Saturday, February 25, 2017

Our Man in Havana 5: Habana Centro in film

Habana Centro is the part of town west of the Paseo de Prado and west of the El Capitolio. Being a kilometer or so from the harbor, you see fewer tourists than in Habana Viejo, so this is a great area to see the local residents and explore the eclectic architecture.
Typical Habana Centro scene, 112 Escobar
As I wrote earlier, Havana is a glorious display of faded architectural extravagance. Six decades of no maintenance in a humid climate, and almost every house has filth, spalling concrete, imploding floors, dripping pipes, and dingy balconies with hanging laundry. Toilets are as bad as Istanbul (but not as revolting as Sofia). All is superimposed on what was once extravagant art deco, art nouveau, postwar modernist, and Spanish colonial architecture with Grecian elements. Havana is amazing because this nostalgic luxury coincides with extreme poverty. People live in these grand faded townhouses, putting up with dingy stairwells, peeling paint, and crumbling facades and balconies.

The following pictures are from semi-random walks around Centro. Please read the captions for the locations and click any picture to enlarge to 1600 pixels wide.
Cuban caryatids at 206 Virtudes ("a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head")
The corner of Havana and Blanco Streets.
325 Animas and its cheerful inhabitants. Note the exposed steel beams under the balcony - might they be corroded?
452 Animas. The street, like everything else, needed a bit of repair.
Hanging around at 156 Campanario.
Hanging around at 162 Campanario.
Havana and Virtudes. It looks like the corner building once had big windows, but possibly the facade is still original. 
The domino champions, 114 Lealtad. Note how they are supporting their plywood table on their knees.
Finally, a vegetable/grocery store at 519 Empedrado. We were surprised how few food stores served these neighborhoods, at least where we  explored. The produce did not look too appetizing. 
Well, Che is here in the grocery store to remind you that the revolution is all-important. 519 Empedrado. 
Another rather unappealing (revolting) vegetable stand at 313 San Miguel. 
An occasional empty lot means whatever structure was once on the site collapsed and the debris was taken away. 265 San Miguel. 
A common sight: a bunch of guys fixing a car. 216 Campanario. 

All photographs taken with a Leica M2 35mm rangefinder camera with (mostly) the 35mm f/2.0 Summicron lens. Film: Kodak Tri-X 400 film, exposed at ISO 320 and developed in Kodak HC-110 developer.

Older Havana articles:

Monday, February 20, 2017

Our Man in Havana 4: Habana Viejo in film

Habana Viejo, or Old Havana, is one of the most amazing displays of architectural and decorative wealth that has slipped into urban decay that you are likely to see anywhere. I rate Havana up there with Rangoon, Detroit, Palermo, and Kathmandu as extreme examples of what happens when you neglect your infrastructure for decades (Republicans in USA: are you paying attention? Do you comprehend?).

Because of the contrasts and ironies, Havana is a visual delight. I highly recommended it for photographers - but do it the real way, use a film camera. For the pictures below, I used my Leica M2 35mm camera with Kodak Tri-X film to simulate a 1950s photojournalist look.
Let's take a semi-random walk through Havana Viejo. We have already briefly looked at the waterfront in a previous article (click the link). The photograph above is the Terminal Sierra Maestre, where cruise ships unload.
This is a block of somewhat rough apartment buildings on the Avenida de Bélgica, across the street from the Estación Central de Ferrocarriles (the central train station). To get there, I took a tricycle rickshaw, pumped by a very friendly driver. One of my maps showed a home of Jose Marti, but I am not sure if it is in the scene or on a side street.
On Teniente Rey, we saw school groups being taken to museums. All through the country, school children wear neat, clean uniforms and are mostly well-behaved. Education has been a high priority for the government.
At the Plaza de San Francisco, plenty of local folks hang out along with tourists.
Near the Casa Oswaldo Guayasamín (an Ecuadorian painter who was a friend of Fidel), there were interesting patterns of light and shadow.
Empedrado is a major road that leads west from the Castillo de la Real Fuerza at the waterfront as far as the Prado. The people-watching is great, and, as you can see, selfies have come to Havana.
Brazil (also known as Teniente Rey) also runs east-west and ends at the neoclassical El Capitolio. These people were waiting for a pharmacy or possibly a clinic.
The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is in a big hulking building on the corner of the Paseo del Prado and Colon. I heard tap dancers through the windows. 
The Paseo del Prado (also shown on maps as the Paseo de Marti) is a tree-shaded boulevard with a broad pedestrian walk in the center. Everyone goes there to be seen and to watch. I saw mothers with their little girls in tutus, nuns, guys on skateboards, chess-players, and musicians. A 10 or 12-piece orchestra was set up on chairs and playing first-rate rhumbas and dance music. Elderly couples were gliding across the paving blocks. The grand architecture that lines the Paseo is a visual treat.

Some hints: Havana appears to be completely safe for walking and exploring. We did not feel any bad vibes. Everyone we met was friendly. Beware of difficult walking conditions on cobblestones and bumpy sidewalks. Watch for holes (sometimes big ones) in the sidewalk or street. I recommend low hiking boots. If you are a tourist, you can use restrooms in the better hotels, and if it is hot, sit and enjoy the air conditioning.

Camera notes: I took these photographs with a Leica M2 rangefinder camera with 35mm and 50mm Summicron lenses using Kodak Tri-X film. I developed the film in Kodak HC-110 developer, dilution H, for 10 min at 68° F. I scanned the negatives with a Plustek 7600i film scanner using SilverFast software.

Movie note: Our Man In Havana is Graham Green's 1958 novel, which was set in Cuba before the Revolution. It is about a vacuum cleaner salesman who may be a British spy, or maybe he isn't. The movie version (directed by Carol Reed of The Third Man fame) was filmed exactly as the revolution was underway. Fidel visited the set, and there is a rumor that he tried to get a date with Maureen O'Hara. He liked American actresses, and apparently many of them liked him.
Maureen O'Hara in Havana during filming of Our Man in Havana in 1959 (from IMDb)

Fidel with the cast of Our Man in Havana

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Our Man in Havana 3: View from the Top

When I visit a new city, I always try to find a tower, church steeple, or high viewpoint to see the lay of the land. When we arrived in Havana, my co-travelers and I checked into the Park View Hotel on Calle Colon. And by luck, the Park View had rooftop access.
An advertising brochure claims that the Park View was one of Havana's most sophisticated hotels in the 1920s. Maybe so, but it looks like it has barely been vacuumed or cleaned since then. Some character-building adventures:
  • Room 1: 1 cm of water on the bathroom floor, with more water dripping through the ceiling. OK, they had a second room for us. The lady at the front desk was very courteous.
  • Room 2: only 2 towels total. OK, one can serve as the bathmat, the second we shared. 
  • Shower hose: burst upon use. When repaired, the new hose was too short for the head to mount in the holder on the wall. 
  • Safe: locked, and no sign of a key anywhere. Was a previous guest's possessions still in it? 
  • Hot water: we had plenty, but some of our friends in other rooms never had any. 
  • Elevator: worked, but the electronic display showed floor 6 all the time, and there was no sign of any type of safety inspection. 
  • Breakfast: the fruit was good, but the rest mediocre. The tablecloths were stained and clearly well-used. In the hotel's defense, much of the food in Cuba as of early 2017 is not skillfully prepared. 
As for the view: the restaurant was on the 6th floor. Just off the landing, there was a narrow spiral steel stair that went up somewhere. I ascended and saw an unlocked door to the roof. Well, this was a treat. The photograph above shows the view looking west with the Straits of Florida to the right.
This is the view to the north towards the mouth of the harbor, or the Canal de Entrada. Note the construction cranes - Havana is beginning to rebuild. Visit soon if you want to see old Havana, The building on the very right is a former cigar factory. The bellhop in the Park View said the cigar factory had some major collapse in the center and all repair work had come to a halt.
To the southwest, the big building with the oval windows in the attic is the prestigious Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Cuban National Ballet School). It has 3000 students. In the evening, on the nearby Prado, you often see little girls in their tutus with their parents.
Room with as view: our second room, the one without a cm. of water on the bathroom floor, had a great view of adjacent rooftops. I love these complicated urban scenes. Note the pigeon pens on top of the green corrugated roof.
I also took a Tri-X photograph with my Leica camera. This has a more gritty urban feel, but you lose the color data. More Havana to follow....

Color photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera. In the first picture, I used a Leica 50mm Summicon lens on my Fuji. The black and white photograph is a Tri-X 400 exposure taken with a Leica M2 camera. Click any picture to expand to 1600 pixels wide.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Margaret's Gro - Continuing Decay, Feb. 2017

Bad news on the folk art front: Margaret's Gro. is deteriorating badly. Margaret's Grocery, at 4535 North Washington Street, Vicksburg, was an amazing piece of imagination and devotion crafted by the Reverend Herman D."Preacher" Dennis. Margaret died in 2009, after which the reverend moved to a nursing home. Without his constant attention to painting and repair, his Temple to the Lord deteriorated and crumbled. Preacher Dennis died on September 4, 2012.
I occasionally bicycle to the site, and each time, the decay is more pronounced. Around 2010-2011, a group of preservationists tried to get funds to move and rebuild the temple in a protected space, but it was the depths of the recession, funds were unavailable, and the project did not proceed. Some of the sculpture and parts have been moved, but the bulk of the building is slowly collapsing.
The bus in 2014 was faded and in need of protection. as of mid-2017, it has been moved to another site for protection.
This is the grocery in 1985, about the time that H.D. Dennis married Margaret.
Only five years later, look what he had achieved. It was still a grocery, and you could buy some supplies there. But for the most part, the Gro. attracted tourists from all over the world. If any of you readers visit Vicksburg, take a look before it is gone completely.

Here are some older photographs, scanned from Kodachrome slides.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Our Man in Havana 2: On the Waterfront

Havana is a spectacular seaport. Facing the Strait of Florida, the Spanish knew in the 1500s that a fortified city here could control the strait and protect their treasure fleets before they set sail across the Atlantic to return to Spain. And being only 90 miles from the Florida Keys, Havana became a convenient travel destination for Americans in the 20th century. During the Prohibition era, Havana was wet, fun, naughty, and nasty. What happened in Havana stayed in Havana. Remember the musical, "Guys and Dolls"? The gambler, Sky, takes the dowdy Sarah to Havana, and after a number of milkshakes containing Bacardi, she really begins to enjoy herself as well as Mr. Sky.
This is the view of Habana Viejo (Old Havana) from the east side of the harbor channel, from below the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (El Morro fortress). There was some sort of smoky fire burning in the city, unless it was a factory spewing smoke. Air pollution is a serious problem in Havana with all the old cars and industrial sources of smog.
We crossed the harbor by ferry boat (see the previous article) from Casa Blanca to Havana Vieja. I was surprised to see dilapidated wharfs, clearly unused for decades. Three large wharfs are attached to a huge terminal building, known as the Terminal Sierra Maestra. The northernmost wharf has been restored and serves cruise ship passengers, but the southern ones are unrestored. The photograph shows the Santa Clara, but in faded letters you can see "Port of Havana Docks Co,"
The Sierra Maestra terminal was built between 1910 and 1914, a period when Cuba generated tremendous wealth by selling sugar to the United States. A crane barge with bucket was moored next to the building, and I saw some new sheet pile along the shore. The building with the domes across the street is the Sacra Iglesia Catedral Ortodoxa de San Nicolás, the only Greek Orthodox church in Cuba. 
A sign describes some of the renovation that is underway. I tried to enter the building at what looked like an unused door, but a guard shoed me out (they do that to me a lot). 
The restored part of the terminal is quite handsome. The tower with the clay tiles reminds me of railroad stations in the US Southwest built by the Santa Fe Railroad in the late 1800s or early 1900s. 
Che Guevara is here, as he is almost everywhere else in Cuba. Alberto Korda took the iconic photograph on March 5, 1960, at a funeral service for Cubans workers who were killed when a ship carrying arms for Cuban revolutionaries exploded in Havana harbor. Korda used a Leica M2 and 90mm lens on Plus-X film. Che is a martyr of the Revolution. Granma, the "Órgano oficial del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba" wrote, "Che, Cuban citizen by birth. Since 1959, the Cuban people have considered Che one of their own, and the heroic guerilla responded in kind." Click the link to read the rest of the article. It's amazing what skilful propaganda can do.
The color photos above are from a Fuji X-E1 digital camera with 18mm and 27mm Fuji lenses.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Our Man in Havana 1: the Hershey Train

Dear Readers, this will the first of a series of articles about Cuba. This is a fascinating travel destination in every way - culture, music, architecture, nature and bird life, and art. And the people are friendly, gracious, and welcoming.

I borrowed the my title from Graham Green's 1958 novel, Our Man In Havana, which was set in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution. It is about a vacuum cleaner salesman, who may be a Mi6 British spy, or maybe he isn't. Who can be sure? It's a great read, like most of Graham Green's novels.
The Hershey Train was built in 1922 by the US Hershey Corporation to service its sugar mills and farms in central Cuba. The line runs from the east side of Havana Harbour, the area known as Casa Blanca, to the city of Matanzas, about 57 mi to the east. This is the only electric line in Cuba and now mostly serves commuters. According the the World Tram and Trolleybus web page, The Hershey train is one of the few interurban rail systems still in operation.

Because of Cuba's lack of infrastructure investment since the Revolution almost 6 decades ago, the line is essentially unchanged since it opened in 1922. The current rolling stock may be Spanish, replacing the 1920s American Brill electric cars. According to Lonely Planet, all rail service in Cuba is erratic because of frequent breakdowns and track bed failures. The trip to Matanzas takes at least four hours, and the return may or may not be possible on the same day. The day this picture was taken, January 21, 2017, this author was pleased to see the green car slowly trundle out of the Casa Blanca station, with chickens and pedestrians slowly moving off the track to make way.
The Casa Blanca Station is located on the east side of the harbor channel, not in Havana Vieja (Old Town Havana). It can be accessed by the harbor ferry. The Hershey train did not run into the main part of Havana because United Railways, the British company that ran Cuba's trains in the first part of the 20th century, did not allow the Hershey train to use its rails into the city. The ferry boat is a fun ride across the harbor. Two tickets cost only 0.50 CUC, or about 50 cents US. There was surprising security presence and X-ray inspection because many years ago, someone commandeered the ferry and tried to sail it to Florida. We saw the local bicycle club in the waiting area.
This is the view of the east or Casa Blanca side of the harbor channel.

Photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera.