It’s not often that I fall for a man just by the sound of him, a man I’ve never met nor am ever likely to meet. But right up there on my list of people I’d like to have to dinner, to get to know, is one Eusebio Leal Spengler. It’s not often either that I feel a pang of envy, but envious I am of Huffington Post writer Salim Lamrani, who interviewed my man back in 2014, an interview that was translated into English from the French by Larry R. Oberg.
I tripped across Spengler on a walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Armed with a guidebook and a map and himself’s unerring sense of direction, we trod the streets and noticed how much better looking this part of the city is than where we were staying. Another world entirely. And all thanks to one man, the City Historian. Thanks to him, more than 100 old buildings have been fully restored.
Back in 1994, Castro recognised that even with the fall of the Soviet Union, the architectural heritage of Old Havana had to be preserved. He turned over ownership of all historical buildings to the Office of the Historian and gave it a budget equivalent to $1 million. The Habaguanex Tourist Company was formed. Two years later, they’d turned that one million into three. Twenty years later, the return in resources is closer to 100 million. Work though, had begun much earlier, as far back as the late 1970s.
But what is most interesting about Spengler is is vision that restoration isn’t just about restoring buildings. It has a social aspect as well.
What were the most pressing goals when the restoration works began?
What encouraged me most were the buildings that were being lost. But, life showed us that we had to struggle to keep the city as a whole rather than as one of separate elements; that a pure restoration project could not be feasible if it didn’t include the social aspect, i.e., the city with its dwellers. Then, it was necessary to have a much broader idea, more participative and popular, which took into account housing and health care. That’s why restoration has included the creation of geriatric centers or others which take care of disabled children.
Today, 45% of the profits from the tourist company go back into building the tourism infrastructure, while 65% go to redeveloping the local community for its 91 000 inhabitants. A tremendous achievement.
And it’s a joy to see. Whether it’s the amazing Cathedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana on Plaza de la Cathedral or the kids playing football on a school break amidst the museums of Plaza Vieja, or the old folks sunning themselves near the retirement home serenaded by street musicians.
And yes, I know I had a moan about what people do in the name of tourism, and it’s more evident here (as the spot for cruise ship passengers), but I suppose it’s no different than street artists anywhere else in the world. I’m not sure why I find it so upsetting in Cuba. I know. I am a dreaded tourist, too. But somehow I expected to be in the minority.
Wandering the streets, peaking through doorways, discovering interior gardens in thriving cafés, this is what Spengler must have had in mind. From the fabulously renovated Pharmacy Museum to the host of other impressive buildings in the ‘hood, this part of town is a world apart from Centro Habana and El Barrio. And the good thing is that the money spent on lodging and dining in some of the many hotels and restaurants in the neighbourhood goes back into the community. That I can live with.