Cuba has long presented a radically different version of a North American dream—and that dream now undergoes a dramatic transformation.  In “The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development: Havana, Cuba,” I document the development taking place in Havana, the country’s economic, cultural, and ideological capital, in April 2017, prior to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey later that year.  A rapprochement had begun briefly between my country and theirs, I went to the country wondering what Cuba’s new economic and tourism rules and practices were bringing to Havana and its people.  What is being transformed, how, and for whom? 
With development as the prism for examining these questions, my photographs focus on people and places precariously situated on the economic and social edge of touristic Old Havana or located within Central Havana, a traditionally proletariat district now undergoing large-scale structural and socio-economical change, particularly along the Malecón.  Development has been progressing speedily in the opening of 2017.  Historic structures holding dozens of families are slated to be knocked down for parking structures to facilitate new hotels.  Some properties appear already abandoned, but people live in the crumbling hulks, by now stripped of marble detailing and once-exquisite ceramic tiles, even stairs gone.  Signs announcing Se vende crop up on every block.  Many were regal establishments. What does future regality look like?  Where do the inhabitants go?
“The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development” is comprised of 25 photographs combining image and text (“field notes”).  Its aesthetic approach plays with the codes of neoclassical ruin painting.  Within that painting tradition, ruins are utopian, just as modern Cuba has always been a utopian endeavor.  A solo exhibition of the series is planned for July 2018 in Oklahoma City.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #1 (Plaza Vieja), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

An ornate landmark façade dominates a collection of bourgeois restaurants, cafés, and shops in the Plaza Vieja.  Its front windows open to the sky behind, the interior and back walls knocked out in the tradition of developers gutting structures in districts enticing to tourists.  Usually in Havana these buildings are deeply decayed, even rotting; when renewed, they will lodge none of their old inhabitants, whether familial or commercial.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 7.7 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

This inner courtyard holds one of the few intact mosaic paintings that once filled a building along the Malecón: Venice Enjoying the Music.  Most mosaic tiles of this building’s once ornate interior have been stripped whole or in part from the crumbling walls. The large apartment building, taking up a city block, soon will be razed to give way to a hotel parking structure.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #37 (Calle Galiano), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

The proprietor of a gun range sits beneath a collection of printed materials.  Among the photographs and clippings is an architectural print.  The modern, sweeping lines of the skyscraper are as potently utopic as the image of a smiling Fidel.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #5 (San Lazaro), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Buildings crumble every day in Havana, with most left standing as-is.  What appears, and is, ruined, however, fuels infrastructure recycling in a time of limited physical resources.  People from the neighborhood, and from outside it, come in when a building is on the edge of collapse.  They strip the premises right down to sheering off the face.  What is left hovers between dilapidation and a state of having been cleansed.  It is frighteningly charming to an eye groomed in neoclassical ruin paintings of Pompeii and other mythic sites.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 7.2 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Inside these rotting structures of Havana, including ones with missing walls, pitted floors, and ceilings open to the elements, communities live.  They play music, they laugh here.  Kids play.  When I climb to the second floor of the building once decorated throughout with mosaic-paintings of Venice, a young boy calls into an apartment.  Children pour out.  They dance, they pose, they scream and giggle.  We have a mini shoot.  They know their moves.  The ways of Pop are an international language.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 1.17 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A boy who lives in a rotting building along the Malécon—the most derelict of those visited—gives a paid tour, delicately holding my fingers when we climb or descend marble staircases crumbling into nothing but precarious toeholds.  He wants money for a mobile phone to do Facebook, and so he waits patiently as rooms, ceilings, and corridors are framed and catalogued.  I recognize the role in which I’ve placed him: that of native guide, like the eighteenth-century painted shepherds who brought voyagers to classic ruins or the Native Americans who swept arm over landscapes for Transcendental painters.  Only, this is to some degree that boy’s tradition, too—the tradition of Western European art, the tradition of colonialism—isn’t it?  Or, like Facebook, is this a thread connecting us despite histories, ideologies, and policies.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 1.9 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

In infrastructure terms, bathroom fixtures outlast walls.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 1.15 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Some views are iconic.  Within Western painting, the view of the crumbling civilization through a rough-edged window-portal is a trope to propel us back—back in space, back in time, maybe simply to get away from ourselves and our complications.  The details of a Cuban portal, however, are too recent in their construction to allow fantasy contemplations or an easy escape from contemporary problems.  The flooring might be the flooring in my grandmother’s home; the windows across the way are modern.  Cuba upsets an American notion of linear, always progressing time.  This might be why we fetishize its fifties details; it’s too upsetting, otherwise, to contemplate a society developing under radically different codes.  When I mourn what might be lost in Cuban redevelopment, like the loss of this very building already falling into itself, I might be mourning a part of me, a part of the North American heritage I allowed myself to forget until it is too late.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 2.13 (Calle Amargura), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Abandoned by the government—this is how persons in this building, like the persons in other buildings, describe themselves and their residences.  Everyday life will continue until someone arrives to buy the property.  No one says where they will go next.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 2.4 (Calle Amargura), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

What strikes me most powerfully: These were beautiful buildings, built of beautiful material and with a sensitive aesthetic eye.  Their beauty lasts even through decay, not because of decay.  Another word for this is romance.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 1.22 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

The edges of broken marble steps dip toward cisterns positioned floors below.  A frieze of windows displays objects, but not people.  This is an unusual omission in Havana, where glass always gives way to visible people.  I discovered Havana to be an open, very public society.  A corridor leads past a string of defaced and stripped rooms open to the elements.  Nothing stirs.  I know people live here because a man opened and closed a heavy wooden door nearby, but otherwise I can imagine the building as too dilapidated to have even squatters.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #13 (Calle Obispo), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

At all hours, the pedestrian thoroughfare of Calle Obispo is thick with tourists.  For a long while, this Cubana stands at the edge of the sidewalk, biting her nails, listing, watching.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #41 (San Lazaro), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Slogans reaffirming the Revolution detail walls across Havana.  I am more captivated, however, by another form of comrade and comradery.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #16 (Calle Geníos), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

On Sunday evening, the Western tip of the Malecón falls silent.  The clouds roll in, the heat dissipates.  The buildings start to lean into one another, as if protecting themselves and their inhabitants from any encroachment.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #12 (Calle Manrique), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A classic American car pulls off the Malecón to help out another American classic.  The men—always men—pull themselves out and set to work.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #11 (Calle Lagunas), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

The proletariat neighborhood of Central Havana experiences both government-sponsored infrastructure development and gentrification. Casas particulaires appear everywhere.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #21 (Calle Galiano), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A woman peers into the used furniture shop.  Having explored the interiors of broken-down buildings across Central and Old Havana, I question where these pieces of noble furniture come from.  Who owned them?  Who will buy them?  Later, when riding a cab to a dinner, I will ride through neighborhoods composed of homes and mansions so grand, luminous, and decorated, I think immediately of historic city-center mansions across the American South.  I caution myself: The topic of Havana and its development is not monolithic.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 3.5 (La Habana Vieja), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

In neo-classical ruin paintings, the bathing spring often abuts the beautiful architectural remnant.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #3 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

This plot of land, one of the few spots seen in Havana replete with unauthorized trash, occupies desirable real estate right on the Malecón, the famed ocean-front boulevard. 

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #20 (Calle O'Reilly), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

In Old Havana, everyday existence (Life) and ever-growing tourism (Art) commingle.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 8.5 (Malecón), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Inside a building along the Malecón, clothes and plastic bags hang to dry within a tiny mudroom open to a courtyard.  The preciousness of a clean plastic bag was one of my lessons in Cuba.  This lesson is less the expected one about poverty (so, the preciousness of something disposable) but more the observation of a communal commitment to cleanliness of all things.  Havana crumbles, and debris and the smell of inadequate plumbing are everywhere, but Havana and its places, interiors, and exteriors are kept clean.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 5.1 (Callejon de Hamel), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

When searching for a bakery around Callejno de Hamel, the public thoroughfare of Santería, I meet a man who swiftly offers a tour of his building, the roof of which looks out over the tourist-filled Santería alley below.  Inside the building, everyone he introduces is a practitioner of Santería; he points out the identifying beads on the left arm.  When he introduces his mother, however, I am attracted to her right arm: a collection of bangles announces an arm so muscled it appears god-like.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, Building 3.4 (La Habana Vieja), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

On the second floor of an Old Havana building, a grand cavernous space is empty of traces of its function.  It is sublime, uncanny, and a canvas for imagined futures that both may and may never happen.

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #36 (Calle Galiano), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Two young men walk into the Central Havana gun range behind me.  They lay down their pesos, load up pellet guns, and set about trying to hit the array of everyday drugstore remnants swaying from fishing wire.  They finish, discuss the results with the proprietor, then set down more pesos for another round.  In the end, few targets are hit; maybe a handful.  Is this a sign of how long ago the Revolution was, or just the reality of lousy weaponry?

The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development, #17 (San Lazaro), Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Central Havana is awash in entrepreneurs, especially the proprietors and proprietresses of casas particulaires, state-sanctioned (so taxed) guesthouses for tourists.  With this income, homeowners can renovate and develop new spaces—like my own host is doing, building a self-contained apartment within his building.  These restored, often freshly plastered and painted, structures remain contiguous with the elements of ruin, sometimes even ruins of a neoclassical origin aesthetically, like here on the right-hand edge of the building.  A broken arch decorated with classical designs leads to a back alley and doorways out of sight.

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