The street of wood, one of the jewels of Old Havana
BY MERCY RAMOS, PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ALEXIS RODRÍGUEZ
Old Havana is one of the most visited places in the Cuban capital, both by national and foreign tourists who vacation in the largest of the Antilles every year.
There are countless places of cultural and historical interest here as, in addition to being declared a World Heritage Site in 1982 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it is one of the oldest settlements on the island, founded five centuries ago.
One of the sites that most grabs the attention of visitors is Calle Tacón, whose stretch between the Plaza de Armas and Calle Cuba is made of wood, which is why many people know it by the evocative name of “la calle de madera”.
Unique in Cuba and in Latin America, this street of wooden paving stones has an interesting history, since it was not always made of that material. According to history, at the start of the 19th century the paving of Havana’s streets was very poor quality; the river stones known as “chinas pelonas” worked loose with wear and the empty holes left behind would be filled by stone blocks and earth, so badly made that downpours left them impassable, with holes in one place and piles of stone in another.
For this reason, carriage drivers moving around the city would keep one wheel up on the sidewalk to try and avoid potholes when traveling on these difficult roads, which could then cause an accident.
Understandably, the neighbors felt aggrieved, especially by the annoying noise of the iron wheels, and began building wooden or stone steps in front of their houses, and on the corners, merchants buried cannons or large posts, many of which can still be seen in some streets, to avoid disturbance from the carriages.
This situation was even mentioned in a report by the Ayuntamiento de La Habana in 1821: “It seems that the ‘chinas pelonas’ discredit the culture of this beautiful capital, making it noisy and unbearable with such an immense number of carriages, no one enjoys peace in the streets and houses, it forms a hot and unsanitary atmosphere”.
From then on, the city authorities began to consider other options for paving the streets.
Between 1834 and 1838, Don Miguel Tacón y Rosique was the Captain General of the island and during his mandate he created several public works that are still preserved in the capital. In 1834, with the aim of improving the main entrance of the Casa de Gobierno (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales), currently the Museo de la Ciudad, he tasked the construction of the street to engineer Don Manuel Pastor, who decided to install wood paving, which was also done in Calles Mercaderes, O’Reilly and Obispo. In 1841, the engineer Evaristo Carrillo tested the new paving stones. It is said that Tacón commissioned this to avoid the problem of mud that formed in front of his palace. Others claim that the decision related to the need for a little peace and quiet, and to preserve the sleep of his beautiful lady, which was always interrupted by the passage of horse-drawn carriages circulating at all hours on the stones.
Whatever the motive, the fact is that covering the street with wood constituted one of the first attempts to pave the main city roads in an effective way, which contributed to improve the decor, eliminate the mud and the noise. However, the cost of the work and the short life span of the material used made the project unfeasible.
Perhaps for that last reason, the street remained buried for many years until the 1980s, when the Office of the City Historian decided to begin restoration work in Old Havana and discovered the street covered by several layers of paving.
Thanks to that decision, this street, currently used only as a pedestrian area, was rescued and can preserve its great history, from the colonial but also the contemporary era.
This section of Calle Tacón is an outstanding space for Havana culture, as it serves as a stage for performances by the popular street theater group Gigantería Habana, presentations by the Banda Nacional de Conciertos, and literature on the regular Book Saturdays, among other activities.
If you are a regular in Old Havana or if you are visiting, come to this place to enjoy its beautiful surroundings, neighbored by emblematic buildings such as the Museo de la Ciudad, the Casa de Martín Aróstegui, where the Colegio de Arquitectos de La Habana was founded in 1916; the Museo de Arqueología, with its Cuban and other American collections, and Parque Luz y Caballero, dedicated to the illustrious Cuban educator, in whose center lies a statue in his honor.