The Economic Miracle of Havana’s Hairstylists Alley
The Economic Miracle of Havana’s Hairstylists Alley
Within nearly 100 meters, Old Havana’s Hairstylists Alley features bars and restaurants where Cuban and international food is dished out, spaces for local crafts and textile pieces, places with collectable objects, two premises where people can have a haircut and over ten families.
That section of Aguiar Street between Peña Pobre and Avenida de las Misiones, at the historic core of Cuban capital, used to be dirty and deserted. Nowadays, it welcomes waves of national and foreign visitors, interested in learning the positive aspects of a social project that was conceived within the framework of a private business and is presently headed by a man that grew up there.
The beauty salon, also a Museum-House of Barber’s, managed by stylist Gilberto Valladares, was the genesis. Papito, as everybody knows him, started to invest part of his profits in this Havana-based neighborhood named Santo Angel by means of his Cut Art (Arte Corte) project. He gave birth to a solidary economy experience that is presently being joined by new actors.
Supported by the Historian’s Office of Havana in the restoration of the property, Gilberto Valladares inaugurated and manages a Hairdresser’s & Barber’s School at the Alley. That’s where youngsters, who are working or studying, learn the trade by means of workshops. Moreover, neighbors are provided the service for free.
Both at the school and beauty salon, there are just a few meters between them, people can see age-old armchairs and cash registers, as well as other objects related to this job, which have fallen into disuse in many places. Papito says that they are living museums, since customers use and admire them.
This natural-born leader is interested in shedding splendor on ruins and contributing to the development of his community, so he has invited friends and acquaintances. That was how painter Roberto Gonzalez, for instance, inaugurated his Studio-Gallery some time ago and designer Pedro Perez opened his traditional textile pieces store, where he markets the famous guayaberas, a typical national garment.
Both owners play an active role in Cut Art: Gonzalez participates or opens his gallery for events such events as Havana Biennale; Perez donates pieces of fabric for a House of the Elderly located in the neighborhood and he recently gave this institution a sewing machine.
More people have opened business in the area, such as Gama Gallery, where you can acquire craftworks and admire the talent of Cuban artisans that model ceramics. There is also a place where people can buy old books of great patrimonial value, as well as collectable objects like cases and rings of Cuban cigars, coins, exotic padlocks, chips from casinos in Cuba before 1959, posters …
El Fígaro restaurant is an interesting option in the area and its name pays tribute to the main star of the comedy entitled El barbero de Sevilla, by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais. The coffee lobster is served in this space, a recipe by Chef Gilberto Smith, known as the King of Lobster.
Café de los Artistas is nestled some meters away, where stylized Cuban cuisine is the maxim, so patrons have the opportunity to taste dishes that are not common in the country’s culinary tradition. Fish ceviche is one of the most ordered specialties of the house. The decoration refers to boldface names of Cuba’s national culture.
Its owner, Luis Carlos Benvenuto, contributes to the cultural revival of the neighborhood by means of activities related to the Cuban movie industry. As a descendant of outstanding moviemaker Humberto Solas, he intends to foster the love for the seventh art with community intervention actions.
Muxima Huame is the name of a small and cozy space aimed at rescuing menus from typical cuisine that have fallen into oblivion, such as mutton in tomato and pepper sauce, wine mutton or loin a la guajira.
Right in the corner of the Alley, La Farmacia Bar-Restaurant retakes the use given to the building in the 1940s, where a drugstore was based years later. Delicious tapas can be tasted there, as well as drinks with the distinctive seal of the house.
Each property delivers the experience of enjoying your meal in the privacy of the place or under the tropical Cuban sky, in direct contact with the people, feeling the life of the Cuban people.
All of these business owners collect funds in order to hire people from the community for cleaning activities and night-watching. This is how they guarantee the comfort of the environment and this action contributes to the creation of jobs.
This social, cultural and economic revival has given the Alley the possibility to be included in tours organized by such travel agencies as San Cristóbal, Amistur, Havanatur and Cubanacán. That’s the reason why nearly 500 tourists visit the Alley on a daily basis in high season, according to the consultant of Cut Art, Camilo Condis, who is also in charge of talking to visitors.
By means of a daily practice, Papito has proven that social benefit becomes economic benefit. “When you have culture as the target of your work, more people join your project,” he underlines.
Some entrepreneurs have come with the idea of opening a business at the Historic Core, which has been declared World Heritage, and benefit from an environment that has been restored as a result of the alliance between state-run and private sectors, but they have understood the importance of their contribution to the community project.
The Hairstylists Alley is a singular experience of solidary economy in Cuba and also an example of how a territory can be favored when the inhabitants design their life projects, including economic plans, linked to the welfare of those who live around them.
Text and Pictures by Ana Lidia Garcia Hernandez. PanamericanWorld. La Habana