Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Historic Preservation in Cuba: a First Impression

In the late 1950s – probably like every other high school kid not immersed in sports and cars (I was into pothunting and chess), I dreamed of joining Fidel Castro’s cadres in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Had I only been a couple of years older, with better eyes, been a better shot, more able to roll my “r’s”…..

The aspiration was soon enough forgotten as I went off to the Navy and then to college, and as Cuba found itself with no choice but to align itself with the Soviet Union. But its memory echoed around in my head last week as I visited the island nation with my wife, daughter, and son on a Smithsonian Institution “People to People” tour. Such tours are among the several ways that U.S. citizens can now visit Cuba, despite our continued idiotic embargo (the Cubans call it el bloqueo – the blockade). Keeper of the National Register Carol Shull was on the same tour with her husband Joe; we carefully avoided philosophical discussions.

The tour – well organized, well directed, jam-packed and exhausting – wasn’t particularly focused on historic preservation, but naturally I paid special attention to the historic fabric of the places we visited – several parts of Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuego, Trinidad, the reforested 19th century coffee plantation at Las Terrazas. And came home with a range of impressions and puzzlements.

I don’t pretend to have become in any way expert – or even knowledgeable – in Cuban historic preservation, but such deficiencies have seldom prevented me from expounding on a subject, and the visit certainly provided lots of food for thought. So here are some first impressions.

What they say about Cuban historic architecture is true; the major cities at least are amazing mélanges of Neoclassical, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Moderne, Moorish, and the well-named Eclectic styles. Lots and lots of elegant, handsome buildings, quite a few of them very well preserved, restored, or rehabilitated.

But the well-preserved or fixed-up buildings are mostly major government and ecclesiastical edifices, high-end house museums, places entered in the World Heritage list and getting help from UNESCO or ICOMOS, and/or hotels and restaurants attractive to tourists. And even many of these show the sad fruits of much-deferred maintenance. I saw several major rehab projects – facademized gut jobs, often – abandoned in mid-career, scaffolding festooned with vines. I failed to ask, but my guess is that these were underway in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba, deprived of its major trading partner, descended into the profound economic crisis now referred to as the “Special Period.”

In the neighborhoods, the graceful little houses and streetscapes that reflect the lives and values of ordinary people are pretty uniformly rotting and weathering away.

So I found myself puzzling over what a country like Cuba could possibly do – if it wishes – to maintain its historic character, respect the traditional cultural values of its people and communities and neighborhoods as expressed in architecture, while staying true to its socialist principles. I reached no very useful conclusions.

Just “opening up” to its northern neighbor (casually referred to as “the Empire”) is surely not the answer. That way has to lie a return to the days of Batista and his cronies, or rather to their steroid-infused ideological descendents on Wall Street and K Street and Miami’s Calle Ocho. But that’s clearly what a lot of people expect and want to see happen. “Five years,” crowed our airport shuttle driver in Miami (himself a fairly recent immigrant), “and then it’ll be wide open; you’ll be able to do ANYTHING!”

Yes indeed, and we can imagine what that anything may look like, both in socioeconomic terms and in terms of the historic, cultural, and social fabric of neighborhoods.

So what devices might Cuba employ to preserve its character while improving the lives of its citizens and achieving some sort of détente with the Empire and the rest of the capitalist world? And are such devices anything that we elsewhere in the world ought to consider emulating? We were shown a couple of maybe-models.

Art in support of preservation

We visited an art studio in a private home. Mimes performed outside – to expose the neighborhood to culture, we were told, in which its residents must have been perceived to be deficient. Proceeds from the sale of the art in the studio go – in part, I assume – to preserving and “restoring” (stabilizing?) the picturesque ruins of an old slave-operated sugar mill out in the country.

The president of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) lived in a vernacular wooden house across the street with a weathered, unpainted facade; its residents and those of neighboring homes watched both the mimes and the tourists with what appeared to be studied impassivity.

It struck me that the model of using art to support preservation had promise, but I wondered if – especially for consistency with socialist principles – it couldn’t be reoriented somewhat. If one wants to involve the neighborhood in the arts, why in the world use the proceeds of your sales to preserve some ruin out in the bush? Why not use them to help the people fix up their houses, which are just as much a part of Cuba’s cultural fabric as are collapsed sugar mills? Wouldn’t this be truer to the spirit of the Revolution, and build a better relationship with the community?

There probably aren’t enough artists or art buyers to have a huge impact on the deterioration of Cuba’s unique architecture and neighborhoods, but it could make a modest contribution. And the model is doubtless exportable; I found myself imagining something similar being done in a pueblo in the U.S. Southwest, with pottery and weavings substituting for studio art. I don't know about the mimes.


Our very accomplished guide, Amircal Salermo Llanes1 (who thoughtfully goes by “Cal” among yanquis) told us about the “microbrigades” that in the 1970s built a good many of the apartment blocks around Havana and elsewhere. In essence, those who were going to live in them built the structures, using standardized plans and with supervision by a core of trained builders.

The structures are pretty ugly, though Amircal, who grew up in one, says he loved it and its community of residents. They not surprisingly reminded me of the brutalist slab-like structures you see all around Beijing, and that I understand are common in Moscow and other cities that fell under the humorless sway of the USSR after World War II. But the notion of investing sweat equity in building one’s own place is a widely attractive one, that a lot of governments (one thinks of Israel) have used to good effect.

In the midst of one group of Microbrigade apartment blocks there was a massive old building – I don’t know what it had been, but it was a handsome neoclassical masonry pile, about the size of the apartment buildings – standing vacant, windows and doors blown out. “Sadly,” Cal said, “there’s no use for it.”

“Huh?” I thought. Why couldn’t it be – have been – rehabbed as an apartment building along with all the new (sic) construction? Of course, I don’t know the particulars, but suspect that it didn’t fit into the Microbrigade program because it wasn’t amenable to (re)construction following cookie-cutter plans. But surely it could be rehabbed, and there’s no intrinsic reason why a Microbrigade couldn’t do it. Is that a model worth considering? Put people to work rehabilitating usable old buildings under modest professional supervision? Would such a model make sense in the U.S., too? A sort of neighborhood-scale urban homesteading program? One couldn’t expect rigorous attention to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation or their Cuban equivalent, but it would surely be better to get people comfortably housed and retain good old buildings than to be sticklers for principles that, on the whole, are most meaningful to preservation specialists.

The Old Havana section of downtown Havana has been, on the whole, handsomely maintained and/or restored, as has the Plaza Major of Trinidad, with a good deal of help from UNESCO. All well and good, but I have to wonder whether there’s a tendency toward all or nothing – either preserve/restore fully or ignore. It’s an easy tendency to adopt. One of our fellow Yanqui tour participants engaged me in conversation and brought up the Old Post Office in Washington DC – as an example of poor preservation because it’s been converted to federal offices! Never mind what Donald Trump’s going to do to it, but my oh my, have we so badly failed to alert the public to the acceptability and practicality of adaptive use?

I continue to ponder lessons learned, or at least glimpsed, in my brief introduction to Cuba, and certainly have no answers. I just hope that someone is thinking creatively about its remarkable urban fabric, and how to preserve and make good use of it as the doubtless inevitable opening up proceeds.

1. amiricalsalermo@gmail.com; HIGHLY recommended to anyone seeking a guide or translator in Cuba.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Of Aimless APEs and Pedestrian Profiteers

I am just back from a conference of the National and California State Associations of Environmental Professionals (NAEP/AEP) in Los Angeles. I believe it will be my last professional conference. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the major one is that I just find the things too bloody depressing.

I was there at the invitation of Kurt Dongoske, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) for the Pueblo of Zuni, to take part with him and Theresa Pasqual, Acoma HPO Director, in a session on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and tribal concerns. That session didn’t depress me; I thought it went pretty well, and was well enough received by the 30 or so people who attended.

But beforehand I wandered the display area, where environmental consulting firms display their wares. The exhibits pretty uniformly advertised work under NEPA and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and almost every one touted their “NEPA/CEQA Documentation.” Documentation. Not analysis, not conflict resolution, certainly not consultation or creatively addressing public concerns. Only one ad I saw even alluded to “compliance.” Nope, crank out those documents, that’s what we do. That’s why you pay us the big bucks.

That, however, was not the most depressing aspect of the conference. That distinction was reserved for a session on “Cultural Resources in Large-Scale Linear Projects.”

I should’ve known better than to attend. I should’ve gone to something on wetland delineation or air quality.

One of the papers was about evaluating historic highways, and it just struck me as silly. Lots of stuff about historic contexts and what gives an old road integrity in the eyes of – well, somebody; exactly who was never specified, but it seldom if ever is. Another was about an interagency effort to “streamline” (God, I am sick of the Cult of the Streamlined) review of projects to refurbish existing railroad facilities. This struck me as a lot of strained labor to give birth to gnats, but it did offer a few modestly clever ways to reduce time wasted on pointless paperwork. And since the poor devil had all the usual dead weights to contend with – Advisory Council, National Trust, State Historic Preservation Officers – glacial progress was the best one could hope for.

But then there was the one on archaeological surveys of linear projects like pipelines and transmission corridors, in which we were told that:

1. The area of potential effects (APE) of a linear project is the area subject to ground disturbance; and

2. “Cultural resources” are identified in these APES through the conduct of “pedestrian surveys” – i.e. archaeologists walking the ground – sometimes augmented by shovel testing (digging holes).

Why was hearing this so depressing? Well….

First, when my colleagues and I came up with the idea of APEs, during the mid-1980s rework of the Section 106 regulations, I feared that the deadhead archaeologists who even then were coming to dominate practice under the law would interpret it as meaning “duh, where you’re gonna disturb th’ artifacts.” So we tried to make it pretty clear, in the regs and in various pieces of guidance, that the term means just what it says. The area of potential effects is the area (or areas) where a project may have effects on historic properties. Physical effects, sure, but also visual effects, auditory effects, olfactory effects, socioeconomic effects – effects of any kind. The reason we define APEs is – I thought, back then – so we’ll think through what effects are likely, make projections, and try to examine the potentially affected environment in a thoughtful way. It was clear from the presentation in L.A. that this simple, obvious notion – the only one that relates plausibly to the purposes of laws like NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act – has been entirely lost on the mindless automatons that pass today for “cultural resource consultants.”

Second, while pedestrian survey is one way to identify archaeological sites (though not the only way; see below), it is at best a very poor way to identify quite a wide range of other types of historic property – notably cultural landscapes and traditional cultural properties. It is even worse as a means of identifying “cultural resources,” which by any sensible definition may include culturally valued animals, vegetables, and minerals, water, viewsheds, atmospheric phenomena, and such wholly intangible things as language, songs, and stories. Sure, some of these “resource” types may not be much prone to effect by pipelines or power lines, but some of them very likely are, and they’re supposed to be considered under NEPA. And an archaeologist strolling along digging holes isn’t going to find them.

How do you find them? First by defining your APE broadly enough to allow them to be sought – for example, by including areas from which your transmission line will be visible, or your pumping plant will be audible. Second, by recognizing that some “resources” – like water, and songs – may not have very point-specific geographic references but still may be affected by changes in the landscape. At least from the perspectives of some people, some citizens – for whom, after all, Congress made laws like NEPA and Section 106.

And third, by talking with people! The tribes, the ranchers, the artifact collectors, the hunters, the local archaeological and historical societies, the residents. Asking them what they think of a pipeline or a row of transmission towers running through their viewshed, or along their country road, or across their swimming stream or through their forest. Asking them what, if anything, they know or think about the area’s historic resources, and what, if anything, they value in the affected environment. Asking people about their concerns, and about what constitute “resources” in their eyes, is a fundamental part of Section 106 review, and good practice under NEPA.

So I asked a couple of questions.

1. Did the presenter have some regulatory or other basis for his definition of APE (since it certainly didn't have anything to do with NEPA or Section 106)? Well, he responded, it wasn’t for him, the consultant, to question the responsible agency. Odd, somehow I thought the business of expert professional consultants was to apply their expertise to the formulation of advice to their clients. Counsel, as it were. Somehow I’ve allowed myself to be misled into thinking that a consultant ought to know the regulations he’s being paid to help implement, and act as his or her client’s expert advisor. Silly me.

2. Had he talked with anybody? He smiled a bit lopsidedly and said that while federal agencies were usually OK with his talking to the public, private clients generally weren’t; his team’s job was to walk their routes and dig their holes in secret. Thus defeating the public purposes of the laws, and depriving themselves and their clients of the data they would need in order actually to comply with those laws, but oh well.

I know, sadly, that there’s nothing new or unusual in what I’ve just reported. Surveys by pedestrian archaeologists in narrowly defined APEs are standard practice, widely if stupidly thought to satisfy the regulatory requirement for a “reasonable and good faith effort” to identify historic properties (never mind “cultural resources”). And this, I suppose, is the more personal reason the NAEP/AEP session left me so discouraged. Because since 1998 I’ve published some six books and who knows how many journal articles, government guidelines, and internet postings about Section 106 review, many if not most of which explore what an APE ought to be, and what constitutes a reasonable and good faith identification effort, and almost all of which rail on and on about the importance of consultation. And here we are in 2013, with well-dressed consulting archaeologists explaining to NEPA consultants that the law’s really satisfied through the conduct of secret surveys by pedestrian archaeologists in narrow little corridors. Books? Papers? Guidelines? Who reads any of that stuff? We consultants know what the law really requires – it really requires whatever it is that we’re comfortable doing, that makes us a lot of money, and that facilitates our clients’ projects. Ours is not to question what our clients tell us to do, or to advise them about how best to comply with the laws – or even to know what the laws require. Ours is to receive our orders, walk our APEs, dig our holes, keep secrets, and collect money.

What a fine industry we’ve created.