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Restoring Old Havana - With a Social Twist

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  • Walter Lippmann
    http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=31254 Inter Press Service News Agency Thursday, December 01, 2005 16:17 GMT ARTS WEEKLY/CUBA: Restoring Old Havana -
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2005
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      Inter Press Service News Agency
      Thursday, December 01, 2005 16:17 GMT
      Restoring Old Havana - With a Social Twist

      Dalia Acosta

      Colonial era houses converted into hostels, pharmacies that double as
      museums, concerts in colonial era courtyards, taverns and coffee
      shops: all of these have sprung up from the ruins of the historic
      city centre in the Cuban capital.

      HAVANA, Dec (IPS) - But remodelled buildings popping up at every turn
      in Old Havana, surprising even local residents themselves, are only
      the most visible facet of a project that goes far beyond restoration
      work to rescue Cuba's historical heritage while preserving the social
      and cultural environment.

      Unlike what has occurred in many older cities around the world, the
      programme to develop Havana's historic centre is aimed at restoring
      the buildings while keeping in mind the people who live in the area.

      "We have decided in favour of a living historic centre," architect
      Patricia Rodríguez, director of the Master Plan for Revitalising the
      Historic Centre at the City of Havana Historians' Office, explained
      to IPS.

      A maternity home, more than 10 refurbished schools, and a
      rehabilitation centre for children with degenerative diseases of the
      central nervous system are among the social projects initiated and
      supported by the institution in the last few years.

      "They came to fetch me on Sep. 19, 2002, in the middle of tropical
      storm Isidore. My son lives outside Cuba and I was living on my own,"
      Ida Baeza, 77, told IPS. Since that day she has lived in the first
      sheltered residence to be opened in Old Havana.

      A dozen people are living in the sheltered apartments, built with
      international cooperation. They have TV sets, refrigerators, stoves
      and an on-site medical clinic, and are provided with laundry and
      cleaning services, meals and personal care

      Baeza must follow the residence's rules, but otherwise she maintains
      her independence. She receives her nurse's pension, buys
      State-subsidised food, and is free to decorate her apartment with the
      paraphernalia of the Afro-Cuban religion she professes.

      Optional activities include relaxation exercises, exercise classes,
      board games, cognitive rehabilitation, films, crafts workshops, and
      "love among the elderly" lectures.

      "The residence is open to the community. About 50 people from the
      neighbourhood Grandparents' Group come here to work out. The medical
      clinic treats the people who live in the neighbourhood, and we hold
      video shows for children in the area," Esther Ruiz, the administrator
      of the residence, remarked to IPS.

      A similar home is planned with the aim of continuing to build on this
      experience, seeking to meet the needs of older people who are
      economically and socially vulnerable.

      Providing assistance to more than 16,100 elderly people living in the
      historic centre is only one of the aims of the humanitarian affairs
      officials at the City of Havana Historian's Office, located on the
      site of the old Belén Convent.

      Hundreds of people visit the Convent every week. Some, like Lourdes
      Scull and Gilberto Jorrín, come to the morning exercise sessions and
      stay on for the weaving, art or singing workshops. Others come
      looking for help.

      The office received 2,605 requests for help from the population at
      large last year, and distributed 1,154 free medicines and 13,101
      other articles, also free of charge. These included 129 special
      carriages for disabled children, wheelchairs and home appliances.

      Belén Convent, an 18th century building which is still in the process
      of being restored, will soon add to its present functions a home for
      50 elderly people, physiotherapy and opthalmological services, as
      well as a hotel.

      According to the 2001 Population and Housing Census results from the
      historic centre, more than 66,750 people lived in 21,005 dwellings in
      an area of 2.1 square km. Furthermore, 16.5 percent of the population
      were then aged 60 or older.

      The ageing of the population is identified as one of the greatest
      challenges facing Cuba. Fifteen percent of this Caribbean island
      nation's 11.2 million people are elderly now, and that proportion is
      projected to reach 25 percent in 2025.

      "Plans for a sustainable city must take into account the society it
      houses. It has to be a place where economic aspects, culture and the
      housing inventory all coincide," commented Rodríguez.

      With 21 years' experience working as an architect in Old Havana,
      Rodríguez recollects that the current management model arose as a
      "creative response" to the Cuban crisis in the early 1990s, after the
      demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc
      which had been its principal trade partners.

      Faced with the risk of loss of continuity of a process begun in 1981
      with public funds, the Council of State awarded the Historian's
      Office special prerogatives so that management of the historic centre
      could be self-financed.

      More than 11,000 jobs were created in Old Havana over ten years, and
      the Office made over 160 million dollars in profits through tourism,
      services and tax income.

      "The State contributed 341 million pesos (in Cuban currency
      officially valued at parity with the dollar), over 60 million pesos
      were raised as bank loans, and about 14 million dollars were provided
      in international cooperation," explained Rodríguez.

      Forty-five percent of the total revenues was spent on productive
      projects and real estate, 30 percent on social programmes, and the
      remainder went to State reserves or remodelling efforts in other
      areas of the city. "Today, one-third of the area has been restored or
      is actively in process," she stated.

      Housing is the most serious problem facing Old Havana today, as is
      recognised by authorities, specialists, and residents who are the
      most affected by the deteriorated state of the old buildings.

      "When it rains, I'm always afraid that the building is going to
      collapse around my ears," Alba Osorio, a resident of the historic
      centre, told IPS.

      One proposal, based on a study of all available sites in the area,
      recommends building 2,000 homes between 2006 and 2012.

      From 1994 to 2002 the Historian's Office carried out work on 3,092
      dwellings, including renovation, conservation and new construction.

      Even so, more than 45 percent of dwellings covered by the 2001 Census
      were deemed unfit for habitation, and half of them were tenements or
      "ciudadelas", the Cuban term for old buildings where several families
      live in one house and share common areas, including the bathroom.

      According to Rodríguez, "'ciudadelas' indicate structural social
      problems, health problems and overcrowding." Without housing for
      relocation, no progress can be made on plans to rehabilitate the
      area, including increasing the number of square metres of living
      space per person, she remarked.

      In the meantime, an emergency programme to restore structural
      stability in the endangered buildings is under way. In the opinion of
      the Master Plan's director, in such cases, "to preserve the building
      is to preserve life itself." (FIN/2005)
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