SABOR DE CUBA
Robert Landon explores a city in transition.
After wandering through the cavernous rooms of Fábrica de Arte Cubano– a factory-turned-arts center at the edge of Havana’s leafy Vedado neighborhood – my friends and I sit down in one of its quieter nooks as we tried to determine if an equivalent for this new institution exists in New York, where we all live.
In the end, we were stumped. There is nothing quite like it. In one room, a DJ pumps out electronica. In a gallery hung with drawings and etchings by a new generation of Cuban artists, a small and very much unplugged band delivers up the sensual rhythms of son cubano. After a little courtyard where we dodged the evening rain, a café served up quiches, sandwiches and inky-black espresso. In a giant space that could double as an airplane hangar, beautiful young Habaneros lounge on beanbag chairs. Beyond them, a labyrinth of galleries shows off yet more artwork in which Che Guevara appears with the same regularity as the
A city in transition Virgin Mary in a Catholic cathedral. Most compelling of all, people of every age and race and varying levels of chic look utterly at home here. I notice none of the social jockeying that subtly infects cultural spaces in New York, London and Paris. Fábrica de Arte Cubano could exist nowhere except Havana, where artists form a relatively protected and privileged cast, where the profit motive is kept firmly in check, where brotherly love is still considered a higher value than social oneupmanship and where the people possess a national genius for letting the good times roll.
Encouraged by these reforms, Havana-born architect Kendra Ashton moved back to her hometown and, together with British-born husband and fellow architect Jonathan, purchased and renovated a pair of apartments a few blocks back from the Malecón, the city’s legendary seaside promenade. Their Tropicana Penthouse is a cozy rooftop love nest with a huge veranda and 360-degree views. I ended up staying at their other property, Casa Concordia – a neocolonial apartment with bright, airy and elegantly spare rooms, all with feast-like views of the city’s skyline.
Especially remarkable to me is the fact that I have booked my stay on Airbnb. After more than five decades of ironclad embargo, the US is profoundly reconsidering its Cuban policy. As part of the thaw, US-based Airbnb has been granted a special license to operate in Cuba, helping entrepreneurial Habaneros like Kendra and Jonathan restore the city’s gorgeous but largely crumbling historic fabric.
From Casa Concordia, a short stroll brings me to Havana Vieja, the city’s UNESCO-protected historic. Eighteenth-century palaces and Parisian-style, 19th-century apartments crowd narrow lanes that open suddenly onto elegant, baroque-lined plazas. As Cuba bets heavily on tourism – including a likely explosion in US visitors – large stretches of Havana Vieja are undergoing renovations. And Eusebio Leal, head of the city’s Office of the Historian, has won wide praise for both the ambition and sensitivity of his team’s work.
Everywhere I go, I find a city in transition. At one end, Havana Vieja is being restored to its past glory – and helping to drive an enormous boom in tourism. And way off at the city’s edge, Fábrica de Arte Cubano is experimenting with new and creative ways into the future. It is a delicate balancing act, as liberalization rubs uncomfortably against top-down, state-run hegemony. But it is exactly these contrasts, and the creative energies they unleash, that make now the time to go.