Havana Heyday

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This post will highlight some of yesterday’s remnants in Havana. I love this particular story. The ferris wheel in this picture is in a park that used to be “Cuban Coney Island” built in the 50’s by a US businessman and modeled after Coney Island. I attempted to find more information about the park, but as usual, there is not a lot of information about Cuba online. I did find an uncomfirmed story- the original owner was executed in 1961 for conducting counterrevolutionary activities within the park. Wow. So, the long and shady story of the mob, the revolution, US businessmen, and ferris wheels begins. Of course after the revolution, the park, like most of Cuba, fell into disrepair. The park was purchased in 2008 by, SURPRISE! a Chinese company and dubbed China Coney Island. It seemed a bit run down, too expensive for locals, and reportedly does not have many visitors. And the ferris wheel does not have seats, something I hadn’t noticed until recently.

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Two musicians taking a break in the grand room of the Hotel National De Cuba. Built by an American architectural firm in the 30s, the hotel is absolutely beautiful. Name any star from 1930 to 1960, and they were here, and are memorialized on one of the many plaques. Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Brando, on and on. In 1946 the Havana Conference (retold in Coppola’s Godfather 2) was hosted at the National by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Batista even handed over ownership (after, I’m sure, some shady side dealing) of part of the National to Lucky. Of course, not everyone was welcomed to stay in the hotel. Nat King Cole, headlining one of the most popular concerts ever performed at the Tropicana, was refused a room because he was black. Eartha Kitt also performed in 56, and I suspect she was denied a room as well. After the revolution (yes, it sounds like a broken record…) Castro took over the hotel. It was used mainly for visiting diplomats and government offices. It was restored by foreign investors in the 1990s.

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While we were wandering around the grounds pretending to be guests, a motorcade arrived carrying dignitaries from El Salvador and Venezuela, I think the president of El Salvador and Consulate of Venezuela. It was pretty exciting. There was surprisingly little security. The staff lined up in front of the door in the lobby, and politely clapped while each dignitary walked in and were hustled to the elevators. I spoke to a visitor who commented that the rooms were not very well maintained, and the grandeur of the lobby and first floor grounds didn’t make its way upstairs. Typical Havana. There just isn’t enough money for investment and infrastructure to support such endeavors.

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The dining room was set for a state dinner. I took the picture through the glass. I wasn’t invited in. Everything about the hotel was beautiful, meticulously restored, and seemed to hearken back to Cuba’s heyday. The bars, with the dark hardwood, the glistening glass racks, the beautiful swimming pool, gorgeous. It was the one and only ‘touristy’ place I spent much time in and really enjoyed. The history itself is breathtaking.

imageOh, the Tropicana. Where do I start… Our driver nonchalantly said he was going to take us to the Tropicana. We drove through a densely forested roundabout, with open air bars and full length mirrored walls. So 70s. Cliched tropical themes that really didn’t interest me. On the way out and looking through the back window of our meticulously maintained cherry red ’52 Dodge, I had a spark of recognition: Wait, I said. THE Tropicana??!!! YES, our driver said with exasperation. O.M.G. Every gangster movie I have ever loved, AND Ricky Ricardo, Carmen Miranda, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker performed RIGHT HERE where we are?! Yes… yes… I should have paid more attention. By the way, Castro nationalized the Tropicana (modeled after a very popular, Cuban owned club in the Bronx) in 1956. Not much has changed since.
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Malecon, the promenade built along the seawall, was begun in 1901 by an American company during the brief period of American rule in Cuba. Malecon is also the home of the newly opened American Embassy. I was hard pressed (as in it didn’t happen) to get our drivers to stop for a picture of the embassy (I WAS instructed not to take pictures of government buildings or officials) but I did get a picture of the statue outside. And it might surprise you, as it surprised me. More on that later. While the Malecon buildings are beautiful from afar, many sit in disrepair. If you wander further through the neighborhoods, you get the juxtaposition of new construction abutted by dilapidated housing. I will share more intimate photos of this experience later.

image Beautiful Havana. To the far right, you see the crane that sits above a building being restored in Plaza Vieja, old Havana. I never saw anyone actually doing anything to the building, which is not uncommon. Construction projects usually drag on for years, if not decades. “Time is Money” is not a phrase that you hear in Cuba. In the middle of the photo is the capitol, fashioned after the US capitol, but just a few feet taller, of course. Broken record time… after the revolution, the building was repurposed as ‘the peoples’ building, with various agencies taking up residence. It was the highest point in Havana until the Jose Marti Memorial was built in the 50s (which looks like a very Soviet inspired hot-mess) but more on that in a few weeks!

Please stay tuned for my  next post, “Those Curious Havana Monuments”

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