Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Mellon Collaborative Studies Fellowship - Cuba as Project

Photo by Hannah Bahnmiller
On September 23rd, a group of students ranging from Urban Planning, Architecture, to Government studies embarked upon a 10 day journey through Havana, Cuba with the Mellon Collaborative Studies Fellowship program. Through a series of readings and seminar discussions, we attempted to apply the theoretical underpinnings of the course to Cuba's urban environment. Applying what we experienced in class though became difficult. Laden with the unexpected, the trip was much more than a formal study of the urbanization of Havana. 

From the onset, we we're met with a tour guide named Vladimir (Vlad for short) who later admitted that our group was unique to him. As the days passed our relationship with him matured into something new for everyone. We weren't quite tourists neither were we researchers: our presence functioned somewhere in between these roles. For example, the question of "otherness" and ethics played a major role during a visit to the communities (El Fanguito) along the Almendares river bank, where Santeria "rule of the saints" an Afro-Cuban religion is practiced.

Sun, wind, rain, and vehicle exhaust framed the backdrop most days while we walked the streets of Havana. What we discovered in Old Havana became a metronome to what the urban Cuban faces in this unique transitory era. Rehabilitation and decay of the city's infrastructure proclaimed a sense of awe and potential within our minds. Old Havana is also a district the government recognizes potential as it represents the apex of redevelopment strategies. It's history is overwhelming where Neo-Baroque architecture sits as memories of colonial aspiration and revolutionary ideals.

Photo by Christine Kim
In all, I am still processing my experiences and it is safe to say so are my colleagues. Now back in another world within the university we have to turn our processes into intelligible projects. We are excited to share what comes out of our course and have developed a great love for Cuba's unique and complex history. Current efforts to work with a globalizing world where even it's closest allies are beginning to develop their own strategies to move forward into the coming decade have transitioned Cuba into a process that will indeed allow for more economic diversity. Yet at what cost is for the Communist project? This question is in the back of the minds of many around the world and most certainly the people of Cuba.