For Floridians familiar with their state, Havana can be a Déjà vu experience.
There are some striking similarities – particularly in connection with the Tampa Bay area – and next to nothing is lost in the translation.
Tampa’s Ybor City and Old Havana, of course, have umbilical cord ties. Cuba’s Vicente Martinez Ybor created what would become a national historic district northeast of downtown Tampa when he moved his cigar manufacturing from Havana northward, settling on an initial 40-acre plot. From it would grow a major industry in a distinct, multi-ethnic community.
But, there are other, more subtle connections. Strolling through Nacional, Havana’s pride on a bluff overlooking the Gulf, is an immediate carry back to St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Hotel overlooking Tampa Bay. The storied Vinoy, now a Marriott property and part of its flagship Renaissance line, came first, opened originally in 1928. Nacional, currently owned by the Cuban government and proclaimed a Cuban national historic monument in 1998, puts its genesis in 1930. No matter. Both are authentics of the era. Both have checkered histories. Both are survivors. Both have matured like fine vintage wine.
Vinoy, now with about 350 rooms on seven floors, is the smaller of the two and also probably somewhat better maintained. Nacional, with 425 rooms on eight floors, hasn’t gotten the same level of attention – read capital investment – yet certainly holds her own on the island. Both are certified grand dames, designed to bespeak the epitome of turn-of-the-century luxury, with high ceilings, long, broad lobbies, an abundance of Spanish tile, textured plasters, massive wood accents finished in deep rich tones. Variances may exist in their types of amenities offered or in terms of room furnishings or in the number of suites boasted or in rack rates charged, but they also are unmistakably the real deal, throwbacks to another time, restored to preserve that realism. – on separate coasts in two different nations. Each whispers to her guests ever so gently, unforgettably of the other.
Tampa and Havana share other features, too, which come unexpectedly to the first time Florida visitor. Havana’s Malecón is Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard all over again – or vice versa. Like the Bayshore’s wide sidewalk and balustrade following the curve of Tampa Bay, Malecón and its inviting bench-bordered walkway follow the channel leading into Havana’s protected inner harbor. Both are people-friendly. Both become magnets at different times of day, drawing visitors and locals; places to meet, to greet, to rest, to ponder, to share, to tryst.
Both Malecón and Bayshore Boulevard were initiated in the early 1900s, taking shape gradually over a period of years, the former finally stretching along the Havana waterfront for six kilometers, the latter capped off at 4.5 miles. But, while the Bayshore hosts runners, bikers, skaters beginning early in the morning and even through the day, Malecón seems to come to life shortly before dusk. Seating on the bench wall can be at a premium as the long shadows form and Habanans retreat to their waterfront .
As much as citizens of the two cities treasure their historic promenades, however, Habanans have yet to stage annual free-for-alls commemorating a fictitious pirate on theirs. On the other hand, they have wrestled, it is said, with the issues of not-so-free love along the way.
Another in the realm of similarities involves natural phenomena characterizing the two cities – rivers run through them. The very first Havana settlement is a matter of dispute among Cubans; some say the old city’s initial start as San Cristobal de la Havana actually was on the southwest coast close to Cortes Bay or maybe around Batabano, at mid-second decade in the 16th century.
Today, it generally seems to be agreed at least for celebratory purposes, that Old Havana grew from a site close to the north coast mouth of the Almendares River, beginning in 1519 . Gradually, it not only spread westward from that point, creating the district of Verdado but also eventually scaled the river to develop eastward as the Miramar district. Meanwhile, Tampa was developing from Fort Brooke at the head of Tampa Bay ultimately to make Hillsborough riverfront highly coveted places to be.
And then Havana took it a step further, creating its own version of the “chunnel,” a vehicle tunnel under its river which daily carries thousands of cars, trucks, busses from one side of the city to the other.
Finally, one more Havana landmark may give the American visitor that “I’ve been here before” pause – Cuba’s capitol building in the heart of the city. Built in the 1925-29 timeframe, it looks for all the world as if it were disassembled in Washington, D.C., and reassembled in Havana. Tour guides escorting Americans, in particular, make it a point to showcase “their” capitol which is reported to house the world’s tallest indoor bronze statue.
It was not possible for me to see this wonder or, for that matter, to inspect the inside of Cuba’s capitol so closely resembling mine, as it also was reportedly closed for renovations. Asked where their seat of government was seated during the refurbishing, Cubans answered with “don’t know.” And, when I asked somewhat seriously how I might find either Fidel or Raul Castro for interview purposes, the responding “ we don’t even know where they live” came wrapped in peals of laughter.
Working class Cubans, however, do talk knowingly, even passionately, if discreetly, about the effects of government they’ve lived with under communism for the last half century and more. They want change. Now, there’s a bit of Déjà vu.
Next: When bread is not the staff of life
Part Two: Getting in touch with my inner Cuban
Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson