StreetFilm: The Street Life of Havana

Ethan Kent of Project for Public Spaces recently returned from a trip to Havana with a trove of pictures, cut together in this Streetfilm by Nick Whitaker. Whatever changes are in store for the country in the wake of Fidel Castro’s departure from power, these images make clear that the dense, flourishing street life of the capital city is one thing worth preserving. Here’s how Ethan puts it:

If children playing in the streets is an indicator of the success of a
city, then Havana’s streets may be some of the most successful in the
world…

It’s not anything to glorify. It’s not an ideal city… But at the same time, I think Havana streets are a window into some of what we’ve lost in New York and around the world.

  • Davis

    I can only imagine the number of real estate developers, car dealers, hotel chains and various other corporate interests ready to parachute in and “develop” Havana into a First World traffic cesspit…

    Hell, why should streets be used for vendors, family meals and stickball when they could be used for parked cars and honking Land Rovers? Didn’t Streetsblog recently do a post on the hellhole that is San Juan, Puerto Rico?

  • Lola

    Very nice, and great music.

    P.S. All those people on the street also have healthcare.

  • Clarence Eckerson

    Subtract cars, add health care. I like that equation.

  • Chun

    Notice that there are no large signs like “Citgo” or StarBucks everywhere. Each place in Havana is unique and not filled with chains(stores).

  • Halfie

    Having also recently traveled to Cuba, and being a proponent of livable streets myself, it’s realistic however to note that the main reason why I think so many people hang out in the streets of Havana is that retreating into the privacy of your own home is not that appealing when you lack a color TV, computer, air conditioning, hot water or dependable plumbing. Maybe people spill out onto the streets to play dominos and stickball because when you lack a disposable income of any sort because your monthly salary comes to $20, there are no alternatives? And regarding cars and why they go slowly—I think it might have less to do with drivers’ respect for pedestrians and street life, and a lot more to do with the fact that a car that is 40+ years old is just not capable of going very fast.

    Cuban society is built upon such a vastly different model and with such different constraints than our own, that I’m not sure how useful it is to compare Havana’s street life to New York City’s. Any thoughts?

  • st

    thanks ethan for these photos and narrative–
    cuban streets look wonderful!

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    30 years ago in our neighborhood no one could afford air conditioning either and almost everyone was out on the stoop. Now the houses are worth a billion and have AC, the stoops are empty except in the remaining rent control holdout locations where some not so rich people live. AC is also much less common in Europe as a function of the much higher energy prices. Thats one reason the last two heat waves have been so difficult in France and Italy.

  • Halfe:

    I don’t think the film or any of the write ups say that Havana is a perfect example/model. Even Ethan said that at the beginning. So correct with almost everything you say!

    However, what the film purports to show is that a society where more people are outside where cars are not the dominant force on our roads is a more friendly, more human place. On that viewpoint it is very useful. I am sure that even the most ardent supporters of livable streets would want to banish cars from everywhere, how would commerce and goods happen? But if we could make NYC a little like this in select areas, would be a good thing.

  • Oops, that should read “…wouldn’t want to banish cars from everywhere…”

  • SteveL

    Halfie, you are dead on.

    Unfortunately, Cuba is a ripe fruit that is waiting to be picked by commercialism and greed, and big business is lined up waiting for the rape.

    Give the streets another 10 years and they may look worse than New York.

  • Mark

    Gargamel, commerce happens and good move in places that are car-light and car-free. There are many examples in Europe. Venice is arguably the best one — apart from a parking lot at the edge of town, the city is entirely car-free. There is nothing about commerce that inherently requires a car. Goods can move by rail and boat.

  • Gargamel Tralfaz

    Mark,

    Of course I understand how goods move. “Car-light” still means some cars/trucks. And I think to be reasonable in NYC we wouldn’t be able to impose something that drastic straight off, it’s a good way to get it rejected outright and embolden car rights groups.

    But if you do it a little at a time, like they have done in Copenhagen, eventually you might have areas that are car-lighter. And I think the current NYC DOT understands that with many initiatives they are putting in: a car-free area here, greener area there, tres bike lanes over yonder, etc. etc. It will all add up and get us in a better place. Well we hope, right?

  • Mark

    Gargamel, you’re right, of course. I love Copenhagen! The only thing I would add is that our recent advances hang by a thread. If Mayor Bloomberg is replaced by Mayor Weiner, and he replaces Janette Sadik-Khan at DOT, progress could grind to a halt.

  • Halfie, I don’t know what part of Cuba you were in, but when I was there, in 2001, most places I saw had TVs, fans or AC’s. Even in the small towns, there was indoor plumbing. The biggest problem is the unpredictable water supply.

    And the car population is not made up solely of 50s-era autos; there are a lot of smaller European-made makes, especially in Havana. It’s just the older cars are the ones tourists want to take pictures of. The biggest part of the traffic mix, to my recollection, is jerry-rigged motorbikes.

  • Mark:

    And of course you are right about that for certain. I used to have a favorable opinion of Weiner, but he has been so viciously irresponsible in the transportation debate, makes it hard to take him seriously on anything. Will be interesting to see if he comes around…I am not holding my breath.

  • I am sure that even the most ardent supporters of livable streets wouldn’t want to banish cars from everywhere, how would commerce and goods happen?

    Commerce and goods are human nature, and they have a way of happening no matter what anyone does that might restrict them. They happened before cars, and they will happen after cars.

    I don’t want to banish cars from any area larger than, say, Roosevelt Island. But would like to see them disappear one day.

  • I have no problem banning cars from Roosevelt Island as long as taxis and car services would still be allowed as well as our own Red Buses and the Q102.

    http://www.subchat.com/buschat/read.asp?Id=87979

    Although the hospital workers at our two hospitals would probably not be too happy.

  • Well, I’m not too happy when I visit the island and have to deal with the hosiptal staff cars. What’s with these people and their entitlement?

    But of course I wouldn’t want to ban the buses.

    Even with the hospital staff cars, Roosevelt Island is still much more car-free, and consequently much more relaxing, than anywhere in the area.

  • Bill Nelson

    Just in case anyone forgot, Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship where human rights are nil, the citizens are imprisoned on their island (unless they want to take a chance on floating on an inner tube to Miami), and the Socialist Paradise reduced the country’s wealth from that of Italy to a Third-World country.

    If kids playing in the streets is an indicator od “success”, then perhaps New York should look at the squalid cities of Cameroon, Liberia, etc. as models also.

    It’s nice to see the rich white boy go to Cuba to pronounce that Cubans be subjected to their miserable poverty because he can then view the “preservation” from far far away.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Hm, Bill Nelson sounds like a rich white boy name. What say we not have an argument among rich white boys about what’s best for the poor dark Cubans?

    It’s important to point out Cuba’s shameful human rights record. But just because some things are bad doesn’t mean that they haven’t done other things better than us.

    Let’s see, we’ve got horrible, dangerous streets with poverty and bad government (as I’ve heard is the case in places like Lagos and Manila) and horrible, dangerous streets in places with wealth and good government (as in Scottsdale or Athens). Maybe we can have good street life without living in poverty under a dictatorship?

  • Gargamel Tralfaz

    Amen, Angus.

  • Christine Berthet

    Bill Nelson,

    Human rights ?

    What would you say of an island I know where the governement gives 80% of the public space to 20% of the population for private transportation and where vast numbers of children get sick ( without health care ) because of the transportation habits of the top 20%?

    So do you mean human rights ? or you mean the human rights of the few to take away from the many what rightfully belongs to them , like public space ?

    Cuban people are fabulous: so educated, helpful.
    If all these kids had a WII do you think they would be playing in the streets..

    AS Enrique Penalosa says , we have civilization choices to make here and our streets discussions are running very deep..

    AhHHH I feel better !

  • Adam K

    SteveL: “Unfortunately, Cuba is a ripe fruit that is waiting to be picked by commercialism and greed, and big business is lined up waiting for the rape.” How thoughtful of you to impose your values on what Cubans may or may not want to spend their money on with any newfound choices.

    Cap’n Transit: “Well, I’m not too happy when I visit the island and have to deal with the hosiptal staff cars. What’s with these people and their entitlement?” Don’t you think it’s a bit entitled of you, as a “visitor” to the island, to complain about having to “deal” with the hospital workers’ parked cars during your visit? While I agree with your perspective re: car-free places, I don’t think any neighborhood really wants “outsiders” coming in and telling them how their hospital workers should get to work.

    Just some thoughts.

  • Bill Nelson

    Angus Grieve-Smith:

    “Hm, Bill Nelson sounds like a rich white boy name.”

    Thanks for letting me know that non-white people can’t be named “Nelson”.

    “What say we not have an argument among rich white boys about what’s best for the poor dark Cubans?”

    Er…you’re missing the point, my friend. I have absolutely no desire to impose anything on Cubans, or anyone else. The larger point is that it is arrogant for rich Americans to impose *their* esthetics on other people. If Cubans want to retain Havana the way it is, that’s fine by me. But don’t be surprised if someday they might actually prefer Wal-Marts and warehouse stores — which, given their poverty, would be much more plausible than fretting over “urban spaces” and “livable streets” and other such indulgences that only rich people can afford to worry over.

    “It’s important to point out Cuba’s shameful human rights record. But just because some things are bad doesn’t mean that they haven’t done other things better than us.”

    Would you say the same thing about Nazis? Sure they have a shameful human rights record, but they did some things better than us. Hitler was a real enthusiast about preserving the countryside.

  • Adam, those hospitals aren’t for the island; they’re for long-term care of patients from all over the city. The nearest city emergency room is Bellevue.

    Eric may know differently, but I seriously doubt that the neighborhood residents would be upset if hospital staff were required to park in the Motorgate and take the bus. Except for the island residents who work in the hospital.

    To the extent that Roosevelt Island is a neighborhood, the hospitals and parks are far enough outside that neighborhood, and oriented enough towards the city as a whole, that I don’t think the residents should have veto power over what goes on there.

    And if the embargo is ever lifted, do you really think that “Cubans” (as opposed to a few influential Cubans in Havana and Miami) will have much more say about what happens on their island than they do now?

  • Bill Nelson

    Christine Berthet:

    It seems like your trying to say that the American government (or perhaps the municipal government of New York City) is a much bigger offender of human rights than Fidel Castro ever was.

    This, I take it, is because you have some sort of belief that the American/NYC government confiscated 80% of the land (from whom?) and gave it to 20% of the people, who then make “vast numbers of children” incurably sick because they drive cars.

    Are you in academia by any chance? If not, I see a professorship in your future.

    Incidentally, are you aware of any Americans who, seeking improved human rights, have actually tried to move to Cuba?

    Now, are you aware that many Cubans have decided to forfeit their Cuban Human Rights (and sometimes their lives) by trying to move to America? Do you know what the Cuban government does to Cubans who even *try* to make such a move?

    Why do you suppose the migration demand is from Cuba to the USA? Funny, you would expect the reverse, wouldn’t you — given their wonderful architecture, livable streets, legendary health care, etc.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Thanks for letting me know that non-white people can’t be named “Nelson”.

    I didn’t say that.

    But don’t be surprised if someday they might actually prefer Wal-Marts and warehouse stores — which, given their poverty, would be much more plausible than fretting over “urban spaces” and “livable streets” and other such indulgences that only rich people can afford to worry over.

    I don’t believe that “ony rich people can afford to worry over” liveable streets, but to the extent that that’s the case, it’s because the rich people who write zoning regulations and the rich Waltons who can price small retailers out of the market have presented them with this false dichotomy.

    I would honestly be surprised if the Cubans prefer Walmarts and warehouse stores that they would have to drive to and build big dangerous roads for – if they’re also presented with the option of a fully stocked supermarket within walking distance, and if they’re not brainwashed by images of “the American Dream” that somehow fail to include car crashes, foreclosures, traffic jams, childhood obesity and the loss of street playspace.

    Would you say the same thing about Nazis?

    Actually, I would, and I bet my holocaust survivor cousins would to. Would you like me to ask them, Mr. Godwin?

    Yes, Bill, Fidel Castro is a Bad Man. A very, very Bad Man. A very, very, very Bad Man. Cubans are oppressed. Very, very oppressed. Now, despite the fact that the Cubans are oppressed by a very, very, very Bad Man, occasionally some good things happen. Castro is not the Devil incarnate; he is incapable of preventing all good things from happening. We will not give him credit for this good thing Ethan saw, but it is there. Satisfied?

  • FJ

    I find it interesting to point out why this does happen in Habana, I am sure there are many reasons which should be discussed.

    To decide it is good just because it happens, without understanding why, may be a mistake. I would love this to happen if people really had the option to decide this is what they wanted, not the only choice they had.

    a. Life in places of extreme poverty such as slums is a lot more communal than elsewhere as a survival mechanism. People tend to live more out in the street. Many times they depend on their neighbors for basic survival.

    b. They do not have a choice to travel. Either by car or functional public transportation. Public transportation in Cuba is a very difficult process.

    c. They do not have a choice of entertainment such as visiting non-close friends and relatives, doing the internet thing, watching a variety of TV channels or going to the movies.

    d. There is no paying job.

    e. There is no school. Why are so many kids in the street? I am told this happens at various hours of the day during the week. Check out some in uniform, check out the bright light of day in many photos with children.

    f. There are no cars because no normal people can make enough money in their lifetime to buy one.

    g. There is just nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.

    Peñalosa is great, this video would have something to teach if it had been filmed in the Colombian environment.

  • FJ

    I forgot an important reason:

    h. The street space feels a lot more comfortable when you live in an empty, run down, tight space shared by others.

  • In this discussion of Cuba, please imagine that Blinky the Dog is in the background, clarifying to any who might wonder that we all agree that Castro is a undeniably a very bad man.

  • FJ

    Making fun of other people’s misery is the new porn.

  • squalid cities … miserable poverty … extreme poverty … slums … they depend on their neighbors for basic survival … run down … misery

    Did you actually watch the video? I watched it a second time to see if there was any misery, slums or squalor I was missing. I saw a bunch of people who all looked well-fed and well-nourished (and no obesity, actually), and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. The buildings maybe could have used a paint job, but they didn’t seem to be falling down. They were solid, pre-war buildings, not leaky tin shacks, Soviet-style apartment blocks or crappy McMansions. There were no pictures of anyone begging or looking particularly unhappy.

    It’s possible that Ethan was “handled” and deliberately shown an unrepresentative group of healthy, well-fed Cubans who were just pretending to be happy, and it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. But taking the photos at face value, I don’t see any evidence for the misery you refer to. I’ve been to third world countries where people were malnourished, and I didn’t see anything to suggest that here.

    To decide it is good just because it happens, without understanding why, may be a mistake.

    It is good because it’s good not to live in fear of cars. This aspect of the situation is good, but Ethan said that he wanted to focus on this aspect of their situation, not their lives as a whole.

    Finally, what’s empty about the spaces we saw? How can a space be “empty” and “tight” at the same time? There seemed to be plenty of interesting things in those public spaces. And who’s making fun?

  • I know Ethan and like many of the good people working in the livable streets movements, when they go to other places they just adventure on their own. I doubt very much that he was “handled”…maybe he will chime in, where are you Ethan?

  • Re Cars, Parking, and Roosevelt Island

    Adam – As the Captain indicated the hospitals are not for general residenmt use and each does have its own parking lots. At this point the traffic the staff adds to Main Street is what it is. We still generally have lower congestion than any other neighborhood in the City. If we were now to require the hospital staffs to park at Motorgate the lot would fill up too fast. As for on street parking there are 55 metered spots for a resident population of closer to 10,000 or 11,000. Most of them are fill every day and many with cars that never seem to move. Read the NYDN article linked.

    – Eric

    http://rooseveltisland360.blogspot.com/search?q=parking

    http://rooseveltislander.blogspot.com/2008/01/is-there-parking-nepotism-in-small.html

    http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/queens/2008/01/15/2008-01-15_mission_to_stop_illegally_parked_cars-2.html

  • FJ

    Did you actually watched the video?

    Yes, did you see how many lacked shirts?

    …slums or squalor.. missing…

    These are not slums, these are magnificent spanish structures with incredible resiliency, now being left to decay. The ocurrence of people living outside homes and offices, in the streets, in an excessive non-typical way is similar to what happens in slums. It is a psychological effect as much as an economic one. It happens when people do not have something to do, some place to work or entertain.

    Per capita income in Cuba was comparable to European countries, misery is relative. There is a lot of misery in our world, but Cuba never compared to the worse in economic nor human terms. Cuba was a country that closed the borders to those whom wanted to live there, not one that closes borders to those who want to leave.

    I saw a bunch of people who all looked well-fed and well-nourished (and no obesity, actually), and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Did you see any of the kids with fruit or eating fruit? In fact did you see any non-tourist with fruit?

    It’s possible that Ethan was “handled” and deliberately shown an unrepresentative group of healthy, well-fed Cubans who were just pretending to be happy…

    He was not, Cubans are spectacular wonderful people capable of adapting to substandard conditions and stagnation. They can make do as you can see in the photos with an old stick and a used ball to have fun, lift spirits and go on living.

    And who’s making fun?

    Who ever tries to hide the full story of what these cubans go through. Why did you not mention the internet ban? What about the overall feeling of incapability to do anything at all to improve conditions? Do you consider these real or laughable?

    I know recognized scholars who avoid political discussions and keep their themes technical, but still have a very difficult time to get basic library access and internet access for example.

  • Who ever tries to hide the full story of what these cubans go through. Why did you not mention the internet ban? What about the overall feeling of incapability to do anything at all to improve conditions? Do you consider these real or laughable?

    Oh, real! Castro is a very bad man indeed!

  • Yes, did you see how many lacked shirts?

    Oh, come on. How do you tell the difference between “lacking” a shirt and leaving one at home because it’s eighty degrees out! Why would those kids have nice, new-looking shorts but no shirts? Even the poorest parts of Africa are flooded with old shirts.

    The ocurrence of people living outside homes and offices, in the streets, in an excessive non-typical way is similar to what happens in slums. It is a psychological effect as much as an economic one. It happens when people do not have something to do, some place to work or entertain.

    That’s funny, I thought it was a psychological effect of warm weather. Does this happen in parks, too? When I go to Central Park and see that it’s full of people having fun, does that mean that it’s a slum too, that the whole Upper East Side is a slum? How do you define “an excessive non-typical way” in a manner that would ever allow us to increase our amount of enjoyment or free time without being pathologized?

    The suffering of the Cuban people under the repressive dictatorship of Castro and his associates is real. No one is making fun of that. Blinky the Dog is a way of making fun of the culture of political correctness that says that it’s impossible for anything good to happen in a country where a Bad Man is in power, and that any discussion of life in an unapproved country must focus on the abuses of said Bad Man.

  • Bill Nelson

    Given a choice, there’s every reason to believe that Cubans would very gladly leave their “street life” behind for SUVs and Wal-Marts.

    Evidence: Go to any American bordertown and see the Wal-Mart lot jammed at all hours with Mexican license plates. These people do not *have* to go to Wal-Mart; instead they *choose* to go to Wal-Mart because poor people *like low prices*.

    The egocentric arrogance of rich urban Americans is astounding in that they continuously project *their* values onto others. Perhaps it feels good to posture as the patron of the “other” as they play in the streets because there is no TV, no newspaper, no books, no phone and no decent plumbing in their homes. Or maybe it is because there is basically nowhere to go nor anything to do in a drab Communist state?

    Rich white boy can feel *gooood* when praising the consequences of state-enforced poverty. Here’s a fact: Cubans are no better nor worse than anyone else, and I doubt that they need the condescending praise from up above. What they do need is their independence so they can pursue what they choose, instead of what is chosen for them by the Castro Brothers, rich white boys, or anyone else.

    Not that the Cubans know about white-boy, as communication with the outside world is prohibited. Small detail, there.

  • Bill, you’re a troll. Stop calling names, or go away.

  • FJ

    “Oh, come on. How do you tell the difference between “lacking” a shirt and leaving one at home because it’s eighty degrees out!”

    You will not see this in most of the Caribbean except Haiti. For us 80 degrees is closer to cool than warm. We do not go out and celebrate in the street because the climate is warm or hot, this is normal. They probably did have shirts, but they take very good care of the shirt they have. They take it off not to sweat it and deteriorate it because they will be difficult to replace. In other most other places this does not happen.

    “When I go to Central Park and see that it’s full of people having fun, does that mean that it’s a slum too, that the whole Upper East Side is a slum?”

    These people are not in a park, they are living their normal life in the middle of the street. This video points out something peculiar. This is not happening in a park in the city where people go, it happens everywhere. This is why it is different.

    “…there’s every reason to believe that Cubans would very gladly leave their “street life” behind for SUVs and Wal-Marts.”

    Sadly that is true. I would like to be able to help avoid this from happening. Education is needed. Cuban urban development in the begining of the 20th century was very advanced. It produced a living city model that expanded without need for suburbia. The lousy suburban american model was starting to creep by 1960, but it stopped as most capital investment froze in the urban centers. Resources were focused in non-urban centers with poor results.

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