VILLA CLARA, Cuba. – It’s been over three years that two of the main and most central arteries in the city, the ones that lead directly to Vidal Park, have been closed to all vehicular traffic. To access the central plaza from Cuba Street, pedestrians must cross a narrow passage between the Exchange House (Cadeca) and the metal fence that surrounds the old Florida Hotel.
Metal fences have become habitual hedges all around Santa Clara’s historic downtown. They prevent pedestrians from being crushed by falling concrete debris, and also keep any homeless family from taking up residence in the dilapidating buildings illicitly.
From the alley’s highest point, one can see the exposed framework of the Florida Hotel, built in 1924 and expanded in 1939. It housed the iconic Villa Clara Theater on the ground floor. During the “Special Period”, it became known as the “hot undies”: a makeshift tenement, rife with prostitution and other illicit activities, where mostly very-low-income families lived.
From the balconies and closer to the Park, the clotheslines and the filth accumulated on the balusters affected the image that tourists should have been taking with them of Santa Clara, “a transit city, cultured and inclusive,” the Bohemian gate to the beach resorts on the northern keys. Due to building deterioration, the citadel now in ruins was plundered, although one of the real aims of leaving it deserted was the need to increase hotel accommodations in patrimonial buildings.
However, the restoration of the building has been postponed a lot, leaving the edifice to its fate with the passing of time. Several architectural studies indicate that the Florida Hotel is in such a state of disrepair as a result of neglect and a lack of periodic maintenance. Much of the hotel’s infrastructure is now part of the accumulated debris which the people of Santa Clara do not see because the fences don’t let them. Hanging from the roof and the broken balconies one sees all kinds of creeping vines and wild plants, as if they were hanging gardens, well anchored on the brick walls that seem to be beyond repair.
Right across from the city’s Central Park, in another patrimonial building, a certain kind of pine tree has grown inside, to a height that is taller than the building itself. Here again, a metal panel prevents pedestrians from walking inside the building that in the 1930s was the headquarters of CMHI Cadena Azul radio station, owned by Amado Trinidad. While waiting for repairs, the front windows’ glass panes were replaced by sheets of cardboard; a black and humid trickle rolls down the building’s façade, the perfect place for creeping ivies and bird nests.
On Marta Abreu Street, the building that once belonged to the Trinidad y Hermanos cigarette company, has fared worse than others previously mentioned, for it has completely lost its roof and original structure. More than a dozen old buildings in Santa Clara’s urban hub are in imminent danger of falling. Many of the ones that have fallen already do to the inevitable passage of time and the absence of budgets to repair them have been substituted by other modern buildings, or simply turned into parks with little social benefit.
Just two years ago, a canopy at the old Roosevelt Hotel fell down. Located on Boulevard Street, more than ten families still lived in the hotel at the time. Threatened by the building’s collapse, the residents of the now tenement were moved to peripheral areas; some weren’t very happy with the prospects of being far from the center of town. In spite of the visible damage to its balconies, a shop still operates in a space on the ground floor. Named UEB 1, it sells non-food items. Neighbors and residents of this hotel-turned-tenement confirm that the building will be repaired and will become part of the tourist guided-tours in Santa Clara.
Santa Clara, eclectic and neoclassical, has lost the soft pastel colors of it central buildings that pleased tourists so very much. In its place, to foreign eyes Santa Clara must look like a town that’s been blown-up and is now surrounded by metal walls. That is, unless someone rushes to restore its historic center.
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