Empty Streets of Habana Viejo


The urban landscape of Habana and the old quarter is familiar to any one with an interest in photography as it has been a rich source of material for many years. The area under UNESCO guardianship is particularly fascinating for the interplay of social, cultural, economic and political conflicts based on an old order overtaken by the Castro revolution. In January of this year we stayed in this old zone for about ten days residing in a casa particulare in the heart of the twenty or so urban blocks that comprise this unique section of the city. By day the area teemed with people. It would seem that the locals live on the streets with vendors, cyclists, pedi-cabs, ancient and new cars that mix and mingle with pedestrians, school children, cats, dogs and the occasional chicken. Habana is making a tentative excursion into market-based decision-making. Already the little children thronging the streets ask the gringo for a dollar as a present. Sound familiar?


This urban throng is easy to document as a visitor because it is novel, it is full of colour and the drama of life lived under the seemingly stringent but slowly relaxing controls of a central government.  Novelty is a seductive feature of travel and it often swamps any serious capacity to make creative images where an original insight is offered about the setting visited.  Novelty is a poor substitute for expressive and creative responses based on attempts to interpret what is seen, and so offer a new viewpoint, opinion or visual package of information.


What is less familiar is Habana Viejo after dark. Most visitors retire to hotel or home and await the tropical dawn. I resolved to explore this area at night so as to better understand what it really means to live in an urban centre that is crumbling to a state of decay impossible to repair. Urban decay is easier to see and read at night because it is not diffused, weakened or subsumed by the vivacity of life on the streets in daylight hours.  You can see the rawness of the streets – their earthy edge, their grunge. Each night I would go for a walk. I did so from about 10pm through to 2:00am -  sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by my daughter, who speaks fluent Spanish, and on one occasion, by a local lad who volunteered to help me as a gesture of his long-standing email friendship with our daughter.


Habana by night is a soulful place. From about 10 pm it is quiet, with fitful lighting of the streets, and buildings breaking the gloom and strengthening shadows, which in turn, hide the more excessive features of decay and decline of an area formerly owned by the pre-revolutionary elite. Sometimes you could hear the plaintive cry of a child, the sound of a clarinet and saxophone or a muted violin experimenting with Cuban blues. Or, the cough of someone standing in the shadows or the murmur of young lovers hiding from the passing parade leaving the bars and cafes.  Street noises included the squeak and pumping sound of pedi-cabs searching for a late fare,  the dogs competing for scraps and the distant sound of traffic beyond this enclave.  In early evening the elderly gather at doorsteps to take in the cool breeze before entering the stifling heat of their indoor one room flat. I walked, armed with a small camera – a Canon thingy whatsit. No flash was used. Just available light made photo friendly by ISO 5000 setting. I did not want technology to interfere with my seeing, my imagination nor did I want it to be the reason to fear possible harm. I hasten to add that this fear was totally unfounded as the locals I met, in the early part of my evening walks, were just a delight.


The images here were made so as to form my link, my understanding of the relationship between the goals and the ideological zeal of the revolution and the sobering reality that in material or economic terms this revolution has yet to fulfil its promise.  Most of these images were found less than 200 metres from the national capital building in Habana Central.  For this series I elected to make monochrome images and then in post-production I  used colour balance to introduce the blue and thus moody character –or, for me, an aesthetic response to the Cuban blues I heard on most walks and, thanks to my camera I could now see.


For me, the night streets were sad and melancholy places to wander. This was in stark contrast to the joy, sense of life and shared humanity that characterised  the day and no doubt had given rise to the view, often expressed to us, that the people of Cuba and of Habana, in particular, are rich simply because they have each other.  We left Habana Viejo enriched by new friends, powerful visual treats and a better sense of why Cubans say, “Every man in Cuba is a poet, musician and a mechanic.” The nocturnal walks and the many images made reveal an urban world that will soon disappear. I hope whatever replaces it does not encourage the loss of a pervasive sense of the humanity and joy, of a special community that we found here both day and night, a place where history and culture intertwined, clashed and resonated with the demands of the ageing revolution. Habana Viejo by night is a unique social and political expression as it speaks to the urgent need for a revolution to move quickly to meet the needs of people or it too will wither. Habana Viejo is a metaphor for the decline of Castroism. The real issue is what the people will elect as the alternative.  Perhaps the answer is already to be seen. Most new infrastructure in Habana is of Chinese origin.