On Havana’s rooftops, a secret world

Havana, from on high

Above the smells, noise and prying eyes is a secret world where the city’s rooftop communities await their next adaptation

Published on March 7, 2015

HAVANA — You can’t see the secret world of Havana’s rooftops from the street. But get high enough and look out across the skyline and it’s there, a whole other city in the air.

It’s a hidden village of makeshift apartments, chicken coops and tiny vegetable gardens, where boys in flip-flops fly homemade kites and shirtless men play dominoes in the sea breeze, with drying laundry flapping around them.

ABOVE: The Central Havana skyline is pictured from an Old Havana rooftop.

Street-level Havana can be noisy and smelly, but rooftop Havana is bathed in sunlight and flushed clean by the ocean air. It’s beyond the reach of prying eyes, a place for romantic trysts or some much-needed solitude.

“Cubans are nosey, man,” said Yordan Alonso, 25, father of three, a part-time barber, part-time bicycle taxi driver and lifelong roof-dweller four stories above San Ignacio street in Old Havana. “Up here, nobody bothers you,” he said.

Alonso’s building is a half-block from the city’s Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza), at the unmarked border between cheerful, tourist Havana and crowded, crumbling Havana, into which visitors rarely stray. This part of the city waits more impatiently than any, maybe, for the day the U.S. tourists and investors come rushing back, to catch it before it falls down.

Never has that day seemed closer for Cubans such as Alonso, with the United States and Cuba mending relations.

Built from concrete blocks set on the roof of a ruined colonial-era building, his tiny apartment looks out over the Old Havana skyline to the deep-blue Straits of Florida beyond. Ships and barges eased in and out of the Bay of Havana past the 18th-century San Carlos de la Cabaña citadel, one of the large Spanish colonial fortresses in the Americas.

The population of this city of 2.1 million has surged since Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, but its housing supply has not. The communist government has consistently fallen short of its construction goals, and the big, ugly apartment blocks it put up in the Soviet era couldn’t absorb all the city’s growth.

In overcrowded Central Havana and in the historic quarter, the shortage of places to live and play and find much-needed privacy pushed the city upward, spilling onto the rooftops.

Yordan Alonso, right, works in front of his Old Havana rooftop apartment. Others, from left to right, are son Cristofer Serrano, a friend, Leandro Ramayo, and his youngest child, Yordan J. Alonso. Alonso in his small rooftop apartment. Estefani Serrano, left, and Yordan J. Alonso play in the small home as a large picture of their mother, Maryolis Monteagudo, hangs on the wall. Alonso's family stands in a doorway watching him work on the rooftop.

The technical term for it is “parasitic architecture.” The Cuban government doesn’t encourage the practice, but in the city’s oldest and most dilapidated neighborhoods, longtime roof-dwelling families like Alonso’s were usually allowed to stay. The parasites became permanent.

Cuba is like that — built for one thing and adapted to another. Beat-up Studebakers run on Soviet jeep engines. Restaurants occupy old mansions. Boatless fishermen float baited hooks out to sea on homemade buoys of condoms, puffed up like big balloons.

Many of the grand homes of Old Havana were designed for one family, with a business on the ground floor and space for multiple generations and servants’ quarters on the upper levels. Now they are crowded tenements, in varying stages of decay.

Alonso’s building has 36 apartments, including his own and the four others on the roof. His wife’s family settled there more than 20 years ago after their tenement in another part of the city buckled in a storm.

Bundled electrical wires and phone lines run up the main staircase and spider web from there. Outside each apartment is an old oil drum or plastic tank for storing water piped up by electrical pumps. Most residents’ front doors are open to their neighbors to catch the breeze and gossip, letting their dachshunds and Chihuahuas come and go, their droppings left drying in the stairwell.

From the street, itinerant vendors walk up the worn marble stairs to ply the corridors, hawking pastries and chorizo sausage, probably pinched from government stockrooms.

A rickety wooden ladder continues to the roof where Alonso and his family live. Their neighbor, Josue Gutierrez, keeps his pigeons there.

There are pigeon coops on almost every azotea (rooftop) in the neighborhood, most of them improvised out of rebar and green plastic roofing panels.

Gutierrez, 22, has one of the best, built by his father, who raised him on this rooftop, tending pigeons, and has since moved away.

Gutierrez gets up at 4 each morning to go fishing when the weather’s good, motoring a few miles out with a friend to troll for tuna or snapper. He tends his pigeons at dusk, changing their water and feeding them with the chickpeas he gets through the government’s ration system.

Josue Gutierrez releases one of his pigeons into the air.

“Yo, Baldy!” Gutierrez shouted to a friend at another pigeon coop on the roof of neighboring building, about 100 yards away, on a recent afternoon. Baldy did not notice. “He can’t hear me,” Gutierrez said. “Too much wind.”

There were pigeon-keepers on seemingly every rooftop. Gutierrez said his entire neighborhood is “a battlefield”; everyone is trying to trap each other’s birds. Gutierrez had rigged the rooftop with little snares fashioned out of fishing line to cinch around a bird’s ankle as soon as it lands.

In the United States, Gutierrez said, pigeon-keepers prefer messenger birds. In Cuba, the hobby is built around raising birds that venture out to attract others to their roost, where they can be captured for their owner’s collection. It’s called “stealing pigeons.”

It is a game of seduction, and one of Gutierrez’s birds, El Azul de la Grua, “The Blue One on the Crane,” is Old Havana’s avian Casanova.

El Azul is called that because the only place he likes to roost is on the idled construction crane, a block from Gutierrez’s building, hanging over a half-built tourist hotel.

Gutierrez lifted El Azul from his coop and released him into the air with an upward toss. The bird flew in a wide looping arc, past the crane and out over the tourist heart of Old Havana, before circling back to the coop.

El Azul once stole 82 pigeons for Gutierrez in a 14-month span. Gutierrez kept some and sold the others. The least valuable are popular with practitioners of Santeria, where they meet their demise on the altars of Elegua, Oshun and other Afro-Cuban deities with a purported appetite for pigeon blood.

The birds are just a hobby for Gutierrez, he said. He loses money on them. Unlike Alonso, he doesn’t even like being up on the rooftop above the city. “I don’t waste my time watching people,” he said. “I’d rather be down there with my PlayStation.”

Many of the grand colonial-era homes of Old Havana were designed for one family. Now they are crowded tenements, in varying stages of decay. Four children play in the hallway of an historic building across the street from Yordan Alonso and Josue Gutierrez where a large pigeon coop is located on the roof.

When he and Alonso were growing up on this roof, they would climb down to run free in the Plaza Vieja, one of the main squares in Old Havana, back when it was in ruins. Now it’s a major destination for foreign tourists. At the new cafe on the corner, a Cuban band played “Hey Jude” in English.

The renovated Old Plaza has tapas bars, a spa, even a Benetton store. But the police don’t let the neighborhood kids play baseball there anymore or run shirtless, Alonso said.

“It’s like a museum now,” he said. Even the fountain at the center of the plaza is fenced off.

Surely more tourists were on the way, Alonso said, given the thaw between Havana and Washington. The rough-worn Havana he grew up in, and its rooftop world, might not survive it. Maybe that was a good thing.

“Sometimes I think we should move, so my kids have more room to play,” Alonso said, looking out across the city as big cloud banks moved in from the north.

“But where else am I going to get a view like this? What’s it worth?” he asked. “Some day, a millionaire is going to come and want to buy it.”

A pigeon belonging to Josue Gutierrez lands on his Old Havana rooftop after flying in the neighborhood over other similar coops. The birds are raised to go out to other coops and attract more pigeons to their roost, where they can be captured.