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Will development help or hurt Cuba’s iconic architecture?

June 16, 2015 at 7:14 PM EDT
Havana is known as a city frozen in time -- and much of that is attributed to its architecture. However, many old buildings lack plumbing, electricity and infrastructure. Now, with Cuban-American relations improving, will these buildings be renovated, or will an inflow of global businesses ruin the country’s unique atmosphere?

GWEN IFILL: And now to the latest installment in our “NewsHour” series on the Cuban Evolution.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown explores Havana’s aging and, in many cases, crumbling infrastructure that puts Cuba’s culture, character and charm at risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is a city of rare visual depth, layers of history told in its buildings, a melding of styles through hundreds of years, Spanish Colonial to mid-20th century Modernism.

Today, after decades of neglect and a severe lack of resources, so much of it is crumbling.

It’s often said that Havana has been frozen in time, and being here, that feels right. I have never seen anything quite like this before. But everyone agrees that changes are now coming to the city, and that means big new challenges and decisions ahead.

The man credited with preserving large chunks of Havana and saving hundreds of its buildings is Eusebio Leal.

What do you see when you walk these streets?

EUSEBIO LEAL, Havana City Historian (through translator): I remember what I saw before renovation. Everything was ruined. It was abandoned.

JEFFREY BROWN: The official city historian, Leal is a man who thinks big.

EUSEBIO LEAL (through translator): Havana is a city like a small Paris. And like Paris, Havana has an identity of its own. We need to preserve the identity of Havana, much the way they have done in Paris.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leal hatched a plan decades ago, and then got Cuban leaders to sign on, to fix up and restore a handful of buildings in Old Havana and funnel part of the proceeds, more than $100 million a year now, back into other buildings, using tourism, in effect, to beautify and maintain the city.

Of course, part of the city is still ruined, right, still falling apart?

EUSEBIO LEAL (through translator): Yes, but it’s there, it’s still there, and that’s what is important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Only in the last five years have Cubans been legally allowed to buy a property, and few can afford such a luxury. That’s meant little incentive or resources for updating homes. Many people live in buildings without plumbing or electricity.

NESTOR MACHADO, Cuba: I live in a building that is almost crushed, and it’s very dangerous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nestor Machado lives in one of Havana’s grand buildings in serious decline.

NESTOR MACHADO: It has seven architectural types. Tourists pass all the time, and they want to take good pictures, you know, because it caught their attention. But the problem is that it is almost crushing.

ROSA LOWINGER, Art Conservator: This is a building that my father designed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rosa Lowinger was born in Cuba, but came to the U.S. with her family as a young girl.

ROSA LOWINGER: This neighborhood is very endangered.

JEFFREY BROWN: An art conservator, she returns these days to lead tours of Havana’s historic architecture.

ROSA LOWINGER: If developers had come in here in the early ’60s, something that was this low in this neighborhood would have been gone. This an accident of history has allowed them to stand.

What the revolution did is stop development, and when you stop development, you stop destruction that is deliberate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, says Lowinger, with Cuba poised to open its doors more to U.S. tourism and industry, development is likely to come, but what kind, and with what impact?

ROSA LOWINGER: The issues now, is what you see around you. You see decades of deferred maintenance. You see infrastructure that’s falling apart, cracked buildings, dirt, corrosion. But, to me, that is not nearly as potentially destructive as what can happen if developers come in here and they don’t protect the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: American tourists we met here offered a common refrain.

KAREN WRIGHT, Tourist: I wanted to see it untouched, and I just heard so much about the beautiful architecture, and the wonderful people, and the art, and the music. I hope it doesn’t get overrun with Americans. You know, you don’t want to see a Starbucks and McDonald’s on every corner.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Cubans like Dario Figueroa wouldn’t mind, say, a Home Depot. We found him at work making repairs to a neighbor’s house. And he echoed a common complaint about life here, where supplies are so limited, stores so poorly stocked.

DARIO FIGUEROA, Cuba (through translator): You have got to do a lot of work to get the materials, because we don’t have a central market where we can get everything that’s needed for construction. I think there should be one big store.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rosa Lowinger says those needs must be taken into account.

ROSA LOWINGER: It’s not fair to the people who live here to think of it as a collapsed splendor, because they deserve plumbing that works, and air conditioning, and elevators that don’t freeze, that kind of thing, so I’m not a romantic about that at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: One key, says Mary Jablonski, a conservator on the tour who teaches at Columbia University, is fitting new building, even chain stores, into the character of the place, using appropriate materials.

MARY JABLONSKI, Columbia University: It’s very easy to make mistakes, and if you’re too aggressive in what you repair, you can actually make it worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mistakes meaning what, the wrong material or the style?

MARY JABLONSKI: Yes. If you are doing a repair with the wrong material, it will actually accelerate the deterioration, and that’s a huge concern.

Not every building can be saved. I mean, that’s a dream. That’s not going to happen. But let’s say you got 70 percent saved. There’s still room to put in things like Home Depots.

JEFFREY BROWN: City historian Eusebio Leal told me he welcomes the new opening between Cuba and the U.S. He thinks, done properly, development of his beloved city can be done in a way that works for everyone. But there’s a long road ahead.

If I come here in five years, or 10 years, 20 years, will I see Starbucks, will I see McDonald’s, will I see brands from, as I would in any other city?

EUSEBIO LEAL (through translator): We will try to make these fit, like they have been able to do in other cities in the world. We will have to make these fit into the beauty of Havana.

JEFFREY BROWN: But will some neighborhoods of the city have to be torn down and new development and new buildings brought in?

EUSEBIO LEAL (through translator): For sure, there are places that need a complete renovation, a total change. But we will need to keep the character of Havana. People say to me, you have saved Havana.

And I have not saved Havana. I have done a little bit of what needs to be done. And people say to me, what would you need to make it happen? And I would need another life, perhaps a third life, to get done what needs to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Havana, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow in part three of the Cuban Evolution, a look at technology and access to the Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Cuban government says that 25 percent of its citizens have Internet access. Watchdog groups like Freedom House put the number able to link to a free and open Internet far lower, at around 5 percent. Either way, it’s one of the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have many more images of the beauty, and decay, of Havana. “NewsHour” producer Frank Carlson also traveled to Cuba to report this series, and you can see a photo gallery of his work at