Havana from its symbols

By José Antonio Michelena

Morro, Habana

Every city – big, medium, small – has its symbols. They represent their character, their style, their culture; they define it and express its soul. Some, more universal; others, more local, enroll in the plot of time, through the times, because each epoch leaves us its symbols as part of its legacy.
Havana, without having the age or extension of other American, European, Asian, African, or Oceania cities, has a huge variety of symbols: artistic, religious, urban, sports, patriotic, geographical, sociological, linguistic… And in five centuries of walking, he has seen his emblems born and endured, just as successive generations have assumed them, valued, reinterpreted, and also left traces, marks, which have then become symbols. The oldest are those that are linked to his birth and formation.
Not content the colonizers with the first places chosen to settle, they found what Sebastian de Ocampo called Puerto de Carenas: the bay of Havana. In its surroundings the first settlers settled and the village began to grow. And as it grew, it created new spaces: for faith, for government, for recreation. This was how parishes, squares, parks, buildings were built; and when the village was already an authentic city, it could emblanch the symbols it generated and still preserves: the Cathedral and its square, the Templete, the Plaza de Armas, the Old Square, the Plaza de San Francisco, the Plaza del Cristo, the Alameda de Paula. All close to the foundation site.
By the fourth decade of the sixteenth century, when the port of Havana was already an important place in the stay of ships transporting treasures to Spain, the privateers and pirates that ravaged the Caribbean Sea began to arrive. Then the Spanish metropolis built fortresses that would accrue symbols of the city: the castles and turrets responsible for protecting it. One of them occupies the most relevant place among all: the Castle of the Three Kings of Morro.
As a seafaring city, Havana’s most beloved symbols are linked to its coastline: El Malecón and El Morro. The first is the area of greatest socialization of the city, the most democratic; fulfills functions of beach, fishing, park, walk, square, grandstand, gallery; but it’s also frontier: it marks kilometer 0 of two universes, aquatic and terrestrial. The Malecon is a creature that looks in two directions at once and is a link between two spaces (the ancient and modern city), and two times: past and present, as is the connection between all social – and even extraterritorial – strata on its journey through three municipalities.
El Morro, for its part, is the eternal lookout that warns and fires the navigators. Its lighthouse is the first and last sign in Havana. Built to stop the invaders, when he stopped fulfilling that function he remained the insomniac sentinel who represents welcome and farewell. And what habanero has not felt, on the return of a trip to the interior of the island, the ineffable feeling of getting home, after passing the tunnel and sighting El Morro and the bay?
The avenues of Prado, Monte, Reina, Belascoaín, Galiano, Carlos III, shaped the growth fabric of the city that bursts after the walls were torn down in 1863 and takes on more strength in the following century, when, during the first three decades, the zenith nucleus of the center ends up being forged with the construction of the Capitol (1929), the greatest symbol of opulence and government power.
In its expansion to the west, in the multiplicity of spaces built, the city incorporated new symbols; among them, the emblematic triad that make up the Central Park, the Paseo del Prado and the Capitol. This area framed in Prado street, surrounded by significant buildings, has been the scene of historical events and social events that reinforce its importance, its symbolic validity for the cops.
By then, Havana was The City of Columns, as Alejo Carpentier named it. Its main avenues allowed the walker to always be sheltered from rain or the sun in the wide portals of buildings supported by columns adorned with Doric, Ionian, Corinthian, Tuscan motifs; an eclecticism that the author of The Century of Lights called the style of things without style, but which undoubtedly distinguishes the Cuban capital.
The first half of the twentieth century left traces that have become symbols of Havana, and several of them, by extension, of Cuba. They’re not always essences, some are archetypes. The multitude of cabarets, clubs, bars, casinos, which there were in the 1950s, made the Cuban capital one of the cities with the greatest nightlife in the world. Tropicana and the bars of Playa, with their parade of famous visitors, reinforced an image: that of the infinite enjoyable.
The 1950s positioned El Vedado as an unbeatable site in the city. The various tall buildings, among which stands out the Focsa; Hilton, Capri, Vedado, Saint John, National hotels; the Montmartre cabaret, the network of clubs, cafes, restaurants; advertising agencies, the Radiocentro complex, integrated a very attractive space that grew even further in the following decade.
The era that opened in 1959 reaffirms this positioning. The openings of the Cuba Pavilion, the Coppelia ice cream parlor, the Czech House of Culture, the cultural center that (for a short time) was installed in the defunct Caballero funeral home, along with the rest of the cafes, restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs of 23rd Street, between Malecon and K, give rise to the preferred social space, revered by youth, from 1960 to 1980 : The Ramp.
The Rampa is a sociocultural symbol of the euphoria and spirit of the time. From Malecon to Coppelia, many young people wandered around with books under their arm – literature, philosophy, history, political economy – and talked about Camus, Rimbaud, Sartre, Freud, Marx. They were students, teachers, artists, workers, intellectuals, dilettators, snobs… The Ramp was a party: “We were young, undocumented and [believed] happy,” Hemingway dixit.
The last sixty years have generated few architectural and urban symbols in the capital. The National School of Art (ENA), the Palace of Conventions, the Cuba Pavilion, Coppelia, the José Antonio Echevarría University City and Lenin Park are among the most notable.
The ENA has been left as a luxury reference in architecture, while Lenin Park has been rolling towards abandonment and oblivion. It’s a shame because the city needs it screaming. That huge expans of green area, fun, recreation, art, is among the best memories left to us in the seventies and eighties. The amusement park, the minstrel rock, the tea house, the doll hill, the amphitheatre, the ceramic workshop, the gallery, the aquarium, the picadero, the restaurants, made Lenin Park a unique place, emblematic of Havana.
Sharing geographical space with the park, the Lenin Vocational School has a strong sociocultural connotation in as several generations of habaneros studied there. She is part of an education scheme (schools in the field) and a constructive scheme (prefabricated buildings).
The largest urban brand of the prefabricated is Alamar, an extension of the city whose origins date back to the fifties, as part of the expansion to the northeast that included more than a dozen distributions. But in the following decade it became a lodging site for military collaborators, engineers and technicians from the Soviet republics and several Eastern European countries.
In the 1970s, Alamar was once again at the center of another project: it became an extensive growth zone, the place where the largest number of buildings for multifamily homes, built with the workforce of future residents (microbrigadists), was executed. However, unlike other prefabricated housing communities, such as San Agustín (La Lisa), Alberro (El Cotorro), Altahabana (Boyeros) or Eléctrico (Arroyo Naranjo), Alamar is a macro-distribution with city attributes. Therefore, those who have been born or lived for a long time there have acquired a sense of identity, feel that it is a special place, different, to which contributes the proximity of the sea, the saltpeter-scented air that has been in the founding brand of Havana for five centuries.
Half a millennium after its founding, the city’s essential symbols remain the closest to the site of its birth.

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