Eusebio Leal, Havanas city historian, has rescued hundreds of landmark… (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington…)
Eusebio Leal, a diminutive, silver-haired man in a dark suit, sips sweet Cuban coffee in an elegant salon of the Cuban Interests Section mansion on 16th Street NW and recalls the day they began calling him crazy in Havana.
The year was 1967, in a country not known for rewarding dissent, and Leal, then 25, was relatively new on the job as a city preservationist. He was leading a project to skin the asphalt off a historic street, revealing the original wooden surface, and he had a special load of vintage wood to restore the centuries-old grandeur. But government officials told him the street would have to be paved over immediately so it could be used for an important diplomatic visit.
The next morning, crews came to do the work — and Leal lay in front of the trucks to save the street.
“The mayor had to come to persuade me,” Leal recalls in his deep voice, through an official interpreter. “I didn’t get up until he guaranteed that we could complete our work. He kept his word. It was a very tense moment. Then they started saying I was a madman — but in that kind of aspect in which being a madman is a good thing.”
All these years later, at 69, Leal’s mad passion has made him a beloved figure in Cuba and a globally admired hero of the historic preservation movement. With the unlikely title of city historian, he has rescued hundreds of landmark buildings in Old Havana — Habana Vieja — the colonial section of the city founded in 1519. He devised a mechanism to use tourist dollars to fund preservation, making the city more attractive to visitors — thus begetting more tourist dollars and more preservation.
He did it while taking a stand against gentrification, and against the theme-parking of history, by insisting that real people must continue to live, work, study and retire amid the historic plazas, palaces, museums and boutique hotels.
Leal filled lecture halls in the District and New York last week, sharing the human drama and professional secrets of his work with kindred spirits for whom standing in front of demolition bulldozers is utterly sane.
“He had a vision, and he made it happen,” says Richard Moe, former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, introducing a talk by Leal at the trust. “The restored Plaza Vieja [Old Plaza] . . . is now one of the great public spaces not just in Cuba, not just in this hemisphere, but in the world.”
One reason the licensed cultural tours to Cuba by groups such as the trust and National Geographic are all the rage among the cosmopolitan set is they offer a glimpse of Leal’s work. The U.S. government permits few other opportunities to visit the island.
Back home, Leal likes to walk the streets of Old Havana. He started a radio and television show called “Andar la Habana” (“Walking Havana”).
“I’ve walked with him in Havana, and people come up to him to ask him favors, and, more than favors, people come to him to thank him,” says Gustavo Araoz, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. “He has immense popular support.”
Leal’s quiet pride in his accomplishments is tinged with melancholy at how much is yet to be done. Landmark structures are collapsing before he can get to them. He has always said restoring Old Havana, and the rest of the city, would take more than one lifetime, and now, it is late in his career.
“To some extent we have succeeded,” Leal says. “I wish I had been more successful.”
First big assignment
Even before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Old Havana was ailing. The nearly four square kilometers had been abandoned by well-to-do residents in favor of tonier neighborhoods. After the revolution, the government focused on developing the countryside. Preserving the old city was not a priority, according to American preservationists who watched from afar.
“There was what we think was a purposeful abandonment of Havana by the revolution, and it was through the will of people who refused to let this happen in Cuba that they actually forced the conservation movement to be accepted. So it’s truly heroic,” says Araoz, whose family left Cuba when he was a boy in 1960. “Eusebio is probably the most emblematic.”
The day Leal lay in front of the pavers, he had just been given his first big restoration assignment — the Palace of the Captains General. The work took 11 years, and in the late 1970s, the palace became the City Museum, with Leal as the first director. By 1981, he had won Castro’s support, and the work began in earnest with a master plan and $11 million to renovate 30 buildings. Leal hired dozens, then hundreds of architects, archaeologists, preservationists, craftspeople and laborers.
But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba hit an economic crisis. Fixing buildings seemed less important when people were going hungry.