Capitolio Building. The National Capitol was built by President Machado in the late 1920s and was the seat of the government until the Revolution. It is currently being restored to house the Cuban National Assembly.
During our walk, we stumbled upon the Barrio Chino, a small area in Centro Habana that was once home to a sizeable Chinese population. These immigrants, most of them men, started coming in the late 1850s to work as sugarcane cutters, but after the Revolution when their businesses were nationalized they had less incentive to stay. But they left their mark on the neighborhood.
After cutting over several streets and paying a visit to a large but mostly empty mercado (where not a single piece of meat was refrigerated as far as I could see), we strolled through a large indoor feria, where vendors sold everything from jewelry to artwork. The flea market was about to close, and we soon were hustled through to the exit.
Spilling out onto a random backstreet, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of rum-tippling workmen. Sue and Linda managed to slip through them, but the men insisted I stop for a chat. One particularly muscular guy with bleary, bloodshot eyes asked where I was from. “USA,” I told him, using the Spanish pronunciation, and completing uncertain of how my response would be received.
“America!” he shouted, offering his hand. “I love America! The best!” In the coming days, I found this to be a nearly universal response.
Before I knew it, his friend had handed me a shot of rum. (I have a weird talent for being offered booze by strangers in foreign countries.) I found myself firmly entrenched in a conversation with them. In Spanish. A language I don’t actually speak (as evidenced in the video at the end of this post).
“Venezuelan rum,” the fellow bragged.
“Venezuelan?” I said. “Why not Cuban—the best?” I thought I was paying him a compliment.
“Porque soy venezuelano,” he explained.
“¡Ah, perdoname!” I said, clapping him on the back, and all was well.
The party didn’t last long, but I did end up scoring some Internet cards from them for a few CUCs less than the hotel sells them. (I later learned it’s common for locals to hawk them on the street.)
On our bicitaxi tour the next morning (which I mentioned in my post on Habana Vieja), we returned to Centro Habana.
Heading west from the Hotel Telégrafo, we soon stopped in at a local bodega (where Habaneros go to get their state-rationed foodstuff) and a mercado selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
Next, we visited a Santería supplier, where they had a bin full of chicks and a backyard of hungry goats—all of them raised for ritual sacrifice.
On our free morning the following Sunday, I took the opportunity to return to Centro Habana to conduct some critical research for my novel The Crimes of Paris. I have a number of scenes set in this part of the city.
At one point, I passed an old theater, the Teatro America, which proved to be a cool respite from the morning heat. In the echoing, high-domed foyer sat a bored attendant. I asked if I could have a look around, and with a yawn he waved me into the auditorium.
While Old Havana has a thin veneer of restoration and revitalization, Centro Habana hasn’t profited as much from the influx of foreigners. You see them in ones and twos, but they are rare birds, and locals live here relatively unmolested by the tourist hordes.
In fact, when you wander around on this far side of the Prado, you will remark the stand-out tourists and you will in turn be remarked by residents, who’ll regard you with a mixture of tentative curiosity and mild annoyance. In the more crowded areas, the taxi drivers will eagerly approach you, along with many residents eyeing an opportunity to get their hands on some CUCs.
Each district in Havana has a Comite de Defensa de la Revolución, a committee of so-called vigilantes, kind of like a neighborhood watch. One of the reasons crime is so low in Havana is that everyone knows their neighbors will report on them if they do wrong.
Back to my novel research: I have my character Casey staying at a casa particular on the Calle Trocadero, a perfectly unremarkable street that runs from the Old Havana side of the Prado to within a couple of blocks of the Malecón.
While I was wandering up and down this street, a man approached and asked me how I was doing. I explained what I was up to, and he was happy to help.
“Are there a lot of casas particulares along here?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “There and there, and several over here.”
“And if you go into these buildings, is there a courtyard?” We had to do a little dance on this one, since I couldn’t remember how to say courtyard in Spanish and he didn’t know it in English. But I managed to remember traspatio, and that seemed to get the idea across well enough. And, yes, they had courtyards.
“Is there a cafeteria nearby?”
“Yes, just up the street and around the corner.”
Other details definitely jarred with my fictional version of the neighborhood, and so revisions were needed. But I left room for a little poetic license.
It seemed to me you probably wouldn’t hear a whole lot of street music at midnight from your window above the Calle Trocadero (as you probably would in Habana Vieja). But since it provides a nice atmospheric touch in the scene where Casey and Elena first make love after his arrival in Havana, I decided it’s not always necessary to submit to the tyranny of realism.
As we shook hands, the man asked my name, and I told him. “I’m George,” he said.
“That’s my son’s name,” I replied with a smile. “But you’re Jorge, no?”
“Yeah, Jorge. George. Same thing … You need a car?”
“As a matter of fact, George, I do.”
He led me up a side street to a restored Chevy parked just off the Malécon. His partner was waiting for him there. George told him I wanted to go up to the Hotel Nacional. I hopped in the back and George rode shotgun.
As we zoomed up the Avenida de Maceo, our conversation downshifted into him trying to sell me discount cigars and me lying that I’d already bought some. But it was an otherwise pleasant drive along to the seawall to our next destination: Vedado.