Reminiscing about Cuba during Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles

— by Stacy Sinclair, Ed.D

Downtown Old Havana

Downtown Old Havana

The history of Havana is imprinted in its architecture and as I recently walked the streets of different neighborhoods, I could see that history unfold as I learned from her people about their past, present and dreams for their future.

Island life is challenging, but if positioned along advantageous wind and current lines, it can also be a crossroads for trading, in goods, culture and knowledge. The history and politics of Cuba is complicated to say the least.  But even with the US blockade – including the recent exclusion from the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles – Cuba’s influence remains. For such a unique island, what can the US learn from her? Much more than mojitos –

The crossroads that Cuba represents is written in its architecture. In 1565, the Spanish built an aqueduct to bring drinking water into and through the city. It reminded me of the zenja running under the streets of downtown LA.

In 1553, Havana’s fortress, one of the island’s oldest structures, was built from coral stone out of a quarry in the town of Vedado, using local building materials to represent the strength of the city. Though the fortress did little against British tactics, it still stands as a thriving center of activity. This reminded me of a talk my advisor-to-be at Loyola Marymount University gave about our city as ‘nature’ in a different form, that the building materials were once natural stone and sediment. This changed the way I saw Los Angeles and the innovation it could harness. Seeing the fragile coral turned to stone, then used to create a symbol of strength, reminded me how resources can change in unexpected ways to meet our needs.

From the early 1920s, architecture in Havana started to mimic styles from the US to attract celebrities and the wealthy from around the world – similar to LA mimicking architecture from Europe or the east coast. The 1960s brought pre-fabricated structures for medical, research and university studies. Murals and public art dot the landscape as wayfinding as much as cultural landmarks. Much like LA, there is a mix and match of styles, colors and care around every bend in the road.

As a native Angelena watching my city and community struggle with housing issues, I was fascinated by a Cuban architect’s description of modern property ownership that followed the revolution of 1959. Cuba outlawed homelessness and today, any Cuban can own their own home. 96% of the housing stock is private. The purchase price is based on the age, size, condition and location of the property as set by the government and the individual receives a no interest loan to pay off over 20 years.

An individual can own his or her own apartment, but not the building, which is owned by the government. Salaries are set by the government. Given the cost of goods, a minor repair like a new toilet can cost as much as a month’s salary.

So, what does this economic equation do to maintenance and repair of common spaces if there is a lacking sense of community and stretched financial resources? Three buildings a day crumble in Havana due to lack of repair. Yet, Cubans are forming community (or building) based groups to voice concerns to their representatives and look to them for solutions that are shared upstream in the political structure.

How different is this structure than the one we have if living in a condo in Los Angeles? The Homeowners’ Association (HOA) is designed to hear an individual’s needs and represent their interests using pooled resources. The HOA’s representative governance structure works when it understands the needs of its members and the greater needs of the building. Yet to be selected, knowledge about aging buildings, costs of maintenance and repair, permits and regulations, is not required – and often not desired. How does a building make wise infrastructure decisions without the kind of knowledge we work toward at USGBC-LA?

My mother lives in a condo in a building built in the 1960s. She told me recently she runs the water for many minutes until it gets hot – if it gets hot at all – to take a shower or do dishes. As a concerned citizen, recognizing we are in drought, she has brought this issue to the building management hoping they will check systems and find a solution. The manager expects an 84 year-old to take cold showers or to fix the building’s pipes.

Where is the line between the unit and the building? What is this elderly woman’s responsibility? When does trouble-shooting become whistle-blowing? One resident’s observations can catch a hidden issue and benefit all in the building before an expensive assessment is required.

Cubans I talked to look to us in the US for answers, but sadly, I find we are struggling with the very same issues. We want to have pride in our built spaces. We want them maintained. We have limited finances to act alone. Yet, where there is community and connection, I find there are answers, even as we keep seeking unifying solutions.

About the Author

Stacy Sinclair, Ed.DStacy Sinclair is an environmental scientist and author. She partners with USGBC-LA to raise awareness about the issues related to sustainability and resilience facing decision-makers.

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