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July 8, 2015

Striking a balance between new and old in Havana

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As Cuba and the U.S. reopen diplomatic relations, some fear that new development and tourism in Havana could threaten the city’s vibrant architectural heritage.

New U.S. trade and travel to Cuba could provide the opportunity to improve parts of the city in need of repair. However, some say that companies looking to expand to Havana will endanger its unique blend of architectural styles.

Cuba’s decades-long isolation preserved many buildings from being replaced by modern structures over time, but decades of deferred maintenance due to lack of funding led to parts of the city beginning to crumble. Today, many people live in structurally unsound buildings without working electricity or running water.

Havana historian Eusebio Leal recognized the need to address the deterioration by restoring some of the ageing buildings in Old Havana. Enlisting support from Cuban leaders, Leal began making improvements to encourage tourism, and eventually generated more funding to improve other buildings.

Many credit Leal with saving Havana’s buildings, but he said his work is far from finished. “I would need another life, perhaps a third life, to get done what needs to happen,” he said.

A major obstacle for average Cubans looking to make repairs to their homes remains the lack of supplies. Few stores have all the supplies that homeowners need for basic projects.

Mary Jablonski, a conservator who teaches at Columbia University, said incorporating new business into Havana’s existing character must be done responsibly.

“Not every building can be saved,” said Jablonski. “But let’s say you got 70 percent saved. There’s still room to put in things like Home Depots.”


Warm up questions
  1. Where is Cuba?
  2. What is the job of a developer?
Critical thinking questions
  1. How did the Cuban revolution affect construction in the country?
  2. What are some of the potential effects of new business on construction in Cuba?
  3. What should Cuban developers prioritize as they construct new buildings–preservation or new development? Why?
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