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Havana: The Waterfront and the New City

Updated on April 8, 2014
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Havana is the capital of Cuba and largest city in the West Indies (population, 2,241,000, 1995 est.). It is on the north coast of the island, 150 miles (240 km) from its western tip and 90 miles (145 km) south-southwest of Key West, Fla. Havana (Spanish, Habana) is a modern city built on colonial foundations, having been established at its present site in 1519. It has one of the finest and best sheltered harbors in the Caribbean.

Long the center of the nation's governmental, business, and cultural life, Havana traditionally attracted a high percentage of the middle classes, and its disproportionate growth was one of the first problems to which Fidel Castro's government addressed itself on coming to power in 1959. The city could boast of some manufactures (textiles, tires, shoes), while quantities of sugar, tobacco, fruit, and truck crops were being grown in the surrounding province of Havana (3,163 square miles, or 8,192 sq km). But this production was insufficient to support the 2 million people of the city and province, representing more than a quarter of the total national population. More important were the government payrolls, sales commissions, professional fees, and consumer spending drawn from the nation at large and, to some extent, from U.S. tourists. After 1959, though it remained the seat of government, Havana became less dominant.

The Waterfront

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The beauty of Havana can best be appreciated by those who approach the city by sea. The first view of it on the horizon reveals the tall dome of the Capitol (1931) and the high-rise apartments, hotels, and office buildings that sprang up in the 1950s, during the last years of Fulgencio Batista's regime. These buildings are grouped to the right of the opening of the harbor. To the left is the distinctive shaft of the Lighthouse of the Morro—as much a symbol of Havana as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

Behind the lighthouse loom the gray-white walls of two fortresses: El Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle), built in the 16th century, and the 18th century Cabañas fortress, used by the Castro government to house political prisoners. On the opposite side of the narrow passage that forms the harbor mouth is a smaller fortress, known as La Punta, standing on a point of land beyond which stretches the oceanfront of the old city of Havana.

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Only about 800 feet (250 meters) separate Morro Castle and La Punta, but the passage is as much as 40 feet (12 meters) deep near the rocky base of Morro Castle. In colonial times, a chain was drawn each night across the opening of the bay and a cannon was fired to signal that the city was safe. Until the late 1950s, this cannon shot (el cañonazo) still sounded each night at 9 P.M.—one of many ways in which modern life was knit to colonial traditions.

Beyond its narrow opening, the bay widens into three separate channels, each lined with docks and industrial installations where petroleum, coal, and wheat are received and from which the raw sugar that has been Cuba's principal export for more than 100 years is shipped out. The bay winds southward and to the west, enclosing the old city on three sides. The only side not protected by water was once walled, and sections of that structure may still be seen.

Along the bay side of old Havana runs the Avenida del Puerto, an impressive broad avenue that connects, at La Punta, with an oceanfront boulevard called the Malecon. The Malecon extends all the way to the newer residential areas west of the old city.

Colonial Architecture

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Havana is a harmonious combination of the old and the new. The number, importance, and solid construction of the surviving colonial buildings often surprise visitors who have heard more about Havana's modern aspects. There are, for example, many Spanish forts besides those already mentioned. Before the famous Morro Castle was even begun, the oldest of Havana's forts—La Fuerza, on the bay side of the old city—was rebuilt, having been destroyed in 1555 by Jacques Sores, a French pirate who had taken the city and held it for ransom. Havana's inability to withstand pirate attacks was largely responsible for a long and expensive program of construction that produced not only these forts but also the Príncipe and the Atarés, atop their respective hills within the city, and the towerlike Chorrera and San Lázaro fortresses.

Other buildings of antiquarian and architectural importance are the 17th century convents of San Francisco and Santa Clara and two 18th century structures: the City Hall (Ayuntamiento), once the seat of Spain's captains general; and the baroque Cathedral of Havana, originally a Jesuit church. The plaza of the cathedral, a stone-paved square surrounded by colonial buildings, is one of the jewels of old Havana. It is among the many historic sites that have been restored since 1981 in an ambitious program designed to preserve Havana's architectural heritage.

The New City

From the creation of the republic in 1902 to the advent of Fidel Castro in 1959, the wealth and brilliance of Cuba tended to gravitate to Havana, to an even greater degree than in the colonial period. The builders of republican Cuba, not wishing to be overshadowed by their Spanish predecessors, devoted great effort to making Havana a monumental city that would do honor to the nation. The Capitol was finished with marble, rare mahogany, and bronze; a 22-carat diamond was embedded in the floor directly under the center of the dome and was used as a national "focal point" from which road distances in Cuba were measured. The opulent Presidential Palace (1920) recalls an era of booming sugar production and World War I prosperity, when simple country people became millionaires overnight, only to sell their plantations to foreign investors and create future problems for the republic. Impressive features of downtown Havana are the 20th century "palaces" of the Spanish regional societies—Centro Asturiano, Centro Gallego—and of the other organizations that provided medical, educational, and social aid cooperatively to their members (mainly poor Spanish immigrants) at low cost and with great efficiency.

City planning in the early 20th century was good. West of the old city, with its narrow streets, is the broad, marble-paved boulevard called the Prado, connecting the Capitol with the shore of the bay. The wealthy built their homes along the Prado during the first decade of independence. Later the area was invaded by hotels, stores, and clubs.

Farther west is the Vedado, a section that in the 1920s harbored the palacetes of the sugar barons and of those politicians and professionals who shared their ostentatious tastes and their wealth. After the depression of the 1930s, the vogue among the well-to-do was for more modern homes in Miramar, on the Marianao beach front, and in the area called "Country Club." These communities are to the west of the Almendares River and thus not within the municipality of Havana, but in neighboring Marianao.

In the 1950s, Batista had a tunnel built under the Almendares to connect the newer residential sections with the older ones. An even more ambitious engineering feat was the construction of a tunnel under the bay itself to open up a new suburban area east of the harbor. This surge of building was characteristic of the twilight years of Batista's rule, which also saw the construction of the Havana Hilton Hotel (financed by the retirement fund of the waiters' union), a new library, and a new civic center dominated by a monument to José Martí, the Cuban liberator.

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