Spatial inequality in central Havana

I spent three days in Havana in mid-December. This blog would not exist if I didn’t believe that intense observation for a short period can lead to real insights about places. I wouldn’t, however, claim that three days in a city of two million is enough to learn much, especially when (as is true in this case) I haven’t read a great deal of what’s been written about it. I still can’t help but share one observation. Central Havana, thanks to more than a quarter century of catering to tourists, has become an area of shocking spatial inequality. Let me explain.

Central Havana consists of two major sections, each subdivided into smaller districts.

Map of Central Havana and vicinity. Base GIS data from the and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified somewhat. Note that the green lines used to indicate pedestrian facilities show not only walkways in parks and along boulevards and certain shorelines but also pedestrianized streets in Habana Vieja. 

On the east is Habana Vieja, the oldest part of the city, which includes the port and most of remaining oldest buildings. On the west is the Centro, which looks to have grown up in the latish nineteenth century.

Northern part of the Centro, looking northwest. The tallest buildings are exceptions, but otherwise the great majority of structures seem to date either from late in the 19th or early in the 20th century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Havana didn’t extend much beyond Habana Vieja and the Centro; click here to see an 1899 map of Havana held at the American Geographical Society collection at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Havana’s population at the time was something like 200,000, and central Havana was built up quite densely, with two and three story buildings on generally narrow streets. I’m not sure quite why Havana built so densely. Mexico City, for example, much bigger then as now, generally has lower buildings in its 19th-century sections. Perhaps the chief reason for Havana’s density was the prosperity of those who benefited from its sugar industry, which had access to slave labor until 1886.

Much of central Havana must once have been lived in by well-off people. But the relatively wealthy seem to have moved to neighborhoods further west like Vedado and Miramar starting at least early in the 20th century. These neighborhoods are generally built to a much lower density than the central neighborhoods, although they include numerous substantial 20th-century residential (and hotel) buildings.

Street in Vedado, Havana, Cuba. This district filled in much later than central Havana. It’s essentially a 20th-century neighborhood.

Most of the inhabitants of Habana Vieja and the Centro these days seem to be relatively poor people, although one study I looked at suggests that many are “professionals” employed by the government.1 Most people seem to get around on foot. Few own cars; there’s not much room in their neighborhoods for cars anyway, which is just as well, since so many of Havana’s cars pollute badly. These neighborhoods are actually great places to walk in, except that sidewalks are narrow and in terrible shape. Most pedestrians seem to prefer the streets, which are in bad shape too; potholes, often deep, are common. You have to be especially careful at night, since streetlights are rare and dim.

A mostly residential street in the Centro, Havana, Cuba.

Many of the buildings are in wretched shape too. The problem is especially acute near the ocean, where structures are subject to damage from spray every time the wind blows from the north, but there are buildings that are falling apart on nearly every block. Collapses are apparently not rare. I don’t know the extent to which nearly sixty years of authoritarian left-wing government can be blamed for the condition of Havana’s older buildings. It’s certainly true that Communist governments in Russia and its European satellites were also generally indifferent to maintenance of ordinary real estate (although they could lavish enormous energy on the renovation of pre-Communist landmarks).

There is one major exception to the rule that central Havana is a wreck. Parts of Habana Vieja have been thoroughly renovated. One east-west street—the Calle del Obispo—has been fully pedestrianized, and just about all the buildings on this street have been cleaned up.

The Calle del Obispo, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba.

It’s possible to walk, say, from the cruise ship dock at Terminal Sierra Maestra along the Calle del Obispo all the way to the Prado (formally the Paseo de Martí)—the monument-laden thoroughfare that separates Habana Vieja and the Centro—and not encounter anything that suggests poverty. This walk would take you past numerous respectable restaurants and high-end shops. It also passes by several museums. And it looks as though most of the buildings on this street now have commercial rather than residential tenants on their upper floors. Several north-south streets leading off the Calle del Obispo have been subject to essentially the same treatment. If you don’t look too closely, you could easily imagine on any of these streets that you were in a resort town in Spain or Argentina.

I’m simplifying a little here, since there are certainly renovated buildings here and there in the Centro (especially close to the oceanfront Malecón) and even a certain amount of pedestrianization, and you don’t have to go far from the Calle del Obispo to hit ruins, but there is still certainly an amazing contrast between renovated and unrenovated Havana. It’s striking to see such visible spatial inequality in a supposedly socialist state, and it’s easy to imagine that serious Cuban Communists (if there are any left) would not pleased by what has happened in central Havana.

However, some of the literature on the renovation of Habana Vieja suggests that this view is wrong and that the restoration work that’s been carried out under the direction of City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler jibes completely with the regime’s ideals.2  There has, it’s said, been only modest displacement. The fact that large numbers of poor people live close to the renovated districts is not a consequence of incomplete gentrification but the result of careful, ideologically colored planning. Proceeds from the tourist industry have even been self-consciously used to improve the quality of life for the relatively poor inhabitants of central Havana. For example, some of tourism’s profits have been devoted to repairing the ancient system of water distribution. Ideology has also affected what’s gotten renovated. It’s not an accident that renovation has stressed the re-creation of Havana’s ideologically neutral colonial past and deemphasized many decades of North American influence.

In other words, what looks like a somewhat obnoxious kind of tourist-oriented gentrification isn’t quite as it appears. Spatial inequality in central Havana is real, but it’s the result more of the uneven distribution of building renovation than of gentrification-associated displacement. It’s true that renovation was a response to the needs of the tourist industry, but it’s the state that decided to emphasize tourism when its older economic underpinnings were undermined by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it’s the state that determined that tourism would focus to some degree on colonial Havana rather than, for example, on beaches and casinos.

I have no way of judging the extent to which this argument is valid. But it’s certainly true that, while there may be vivid spatial contrasts in central Havana, there is most certainly nothing like segregation. Poor residents visit the Calle del Obispo and adjoining streets, and many tourists stay in casas particulares (private homes) that are most often found away from the hyper-renovated parts of the city. Furthermore, it’s more or less self-evident that a tourist industry can distribute its profits much more widely than centralized industries tend to do in that it creates thousands of jobs. It’s true that these jobs are not highly remunerative, but, in a country where “professional” government positions can pay $20 a month, modest jobs in the tourist industry can look pretty good. Cuba’s complicated currency system adds to their allure; tips are likely to be in convertible rather than in ordinary pesos. And who could argue with the proposition that the renovation of central Havana—an architecturally stunning and endangered place that looks like nowhere else on earth—is in many respects a great thing?

  1. Jill Hamberg, “The ‘slums’ of Havana,” Havana beyond the ruins : cultural mappings after 1989 / Anke Birkenmaier and Esther Whitfield, editors. Durham : Duke University Press, 2011. Pages 73-105, especially pages 86-88.
  2. See, for example, D. Medina Lasansky, “Tourist geographies : remapping old Havana,” Architecture and tourism perception, performance and place / edited by D. Medina Lasansky and Brian McLaren. New York : Berg, 2004. Pages 165-188.
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