jueves, 1 de julio de 2010

How Havana grew before and after its walls disappeared

Havana had its own decorated belt. A stone wall was built around it in the second half of the 17th century to prevent pirate and corsair attacks. The largest wall among the ones which surrounded the cities that made up the circuit of fleets gathering in Havana to take the plunder of the New World to the Spanish metropolis keeps being a reference point in the Cuban capital’s urban history, though the wall was torn down in the 19th century.

Cities grew freely, and setting a limit such as a wall meant to stop its natural growth, to give it a defined shape, implying regulating its entrance and exit through gates, and to open and close the gates with cannons warning dwellers about it.

Despite these strict military regulations, Havana didn’t have to wait for the walls to be torn down to continue growing. Prado Promenade was added to the more than 120 hectares that protected the walls, the moats and the glacis or open-air area. Prado Promenade was the first important structure built outside the walled city in 1772 for inhabitants to take horse-drawn carriage rides. People got used to getting in touch with nature, which is why several promenades were erected.

In the 19th century the demolition of walls became a fashionable urban practice not only for the colonial city of Havana, but also for Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Vienna, cities which had begun a process aimed at reusing idle areas of previous defensive origin.

In the second half of the 19th century, Havana was the capital of one of the wealthiest and most productive colonies in the world. But its urban wealth was not in the hands of distant or absent owners, but in the hands of investors who resided in the city and the country, whether they were Spaniards or Cubans.

The city was the environment where the ruling colonial elite developed its activity and found the setting an ideal site for them to invest the capitals that they had managed to accumulate. That gave rise to a process in which they began to value the city as something important and to take many initiatives to turn Havana into a modern city, with the best urban breakthroughs, and to carry out important architectural works.

The urbanization of the area was aimed at building a center of civil constructions for different social activities: markets, theaters, hotels, recreation societies and residences. A central park was designed in the middle of that urban project, and the rest of the released area was replaced by large lots or blocks, which were auctioned at very expensive prices, bringing in large earnings for the Spanish State at a time of war against the “mambises” or Cuban independence fighters.

The district was designed with a monumental nature and a neoclassical architecture with a tendency to uniformity.

Havana was the largest colonial city which had survived as a capital in a vast collapsing Spanish empire. Urban hygiene, decor, beauty and prosperity were important tasks to maintain the Spanish government’s prestige before the eyes of the world. They tried to identify Spain ’s image as a metropolis with arrangements to improve urbanization and services. The despotic Spanish governor known as Tacón did it with a military criterion.

He changed urban infrastructure and services: improved streets, sidewalks, the service of night watchmen, drainage systems and the promenades’ fountains. He also opened the Military Promenade (later known as Charles III) and began to think about remodeling Prado Promenade.

The opening of Vedado neighborhood in 1859 also had a great connotation within modern initiatives to expand the city; it mainly included the use of the portico in a systematic way and of green areas for city dwellers to cool off because of the hot weather.

The first three decades of the 20th century was the golden age of the area’s urbanization, with important public buildings, huge entertainment and recreation halls such as the Gallician, Asturian and “Dependientes” Centers, where thousands of couples went to dance, in addition to various theaters, hotels, cafes and restaurants.

Several important cigar factories were located in the area. Some of those industrial facilities dated back to the 19th century and remained there with the participation of the working class in the city’s downtown, along with the new public and recreation buildings. It was an urban space that give birth to a lot of social vitality.

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