A clash of two sounds greets visitors to La Habana Vieja, Havana’s historic center. One is that of ubiquitous bands in parks, cafes and restaurants, with singers’ voices and percussionists’ rhythms blending into each other, block by block.
The other is the screaming and grinding of power tools – the sound of a massive restoration effort, funded by tourism income, where Cubans are achieving a just-in-time rescue of Old Havana’s architectural and cultural heritage.
The restoration is a race against time. Centuries of exposure to seafront elements have left buildings in precarious condition. Last December, when Havana was flooded by storms that dropped 7 inches of rain in 2 days, Cuba’s official daily Granma reported that 4 buildings collapsed completely in Old Havana, and 19 collapsed partially.
The condition of the buildings, the number in need of restoration, and the need to address social priorities such as overcrowded housing while also generating increased tourism revenue, combine to create a challenge that might make Donald Trump walk away. Yet the work proceeds and expands year by year, the only effort of its kind in Cuba, and one of the most intensive construction efforts on the island.
This paper is intended to give the reader an overview of this subject: the work of restoration, the unique government and financial structure that makes it possible; its leadership; its challenges balancing social, economic, and preservation goals; and its implications for the future.
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