A group of tourists stops at the entrance of the “ecological park” on Mercaderes Street, a few steps from the Havana Cathedral. The guide speaks to them about this vacant lot turned into a public space which would be nothing out of the ordinary except for being the only one of its kind that is kept open. Aside from the brief circuit designed for foreign visitors, the parks of Old Havana are always closed.
So functions the fiefdom of Eusebio Leal, Havana’s City Historian. As old buildings crumble, the now-vacant parcels are transformed into gardens to which are added benches, trash cans, shade trees and maybe even a fountain. But, along with all that, they also put a magnificent gate closed with chain and padlock. No one can enter these urban oases.
At the corner of Teniente Rey and Habana there existed until a few years ago a children’s park full of attractions that were never used. The attractions “were burned” in the sun, says a neighbor of the place who remembers the image of children asking why “their park” was closed.
Today, the slides now dismantled, the site remains inaccessible but at least seeks another function in the community. Talking about this is Justo Torres who brought from his native Isabel de Sagua an interest in gardening and urban agriculture. He works at Nelva Oasis, a small gardening business very nearby that coordinated the park’s management with the Historian’s Office – a kind of local government.
Very enthusiastically, Torres confesses to being full of ideas for this place: giving it a “social use,” practicing agro-ecology and vermiculture, among others. “It is a unique experiment,” he says and one that also aims to be economically sustainable. He trusts that, in time, authorities will continue supporting the initiative.
Nevertheless, the rest of the parks have not had the same luck and have no use beyond the visual . . . behind bars. The monument erected in honor of Cuban doctor Carlos J. Finlay at Cuba and Amargura cannot be seen up close. There is also the Las Carolinas park, administered by the modern dance company Retazos, and open only for its interest in “some workshop for children and teens,” according to a custodian.
The list goes on. At Sol and Oficios, next to the Office of Cultural Heritage, an enormous green space surrounds a fountain as dry as a desert, that is their park. And at Acosta and Damas they built a pretty reminder of the Jewish community that lived there, just for the pedestrians to pass by because of having nowhere to rest without jumping the gate.
One of the best examples of this closure of public spaces is the fountain at Plaza Vieja in the heart of Havana within the city walls. The uninformed find the bars that surround the water to be strange. They do not know that this area has so many problems with the supply of the liquid which has had neighbors bringing buckets and tanks to it. A spectacle that reflects the real Cuba, which is not seen on postcards.
Across from the Central Train Station – another decadent icon of the city – a park offers anything except an invitation to relax. Old steam locomotives rust behind bars next to benches that will never be used again either.
This situation forms part of a vicious cycle that is completed with vandalism. The primary idea is that the parks remain closed so that the neighbors – who are not foreigners, but seemingly “uncivilized” Cubans – do no damage to them, while the lack of contact and “entrance prohibited” could be making it difficult to create respect for the urban environment or a sense of belonging.
So Nercy Perez, who works at the previously mentioned garden at Teniente Rey and Havana, would like the area schools to integrate themselves more in the projects she and her colleagues promote. “If children learn from an early age to take care of things, then later it will be easier.” The woman is of the opinion that “people do not have the culture” of caring for things. Indeed, she had to interrupt the conversation to scold a student who passed by and just grabbed one of her plants.
Other neighbors complain about the lack of public spaces. “The children have nowhere to play. They have to be in the street. The old people have nowhere to sit,” criticizes Joaquin from El Cristo neighborhood. The plaza that carries this latter name has been closed by metal barriers for a long time. Its interior does not look anything like a place where generations of Havanans scampered.
Also closed to the public, the Plaza del Cristo faces one of the many interminable repairs that can be seen in Old Havana, between crumbling buildings and dirty streets. What is obvious, unfortunately for those who long for a pretty city, is that not so many tourists pass through here.
“The only option for children is to go to the Inflatable Toys Park,” complains Norma, mother of two little ones. She concludes: “Of course, since that does provide money [from entrance fees], they don’t close it.”
Translated by MLK