The walk along Havana’s Malecón seawall-promenade is long.  One can set out from the moat of the renaissance Castillo Real de la Fuerza, in and out of the crumbled arcades of  19th century neo-classical townhouses, pass  below the faded American colonialism of the 1930’s Hotel National de Cuba,  onward past  mafioso Meyer Lansky‘s chi chi Hotel Riviera Habana,  and then a little beyond to the the super-hip nightclub/gallery  Fabrica de Arte Cubano, and you’d have traveled a distance of 5 miles and crossed four and a half centuries of cultural geography.

Illustrated on the left a 16th century map of Havana with the four-point Castillo de Real Fuerza guarding the Harbor of Havana like a God’s Eye.  On the left of the map the future Malecón would run down the coast , facing north to Florida.  On the right above, a fashion show at Fábrica de Cubano, “a laboratory of interdisciplinary creation” located in a re-purposed oil factory.

Along the Malecón, the wind picks up in the late afternoon, and it’s a hot wind.  Abbe and I are wiped out.  At 4 pm in April its hot, glary and dusty.  We’re hungry and thirsty. We crash at an open-air cafe for a beer and squint at the menu board  lost in a bleary-eyed translation.  Checking out our neighbors food, we exchange smiles with the guys across the table. Two buddies from the University of Havana, Ernesto is treating Vicente to  beer, celebrating his birthday with Bucaneros Fuertes.

Soon we’re buying each other beers–building a bridge across ages, income levels, and economic systems.  Two beers in, I am trying to explain the jokey concept of a “first world problem” in my miserable Spanish … something about different cultural expectations in Havana vs San Francisco.   I plow on, while realizing I should just shut up—not good, not funny, this capitalist irony of mine in an impoverished communist country.   Ernesto is making the point about how successful Cuba is; it’s  definitely not a third world country –whatever that means.  As I scramble to remember and explain the history of the Cold War from an American–scratch that–from an  U-S-A perspective, Ernesto is quick to point out how much more successful Cuba is than Mexico and how much more safe, sensible and civic  than the image of the US he sees on smuggled DVD’s of American TV shows.  He goes on, “Here in Havana there’s no drugs, no guns, no homeless.”  And while I can easily separate TV show fantasy from reality at home, here in Havana the TV image is our primary representation and who we really are.    I shake and fist-bang my head.  It’s all true, I admit.  Everything you see on TV, it’s exactly true.

April before last we had the good fortune to fly into Havana from Fort Lauterdale between Obama’s opening and Trumps closing.  There was still leftover excitement from Obama’s presidency and unease about what Trump might yet do.

A UNESCO heritage site, Havana is spectacular in decay.  Like other historically preserved cities, Havana benefits from boom times followed by periods of neglect and isolation.   The isolation of a  half  century of American embargo is tossed into casual conversation like the hot weather, an internalized piece of cultural identity that just is.  (“It’s very difficult here, but at least we’re happy,” according to our Airbnb host.)   Without access to support and investment from the US (1962 embargo ),  the collapse of Soviet Union (1988) and lately the crash of Venezuela oil (2015-7), Cuba, especially Havana particularly, has become increasingly reliant on the international investment of UNESCO and the international tourist industry.

We came attracted by the romance of an architecture in decay and a history, literally collapsing.   And we came to Havana in order to witness the influence of increased tourist-related investment in Cuba as it challenges  historical and cultural preservation and the communist system itself.  Whether by investment or neglect, today’s Havana was changing.   Much more than we expected, Cuba’s serious cultural isolation affected us as well, providing a flipped perspective of ourselves and our values.

Back at La Abadia Cafe Ernesto insists on buying us beer as he drives home his point:  “There are three great things about Cuba.”   I know I know, I interrupt, uh Healthcare, Education and Music, right?  “Music? No, not music. Security!”  Oh … and then music, right. “Ok, then music.”

Ernesto was right about security.  There was a clear street presence of unarmed foot police, young women, men, black, white—very mixed and apparently in a system with some structural equality for sexes and races. In San Francisco, we can rationalize our suspicions as street smarts.  In Havana, the part we saw, it’s different; cynicism and suspicions aren’t useful.  Instead we two senior-ish Americans walk the dark, unlit streets of a ruined cityscape, a deteriorated infrastructure, surrounded by poverty, without fear, comfortable in the warm night air and very friendly people.

Frequently, we’re approached by locals telling us about their aunt in Vancouver or New Jersey or recommending their friends restaurant or offering to pose with us—and sometimes asking for some help–it is very difficult here—and sometimes offering a cigarette or restaurant advice or plugging their earphone in my ear so I can enjoy the music on their i-pod.   The tourist-local dynamic can get weird.  In Havana Vieja, a laughing foreign tourist tosses candy up to laughing children on balconies above.  And while we can easily afford a 5-hour taxi to the tourist resort town of Trinidad,  along the highway we pass a local holding up two pesos for a lift, while another holds up two potatoes.   Making sense and creating a clear picture of what is happening in Cuba given competing online viewpoints and differences in internet access is challenging.  On the one hand, the controlled views of the Cuban State offer little  critical analysis or detail online, and on the other, Cuban emigre’s in nearby Florida present a barage of information,  expressing an intensely  complicated emotional attachment to a lost homeland.

It would be naive to think security and the quaintness of global isolation didn’t come at  a price.  The scenic Malecón becomes a riot scene in this video of a 1994 protest  during the “Special Period” when the end of Soviet support led to  extreme austerity and the refugee crisis of the balseros or boat people.

It was getting dark now.  Ernesto and Vicente had taken off,   We finished up our beer and left the cafe, crossed the highway and sat on the seawall facing the Florida Keys, 90 miles away.  My head was buzzing.  Waves crashed the seawall and tossed around us like in an open boat–90 miles to the Florida Keys and then just beyond, the gigantic mainland, rich, powerful, consuming, controlling, proud, indifferent.

It’s late, waves crash, locals are cooling off.  A 5 year-old jumps up and sits next to me, smiling.  He doesn’t understand my poor Spanish.  He’s smiling big.  His family 10’ further down the wall smile at me.  Everyone seems happy and our differences and divisions seem not so apparent, not to me, and definitely not useful.  I smile back.  The wind feels good.

You cannot see the mainland from the Malecón, but you can see both from a satellite.  Below in a Nasa image of Cuba,  the bright tongue of the Florida Keys leads from Miami downward to Havana.

Thanks to Olimpia Niglos and the Spain’s Archivo General de Indios for the plan view of early Havana, and also thanks to Ernesto and Vicente for sharing beer and points of view.


HORTON GROVE trees 750 375

The Horton Grove slave quarters within the Stagville State Historic Site form a  small piece of one of the largest land and slave holdings in the antebellum South–30,000 acres and 900 slaves owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family.  Situated adjacent to the Horton Grove Nature Preserve, the loveliness of the site, the simplicity of the quarters siting, their tasteful design and careful restoration make them uniquely worthy of their position in the National Historic Register regardless of the despicable institution and poisonous industry  they served.  Listed in 1978, their rehabilitation represents the continued efforts to reclaim the antebellum history for African Americans and for all Americans, efforts  including the battle to open the African American Museum on the Washington Mall September 24th.

In June of 2016 the Vernacular Architecture Forum toured the former tobacco plantations,  farms and factories in rural Durham, Caswell and Orange counties in the North Carolina Piedmont.   The Forum is composed of historians, preservationists, archeologists, curators, geographers and architects fascinated by the ordinary and frequently overlooked built record of our common American history.  If in 1915 the Virginia-Carolina Fertilizer could advertise the abundance of the tobacco crop and the booming  industry, nowadays, tobacco is mostly history, as is the slave and share-cropping system that supported it making for an ideal landscape for VAF members, below touring the fallow fields and abandoned sorting and grading barn on the Pope Family Farm.

tobacco ad 350Pope family tobacco barn

As a native Californian and VAF member, the anticipation of experiencing the rural south and the landscape of slavery, was new and intense.  Access was granted to worn and dilapidated structures like the Yancey-Womack tobacco curing and sorting barn (ca 1850) and the crumbling one-room slave shack at the Holderness House (1855), both of hewn logs chinked with mud and brick shown below. Unlike Horton Grove, but common for rural North Carolina and equally historic are ruined shacks like this one, photographed moments before a colleague plunged 6′ through the rotting floor.

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slave quarters H plantation

The four identical slave quarters at Horton Grove stand in a straight line, like barracks,  fronting on a small green meadow with the forest closing in behind. Thinking architecturally, the strength and logic of the siting was evident from the tour bus window as we pulled up.  Pushing ahead of the others, I snapped photos, framed views, stunned by the clean vertical planes of the structures in contrast to the shadows deep, low and black at the edge of the mown grass clearing, so lush, so intensely green.  In my camera lens, bright feelings for the beauty and love of the landscape played against the background of a historical darkness.

Horton Grove rear 750

Our tour guide, George McDaniel, until recently Executive Director at the Drayton Hall Plantation, helped re-invent Horton Grove as a destination and place of memory with his genealogical research culminating with a 1977 reunion at Horton Grove of descendants of resident slaves and share-croppers.   Without knowing, I’ve praised McDaniel’s work at Drayton Hall in a post from 2012, recognizing in his stripped down approach to restoration a model for historic preservation.  McDaniel introduced the dwellings to the tour by asking how the group felt about what the state had done to maintain the property.  We looked around at the tall, brooding trees and damp mowed lawn.  “Nice?”

Horton Grove aerialMcDaniels was saddened to see that trees and grass had been allowed to flourish, and the quarters themselves prettied up when compared to his memory on first encounter of the dilapidated share-cropper houses, the dusty dirt road and tobacco fields.  “There should be dirt instead of grass here, and there it should all be open fields.  You should be able to see the relationship between the slave quarters and the overseer’s house.”

The four slave quarters form a line in the lower left quarter of this aerial photo from 1978, and the open fields are still evident.  The photo was used by Catherin Bishir as evidence in support of its nomination to the National Historic Register and, less successfully, for preserving the empty fields.

Today Horton Grove provides side by side Nature Preserve and Historic Site with clearly different agendas.  Horton Grove slave quarters also function clearly as a memorial with regular reunions of slave ancestors with stories to tell.  The rehabilitation of the quarters’ exteriors is thorough–almost like new in 1850.  The staging of the interiors is fairly minimal but suggests habitation—a broom, a straw mattress and a blanket on the floor.  Four slave family occupied each of these four room buildings–one family per room–crowded and unpleasant for us.

Horton Grove bedding 375Memories are colored by what we understand and imagine as much as what we’ve seen.  How do we choose to remember this past (1) from a place of beauty and comfort connecting intellectually or (2)  as a miserable visceral experience of heat, dust and overcrowding–a physical reenactment of a particular moment in the past.  Which moment, the darkest?–the  most heroic–the most beautiful?  Judging from the recollections of the ancestors, collective memory, unlike personal, is complex, not selective, encompassing a wealth of feeling, dark and bright, both profound.   It should be noted that some slaves’ recollections have included fond memories of masters, mistresses, and home while others, less favored, feel disgust.  While descriptions of the benign re-enactments at Williamsburg seem odd pantomimes, the unconditioned heat and cold and lack of light of NYC’s Tenement museum are real sensations that truly deepens understanding.  Barring literature and cinema’s artistic license (Tarantino’s Django Unchained, for instance), a physical reenactment of the horror of slavery and racism is disrespectful, even obscene, prohibiting a realistic re-staging of the antebellum plantation.  Both Drayton Hall and Stagville  represent efforts by the South to reclaim its compromised history with a historical narrative that’s inclusive, not racist.

Horton Grove doorwayThere is clearly a place for the imagination, intellect and emotion to fill the empty structures whose history is corrupt, but whose form intact. Horton Grove and  Drayton Hall’s emptiness provide a clear and simple example of the unfurnished historic structure as a vessel for memory.

Along with Catherine W. Bishir’s work in nominating Horton Grove for the National Register, McDaniel’s early genealogical efforts uniting families with historical connections to the slave community led to Stagville’s 150th anniversary celebration of emancipation.  The Slave Dwelling Project for historic preservation records a number of personal remembrances of the sleepover they staged in the quarters on the evening of the anniversary.  The event appears complex and sleepless, painful and joyous, including new ancestral connections made with families across racial lines. One comes to realize that like families, history is not the property of one class or race but shared by all of us.  The connection between people and  place remains strong and proud, regardless of a difficult history largely past, but absolutely worth remembering, not re-living.  The value of the depth of memory tied to memory’s historic locations are proven at Horton Grove despite the disgrace of its past.

Our story of Horton Grove will continue with the much esteemed slaveholder and horse fancier Paul Cameron‘s vision for  the betterment of the slave through more pleasing housing, expressing the simple truths of construction.

Check out the Slave Dwelling Project schedule for future slave quarters sleepovers.  Thanks to George MacDaniel and Catherine Bishir for their insight and involvement.

Previously serving as the Stagville Plantation House (ca 1790), the home became the  overseer’s home with the death of Paul’s uncle and the consolidation of family estates and slaves. Below the overseers 18th Century home in 1920 and as restored today.  At bottom, the overseers’ attic.

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Stagville Overseers attic



A startling example of adaptive re-use Berlin’s Teufelsberg (or Devil’s Mountain) provides Berlin with the best in all-season sports activity.   Recognized among the premier spots for freeride mountain biking in Germany, these popular slopes rising from the forest of Grünewald also provide the very best snow sports, para-gliding and longboarding in Berlin, a modest claim at 377 feet above sea level.  Still, as the highest point in the Berlin area it affords spectacular 360 degree visibility of city and surrounding countryside. 


Pictured here is not a new anti-graffiti effort by San Francisco’s Public Works Department.   As if the neighborhood hasn’t become white enough, Absolut Vodka has come to town with its artistic promotion of inebriation “Open Canvas” whitewashing San Francisco’s  Divisadero Corridor between Hayes and Grove to create a  blank canvas for the work of selected artists while providing the Vodka an advertisement in the form of a news event


Before last summer we had visited East and West Berlin in 1985 and looked forward to seeing the changes that occurred in the 23 years since the Fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989.  Our cultural subconscious held a cache of images of horrid truths and heartless propaganda:  juddering film clips of goose-stepping Nazis and skeletal prisoners,  Walter Cronkite’s TV voice over of the Wall’s construction,  and AP photos of East Berlin escapees in mid-air jumping to freedom or death from walls and walled buildings.  The images form a deep, muddy cold-war pool from which the vitality of modern Berlin emerges, staggering out of the emotional depth and  intellectual complexity.

The marks of last centuries’ history, written with bullets, bombs and barbed wire, still remain visible in places but disappear quickly with the massive new architectural construction of the last two decades.  This March protests arose over the demolishing of a long and fantastically graffitied vestige of the Berlin Wall, called the East Side Gallery (listed below), to make way for luxury condos–this in a city only 3/4 occupied.   Formerly a symbol of oppression, the Wall has been claimed as a battle trophy by artists and activists who have repossessed the emotional weight of the Wall’s history as a symbol of self expression and threatened freedom.  Among the works at the East Side Gallery Dmitri Vrubel’s street art perversely commemorates Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev’s historic kiss, passionately celebrating the 30th anniversary of Soviet control of East Germany, “My God.  Help Me Survive This Deadly Love”


“Berlin-prettier than ever!” beckons the 1947 prop art poster for Soviet  East Berlin’s 5-year plan for the rebuilding of social housing and infrastructure following the devastation of the Allies’ bombardment and the Soviet invasion.

Distance provides perspective.  Unpacking our mental suitcase from a recent summer holiday in graffitti-bedighted East Berlin, we edit snapshots, positioning them for inevitable comparisons to our own living situation, in our own neighborhood in the Western Addition considering topics of street art, gentrification, bicycles, social housing, memorials and population relocation.

The changes in Berlin have been cataclysmic.  A city of 4.5 million in 1939, the population now stands at 3.5 million, 25% un-occupied, uncrowded and affordable.  For those with connections to Eastern European immigrants, the absence of a vibrant Jewish culture in Berlin is a palpable loss.  The World War and Cold War past is still present in the empty lots, the bullet-pocked plaster, the missing windows, and graffitied squats standing side by side with chic window displays, hot clubs, cool condos and high art. 


“The last days are here.”  80-something,  Ray takes his morning constitutional down to the corner store, at Broderick and Fulton around 8 am, hangs out to catch his breath, smoke a cigarette, socialize and sometimes prophesize.  We talk about the recent foreclosure and sale of the Gethsemane Missionary Baptist a block away.  “I’d been sayin’ it all along, it’s the last days, I do believe that.  The last days are here!”

The Gethsemane Missionary Baptist at Grove and Broderick is the latest of Western Addition’s church closures.  Neighbor Bill reports the church had been failing for  a while and was not shocked to hear the loan had been foreclosed and the property sold.  The realtor for sale reports the interior was in shambles.

I bump into Dharma, drinking lattes, a block east at Mojo.  He recalls, “I think maybe it was 2004.  I ‘member walkin’ by and those walls were like pumpin’.”  Here he makes a squeeze-box oompah gesture.  “Yeah, it was this cool, loud gospel music.  We stuck our heads in, but it didn’t exactly feel right. So ….”