In the city of tomorrow’s people

It is May 1958, and Albarrojo has returned to the start of the Malecón, and from there sees the crowds gathered to witness the opening of the long-awaited tunnel under the mouth of Havana’s bay, connecting the east to the city. Now no longer necessary to catch the ferry across to Casablanca, or make the long trek round past the port, past Luyanó, Virgen del Camino, Regla, Guanabacoa. In forty-five seconds, you can now reach the other side, emerge in the shadow of the Castillo del Morro, and continue eastwards to the new towns emerging. New homes for the middle class, becoming overgrown as the years go by with concrete blocks amongst the trees.

Alamar

Alamar. Photo © Gonzalo Vidal

It is 1971, and Albarrojo travels through the tunnel and along the Via Monumental on the back of a lorry, hitching a lift from a microbrigade on their way to Alamar. Coming from the overcrowded slums of Havana, selected for their proletarian virtues and revolutionary spirit, they go to build their new homes in what will become a labyrinth set between two rivers. From the Cojimar to the Bacuranao, over the coming decades the space will become filled with microbrigade-constructed apartment blocks, spilling out from the utopian original plans. Home to over one-hundred thousand, where the naming of the streets is ignored, and zones, landmarks and out of sequence building numbers lead you to your destination. A place for initiates.

Alamar

Alamar. Photo © Gonzalo Vidal.

And a place from the start established to be an ideal proletarian community, a city worthy of el hombre de mañana, of tomorrow’s people, that the revolution believed itself to be forging. A cultural melting pot, bringing together first workers from all over Havana, then from all over the island, alongside Soviet-bloc technicians and Latin American revolutionary refugees.

Alamar

Alamar. Photo © Gonzalo Vidal.

Alamar. Exemplification of Che Guevara’s notion of the socialist ‘new man’, actively and voluntarily engaged in the construction of a new society. Moved not by individual need, but by collective consciousness and solidarity. Alamar. Showcase of what revolutionary Cuba was capable of, and what her people had become.

Many years later, Albarrojo wanders through the maze. He stops and talks with those he finds there, and they reminisce with him about the early years.

“Seeing Fidel Castro here four times a week was the most normal thing in the world. Sometimes you’d be playing in the entrance to your house, and you’d see him walking by on the pavement or arriving by helicopter, and getting out in the middle of the block; or people would come from many parts of the world. We saw many presidents here in those days. Salvador Allende, Yasser Arafat, and all those from all over the world who came to Cuba were brought to see Alamar. And so, without realizing it, we felt ourselves to be very privileged, like chosen people.”

“Alamar functioned as a new kind of neighbourhood, a communist neighbourhood par excellence, where exemplary workers went to live. To be exemplary was to be, firstly, communist; secondly, a good worker; and thridly, in need of housing. But if you needed housing and weren’t a communist, you couldn’t live in Alamar.”

Many who lived there in the early years remember weekly and fortnightly inspections to each flat, claiming to be checking up on how well you were looking after it. But under this cover, rooting out those who dared display religious symbols, or were keeping illicit animals.

But the 1970s and 1980s felt like a time of plenty.

Alamar

Alamar. Photo © Gonzalo Vidal.

“There was an abundance of food. I remember, for example, that in the evening after work, at nightfall, sometimes a tank of milk would come by to see if any neighbour wanted some, because there was more than enough; there was no shortage of materials, the new buildings went up in three or four months; and there was a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the people, even if some might feel repressed or frustrated because they had to change their lifestyle. In general the people were content, because almost all of us had come from living conditions that were far worse, and to come here was like discovering there was another way of living.”

This all comes to an abrupt end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the onset in Cuba of the so-called ‘Special Period’. Alamar, from having been the model of the Cuban revoultion comes to exemplify some of the worst aspects of the new reality facing the island. From having the best public transport connections, rapidly joining the giant suburb with the centre of Havana through the tunnel, with the drastic reduction in fuel supplies Alamar becomes isolated, turned into an island. From having been exemplary of the low crime, peaceful conditions of revolutionary Cuba, conditions in Alamar degenerate to become one of the ares of greatest social danger.

Alamar

Alamar. Photo © Gonzalo Vidal.

Juan Carlos Flores, poet rooted in Alamar, comments:

“If I was one of the men of the project of the new man, in the city of the new man, and that project failed, then that man has also failed. Therefore I am some kind of creature from a failed project that is missing a finger, a foot.”

Alamar

Alamar. Photo © Gonzalo Vidal

Albarrojo enters the local government building, and stands looking at the model reconstruction of what Alamar was dreamed to be. He sees the projection of a bustling centre, and logically arranged housing with all the facilities needed. Then he steps outside, and looks over the wildnerness sitting at the heart of Alamar. The roads half finished ending in nothing. Pillars of concrete with rusting iron bars sticking from the top. And swirling in a maelstrom around this black hole, so many lives. So many faces. A deafening shout of hopes and despairs.

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One thought on “In the city of tomorrow’s people

  1. Pingback: Going it alone, and other weeds | The White Maroon

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