A no-frills, densely-populated, tumbledown barrio (district) west of Habana Vieja, Centro Habana has a distinct personality and, perhaps, even earthy charm. Known for its tall crumbling apartment buildings, potholed streets, and frenetic (even daunting) street-life, Centro Habana is overlooked by most visitors, who prefer the more “tourist-friendly” plazas, leafy parks, and cobbled streets of Habana Vieja and Vedado.
Yet it would be a mistake to bypass Centro, with its mesmerizing streetlife, the city’s remnant Chinatown, and the high-energy commercial streets of San Rafael, Neptuno and Galiano, which have sprung back to life in recent years. Several of the finest paladares in the city are here, too, hidden away in many cases in buildings that often cause a double-take for their dereliction.
By 1863 Habana Vieja had become so overcrowded that the demolition of the city wall was ordered to open up land to the west (it had previously served as a glacis, or buffer zone, against invasion) for development. From 1890 on, a huge amount of construction took place. Most buildings were tall apartment blocks shouldering one against the other, creating a grid of deep, mostly treeless, urban canyons. Those near the oceanfront have borne the brunt of storms and salt-air for over a century; barely a month goes by without at least one edifice collapsing.
Extending from the seafront Malecón, Centro rises gradually inland, where two broader avenues—Zanja; and, further inland, Avenida Salvador Allende (west) or Avenida Simón Bolívar (east)—parallel the shore and provide a sense of much-needed space. In the 20th century, the eastern section evolved a bawdy reputation for prostitution and live-sex nightclubs, much of it centered on Barrio Chino (Chinatown). The red-light zone is long gone, but Barrio Chino clings on albeit barely, as most Chinese Cubans departed the isle after the Revolution.
Most of the area is dilapidated. But walking the Malecón is de rigueur for visitors; since 1995 the City Historian’s office has been slowly restoring many of the buildings along the Malecón. Havana’s main commercial zone, around Calles Neptuno and San Rafael between Paseo de Martí and Avenida de Italian (Galiano) have sprung back to life. And Cuba’s new breed of enterprising cuentas propistas are infusing Centro Habana with new vigor as more and more paladares, private nightclubs, and excellent casas particulares for rent open.