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Cuba’s new WiFi culture

Havana seems to present a larger number of unique, sometimes absurd, daily traditions than other cities. Perhaps this due to its mix of vibrant street life and hardships that often require creative responses from its citizens. Take, for example, the practice of queuing in Cuba, a sadly necessary daily phenomenon that’s been elevated to an art form here, and which has become an important space for socialising. Or the informal shared taxi system, with its layered rituals that all Habaneros implicitly understand. Or the bizarre daily sight of lurid special-occasion cakes being carried along the street. On my December 2015 visit to the island – my first since 1998 – I was struck by a new phenomenon, one that might be fairly fleeting but that is definitely up there with Cuba’s other unique social customs: the outdoor WiFi phenomenon and resultant black market for WiFi cards. Like many things in Cuba, this phenomenon is often as comical as it is frustrating.

Cuba wifi image

Here are the basics: Cuba currently has one of the lowest rates of internet connectivity of any country in the world, with very few people (save for a few state-approved journalists and government officials) able to access the internet at home. A black-market intranet-based email network has existed for a while, but WiFi in homes is almost unheard of. However, in the last few months of 2015, ETECSA – the State-financed telecommunications agency – has introduced a series of public WiFi hotspots in some 40 squares and streets in Havana and other Cuban cities. WiFi in these spaces is accessed via a scratch-card password system. These cards gives internet access for the official price of 2 CUC (equivalent to US$2) an hour – a lot of money in a country where the average wage is (officially) around $24 a month.

WiFi spots are very obvious, due to the number of people that now congregate in these public spaces; a bit like watering holes for thirsty wildlife. Hanging out in squares or on the street is, of course, already a normal activity in Cuba – the result of the country’s mix of Caribbean culture and Communist politics. But the country’s first proper forays into digital connectivity have made these areas of the city even busier than before, meaning that accessing the internet in Cuba right now, far from being a reclusive exercise, is actually a very communal, even sociable, activity. Head to the designated WiFi squares and streets (including the ones on La Rampa, Havana’s main commercial stretch) at any time of the day or evening, and you’ll see rows of friends and acquaintances – both teenagers and adults – on benches or on the pavement, interacting with their smartphones, laptops and tablets; video-phoning relations in Miami, surfing the web, or sending emails. Despite the high cost, people here – just like everywhere in the world, though perhaps even more acutely because of their half-century economic isolation – are desperate to connect and get information.

photo (41)

The other notable aspect of the new WiFi phenomenon is the black market activity that’s part and parcel of it. Queuing for a WiFi card at an official ETECSA office can be a painfully long and tedious experience. More than once I queued for over an hour, before being told that the computer they use to log every single card sold had crashed – meaning that cards were no longer available that day. Selling WiFi cards illegally on the street has thus now become a favoured activity for local touts (or bisneros), who sell the cards for 3 CUC a piece, thus making a tidy 1 CUC profit per card. Buying a card from a tout is akin to looking for a drug deal. You turn up to the WiFi square or street, and hang around looking like you’re in the market. Sooner or later you’ll likely be approached by someone offering you a card – complete with the type of circumspect body language that’s straight out of The Wire (think limited words and discreet hand movements). ‘Are we actually just buying a WiFi card?!’, my friend commented on our first experience of this; internet access is such a normal part of daily life in most of the world now that it’s hard to think of it as a potentially clandestine activity. But it’s just another curious aspect of this fascinating city that refuses to play in the same ballpark as any other capital, and in which all aspects of social life are seemingly played out with a spirit of the absurd. As WiFi access becomes more widespread in Cuba – as it likely will, now that the tide is turning – and as people eventually get access at home, these practices will likely change. Though this will be a good thing overall – especially, of course, for the locals – part of me will be sad to see such unique and characterful elements of Havana disappear.

Update April 2017: Martin Parr has just published a brilliant photo story on this phenomenon on the Magnum website:


5Pointz is no more

Several New York City forums have been lamenting the final demolition of graffiti mecca ‘5Pointz’ this month (October 2014). The disused-factory-turned-graffiti-hotspot in Queens had been a magnet for street artists from around the world since the early ’90s, becoming an unofficial ‘graffiti museum’. The street art emblazoned on the building’s dilapidated exterior held the story of NYC’s graffiti history of the past couple of decades – while factory owner Jerry Wolkoff’s decision to finally transform the site into new condos is the all-too-familiar story of ‘urban progress’ translating as commercial property development. 5Pointz was whitewashed without warning last year, wiping out the works of thousands of street artists, and now the walls themselves are currently feeling the force of the wrecking ball.

5Pointz blog pic 1

5Pointz, Long Island City, Queens in 2011

5Pointz was already something of a compromise, however. Though the building was hailed as the apex of street art, it also symbolised New York graffiti artists’ diminished power since the subway graffiti heyday of the 1970s: for while subway graffiti art was subversive and temporary (though often dangerous to make), 5Pointz by contrast offered a legal and more static showcase – the only real option available after city authorities adopted their hardline stance in the mid-80s. This stance was based on the ‘broken windows’ theory, which proposed that visual signs of urban disorder – such as broken windows and graffiti – lead to escalating anti-social behaviour and crime. A well-ordered, clean urban environment conversely signals that crime won’t be tolerated, so the theory goes. New York City Transit Authority (MTA) was tenacious in its adoption of this theory, targetting subway graffiti especially intensively  – a path famously continued by Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Subway art

This hard-lined stance was a success in terms of crime reduction, but also led to a decline in the vibrant subculture celebrated in Subway Art (1984). Written by photojournalist/anthropologist Martha Cooper and photojournalist/filmmaker Henry Chalfant, this book, now 30 years old, documented New York City’s burgeoning subway graffiti subculture. Growing up with a hip hop and US-obsessed brother in the ’80s meant that the book was part of my lexicon from a young age, an unlikely seminal text – not so much for the images themselves (I left that obsession to my brother, who invited a local graf artist into our house to spray-paint his bedroom wall), but more because it was the first time I realised that you could actually have a job that involved being interested in and documenting other cultures. Looking back at this book fills me with nostalgia for a particular era – even for a city I barely set foot in until my twenties. Critics of the big clean-up of NYC talk in longing tones about the cultural sanitizing of their beloved city, while others believe the reduction in crime has made it all worth it. It’s a controversial and complex debate that touches on other urban debates, including the one about the changing status and commercialisation of street art itself.

5Pointz blog pic 2

5Pointz, Queens, 2011

But while 5Pointz was something of a compromise, its evolution was still organic and its pieces breathed life into the area. (Something tells me that the CAD-designed ‘graffiti wall’ that’s due to be part of the new condo complex won’t quite have the same sense of vitality.) When I visited 5Pointz in 2011, I remember feeling much more engaged than I had been half an hour earlier when visiting MoMA’s more solemn PS1 gallery, which sits opposite the site. The factory buildings occupied almost an entire city block, and the works ranged from classic wildstyle graffiti to cartoon-like images, as shown in the photos I’ve posted above. There’s no doubt that street art can humanize urban areas, providing ever-changing interest – the often politically charged stencil art of Buenos Aires was constantly grabbing my attention when I lived there in 2004/05, and Mexico’s versions work amazingly with its colourful buildings (see below). Whether you should try to preserve street art is a tricky issue – but knocking it down to make way for swanky new condos is surely another sad step towards cities that prioritise those with money.

mexico stencil

Oaxaca, Mexico, 2009

Copenhagen’s original social housing projects

I spent March and April of this year researching and writing the 6th edition of the Time Out Copenhagen guide. Everyone loves to love Copenhagen. Its bike culture, progressive environmental stance, design focus, and ingredients-led New Nordic cuisine all chime with the sentiments of the day (in my world, at least), and it’s been a privilege getting to know the place so well over the past few years.

For this latest guide, I wanted to feature some less hyped elements of the city, however. One aspect I’ve become quite fascinated by is the city’s historic social housing projects – sparked by a 2011 visit to Brumleby, a mid 19th-century residential enclave of the chi-chi neighborhood of Østerbro. Formed of straight rows of painted buttercup-yellow and white buildings with flowerpot-filled front terraces, the distinctive – and unbelievably charming – enclave is now one of Copenhagen’s most coveted neighbourhoods. But it was originally built for the toiling classes, at a time when the idea of social housing was just starting to kick off in Denmark and elsewhere. Copenhagen might be the watchword for civilised cities today, but in the 1850s it was as slum-filled as all the other newly industrialized European cities. The city was growing rapidly, living conditions were appalling, and cholera was rife. Something had to be done.


The answer came from the factories themselves, as well as from the newly formed Workers Construction Society. Both were involved in building the large housing enclaves that were starting to spring up around the city. Brumleby was built to house workers at the Danish Medical Association, for instance, while Humbleby, in the Carlsberg area, was constructed to accommodate those working at the Burmeister & Wain shipyard. One of the nicest of the social housing projects to emerge at this time, though, was Kartoffelraekkerne, a neighbourhood that runs along the northern end of the lakes, consisting of a long ladder of narrow streets built in very straight rows – hence the name: ‘potato rows’. Like Brumleby, Kartoffelraekkerne is today one of Copenhagen’s most expensive, in-demand neighborhoods, loved by locals for its palpable sense of community, with picnic tables in the street, kids playing and residents chatting in their well-tended-to front yards.

'Potato rows'

‘Potato rows’

A leisurely bike ride around here on my last trip helped me to more fully understand the Danish word ‘hygge‘ – which is normally translated as ‘cosiness’, but also suggests a warm, friendly atmosphere and enjoyment and appreciation of the small things in life. It’s a lovely place – the kind of neighborhood you wished you’d grown up in. Kartoffelraekkerne has morphed from a social housing solution to a social ideal; even the prime minister now lives here, apparently.

The 6th edition of the Time Out Copenhagen guide comes out on 7 August 2014 (be sure to check out the cool redesign).


The Aztec stone serpent head

I’ve spent the past few months writing city tours with a cultural slant for a well-known media company (all to be revealed in the spring). One lovely aspect of this work was that it reacquainted me with – and deepened my knowledge of – some of the cities that have most inspired me, including Mexico City. I spent a month in this sprawling metropolis in 2009, an experience that massively enhanced my understanding of Latin American history. The art deco neighbourhood of Condesa, the city’s layered – quite literally – Aztec and Spanish architectural and cultural history, the retro aesthetics of the subway, the world-class museums and galleries, the green-and-white VW Beetle taxis (which were sadly retired in 2012) – all were aspects of the city that made me vow to return to ‘Distrito Federal’ in the near future. Five years have passed since then (where did they go?) and, alas, I haven’t made it back yet, but my recent research has added fuel to my burning intention; perhaps 2014 will be the year.

aztec stone photoHere is one of my favourite images from my last visit. It’s of an Aztec stone serpent head that forms a corner of the Museo de la Ciudad de México (Mexico City Museum) in the Centro Histórico, a few blocks from the Zócalo. The boy in the photo with his hand on the serpent’s nostril was watching a street dispute, unaware that I was snapping him – in national football strip glory – at the same time: a succinct example of modern-day Mexico meets pre-Colombian heritage. The colonial building that houses the museum was constructed in the 18th century, and the architects incorporated the Aztec serpent head into its design; perhaps the stone came from the base of an Aztec Temple that the Conquistadores destroyed. No-one knows for sure. What we do know is that the great Aztec civilisation – which built the city of Tenochtitlan, the blueprint for Mexico City – came to an end after the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521, from which Conquistador Hernán Cortés emerged victorious.

Stoops and front porches

A recent trip to to North America took me to New York City and then Toronto over the Halloween period. My last trip to NYC had been during Easter 2011; then, many of the front steps of the houses in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, where I was staying, were decorated with painted eggs, bunnies and flowers. This time around, I noticed – it was hard not to – that the steps, or ‘stoops’, of my adopted neighbourhood of Fort Greene were adorned with carved pumpkins, white cobweb string, skeletons and ghosts.
I love this aspect of North America – the willingness to interact with the community in this lighthearted way. In the UK, similar attempts to decorate home exteriors are often met with snobbery and derision. The look is often tacky, of course, but so what? It’s meant to be. What’s important about these attempts is that they form a playful acknowledgement that, as city dwellers, we live as part of communities.
Website NY Halloween 2
The carved pumpkins on the brownstones stoops help to form a liminal space between the private and public spheres, in the same way that balconies do in Hispanic countries. The North American urbanist Jane Jacobs famously wrote about this aspect of city space and public interaction. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), she suggested that the use of stoops – and particularly people sitting on them, watching the goings on of the street – was important for generating a sense of community through the casual social interaction they engender. This, in turn, makes streets safer.
In the UK, we don’t really have a direct equivalent of brownstone stoops, the architectural feature that makes this kind of spontaneous interaction possible. Our back gardens can help (or hinder) relations with our neighbours, but our urban architecture doesn’t elicit passing conversations on the street like stoops do.
After New York, I headed – courtesy of Amtrak – to Toronto, coincidently the city where Jane Jacobs also ended up for the last four decades of her life, after clashes with the City of New York authorities. Toronto’s equivalent of New York’s stoops are its domestic front porches. People sit on their porches, looking out onto the street, all through the hot summer and into the autumn, when most are decorated for Halloween.
Website Halloween Toronto
Many people dream of riches; me, I dream of stoops and front porches…
A family friend, Bruce Landesman, read this blog post and sent me this illuminating note about it:

‘I grew up in Brooklyn. Most of my life was in Flatbush, not far from Brooklyn College. Every house on my block had a stoop. They were, I suspect, not decorated in the same interesting way as the stoops you found. But for us kids they were a source of great pleasure. We played two games. One was just called stoop ball. You threw a pink ball (called a “Spalding” but pronounced “Spaldeen” in New York) against the stoop. If you caught it in one bounce you got 5 points; if you caught it without a bounce you got 10 points. If you hit the point of the stoop so it went high in the air and caught it before bouncing, you got many more points. If you failed to catch the ball or caught it on more than one bounce you were out and the next person’s turn. The other was stoop baseball. You threw the ball against the stoop, trying to hit the point that would make it fly. If it went a certain distance and your opponent did not catch it you got a single, double, triple or home run. If your opponent caught it you were out. Three outs made an inning. Whoever was ahead after nine innings was the winner.

 We loved these games. They had the hazard that the ball would fly into the street and you had to field it without being hit by a car! We played all out games in the street and dodging the cars was always part of the game. Fortunately it was a one way street and the cars moved slowly.’