Stories from Calle Habana tell of a transforming city

AP News
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Posted: Apr 16, 2016 10:20 AM
Stories from Calle Habana tell of a transforming city

HAVANA (AP) — In the Old Havana neighborhood Cubans call Angel Hill, a dramatic transformation is underway. Crumbling old buildings are being replaced with expensive, shiny new restaurants and restored buildings for wealthier Cubans and tourists. Here are the stories of five residents of Calle Habana on how the changes are impacting them.

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Pedro Alejandro Lopez, 83

Lopez and his wife moved into their four-bedroom colonial on Calle Habana 40 years ago. A truck driver with the national electric company, he was eventually allowed to purchase the house, which was built in 1918, in exchange for monthly payments of 50 pesos over the course of 20 years — the equivalent of about $2 a month, not adjusted for inflation.

The elderly couple and their blind son now live on his $12 monthly pension. It's barely enough to cover daily expenses and a burden to maintain the large, decaying home. The family still uses a 1960 General Electric refrigerator, which on a recent afternoon had just a few bottles of water inside.

Lopez is eager to sell the house and buy a smaller one in better condition. The property is currently listed on a realty website for $55,000.

"We still don't know exactly how much money we can ask for this," he said. "We'll have to see."

A real estate agent helping to sell the property said Lopez's home hasn't been snatched up as quickly as others because the government still owns an apartment on the building's second floor, which needs significant repairs and cannot be sold.

Lopez has never spoken to the tourists who now stroll through his street, nor has he ever dined at the new Habana 61 restaurant, where a meal of grilled lobster with tropical fruit sauce would cost his entire monthly pension. Nonetheless, he's enjoying watching the transformation of his street.

"Before we had a monotonous life," he said. "Now there's more activity."

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Reinaldo Bordon, 44

For nearly 20 years, Bordon and two friends worked in Havana restaurants, slowly pulling together their life savings and purchasing the property where they started Habana 61 in late 2013.

The restaurant has been an overwhelming success: It's currently listed as the second-highest-ranked restaurant in Havana on TripAdvisor, with more than 500 reviews.

Inside, there are sleek leather chairs and neon painted walls decorated with abstract artwork of cityscapes. The chefs cook up traditional Cuban food, like the beef stew known as ropa vieja, but with a modern take. On a recent afternoon, a bartender made a tray full of mojitos for a group of tourists.

"Our clients are basically tourists," he said. "Though Cubans do come as well."

When Bordon and his friends arrived on Calle Habana, the street was considerably worse for wear. Slowly they went about transforming the ground-floor apartment they had bought into a restaurant. It wasn't an easy process. When they wanted to decorate the bathroom with black and white tiles, for example, they could only find white ones.

So, they bought the white ones and had to wait until black tiles became available.

Calle Habana's transformation has been dramatic to watch, Bordon said.

"The entire look of the block has changed," he said.

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Jose Angel Valls Cabarrocas, 70

Returning to Cuba after decades living in Miami has been an emotional journey for Cabarrocas.

After fleeing to the U.S. with his family at age 13, Cabarrocas learned recently he could buy property as long as he reclaimed his Cuban citizenship. A year ago, shortly after Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced the U.S. and Cuba would renew diplomatic relations, he decided to make a move.

Calle Habana was the street that called out to him.

"You can live here and while you're here see the transition right in front of your eyes," he said.

Cabarrocas is planning on making the stately colonial home into a getaway for family and friends. He's trying to keep the original vestiges of the 1930s building, though after 57 years with almost no maintenance, the property needs a lot of work — starting with new plumbing and electricity.

"It's probably going to take a year," he said.

Cabarrocas isn't sure what lies ahead for Calle Habana but he's optimistic.

"We can just hope and pray this genie has come out of the bottle and will never be back," he said. "In fact, it's impossible to get it back in."

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Magaly Gonzalez Martinez, 66

The collapsing tenement building where Martinez's family and 16 others live was once a towering mansion that belonged to a wealthy count.

Martinez is quick to point out the remnants of a prosperous past amid the rubble: Blue floral tiles that still peek through the crumbling walls. A marble stairway goes halfway up then drops off.

When she moved in 46 years ago, the building was still in relatively good condition. But slowly it deteriorated until the roof collapsed five years ago, destroying the front of the building and sending firefighters searching for residents through the debris. Luckily, no one was killed.

Since then, the residents have been wondering when the building will be repaired.

Martinez sees new restaurants and hostels for tourists popping up all around Angel Hill.

"Everything is very beautiful," she said. "But we're here in the middle with this ugly facade. And I don't think it should be like that."

She's not optimistic the changes underway will benefit people like her anytime soon.

"We're waiting for a miracle," she said.

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Jesus Hermida Franco, 41

There was a time when Franco's artwork was dark and tormented.

People didn't seem to value art, he said, and he found little motivation to wake up and work each day.

For Franco, the last five years have been a marked departure from those dismal days. Tourists now regularly stop in to see his work in the first-floor room of his family's home on Calle Habana that has been transformed into a studio and gallery. He is now painting in bright, colorful hues.

On a recent afternoon, he was at work on a large-scale rendition of a Life magazine cover.

"People value you a bit more as an artist," Franco said. "And that pushes you to work harder."