Havana may be a metropolis of two million souls, but you wouldn’t know it by looking up: The night sky here boasts stars as dense and bright as you’d glimpse among the woods of Maine. For decades now, the city’s lack of electric light has been as key to the feel of its streets as the dearth of cars that actually work.
It wasn’t always like that, of course: In the 1950s, Havana had an electric grid that rivaled Chicago’s or Los Angeles’s, with light pollution to match. During the era of Prohibition in the US, this city was a thicket of cabarets and neon. It was also the world’s best place to see a movie. By 1959, Havana boasted some 358 theaters—more than either New York or Paris.
After Fidel Castro’s bearded rebels kicked out the mob and began building Cuban Communism, many theaters disappeared. But many remained: Cubans’ love for film never wavered. Each December since 1979, the Festival of New Latin American Cinema has drawn throngs of visiting cineastes and locals alike. The landmark theaters they flocked to, though, decayed. Films were as often presented on old TVs as projected on now-tattered screens. And on stucco façades or vaulted marquees, up until a year ago, all that remained of gorgeous old neon signs were their rusted outlines.
But then something changed. As new rules began allowing a modicum of private enterprise, and a new tide of foreign dollars hit town, the lights began to flicker back on. In Havana now, landmarks I’ve passed a hundred times—like the eponymous cinema looming over 23rd Street and 12th—are dim no more.
The return of neon to Havana, like many recent changes here, has had less to do with the government’s initiative than with its citizens’. The lights’ return also involved cooperation, like many new enterprises in Havana, between one Cuban living here and another who’s based abroad but keen to engage back home. That’s the formula behind countless new cocktail bars that have opened up since Raúl Castro made such businesses legal, in 2011. But Havana’s movie theaters are still owned by the state. And the project to outfit them with gleaming new signs—a partnership between Adolfo Nodal, a Cuban American impresario based in Los Angeles, and Kadir López Nieves, one of Havana’s leading artists—has aimed not to make money but public art. “Havana Light,” as the pair call their project, was launched at the Havana Biennial in May 2015. We went to see them at López’s home studio, in whose adjoining garage they’ve set up a workshop for bending glass tubes.
“Bringing light back to the cityscape helps us see it in new ways,” said Nodal. He should know: As the head of the city of Los Angeles’s Department of Cultural Affairs, he led a decade-long drive to restore 150 vintage neon signs which have lit the renaissance of downtown L.A. Now Nodal—who was born in Cuba in 1950, before moving to the US as a boy—is aiming to do something similar in Havana. In López, he’s found a partner, he says, who is “just one of those artists who can make anything happen.”
López is a forcefully articulate graduate of Cuba’s renowned national art school. He made his name with large-scale works crafted from other detritus of Havana’s pre-Castro heyday: big sheet-steel signs embossed with the logos of Texaco or Coca-Cola, that once adorned Havana’s boulevards, and onto which López now prints period photos of the same streets. “Nostalgia is key to my work,” he told us. “But I’m most interested in how nostalgia works for people in the city—how we all survive by remembering.” López frames the neon project—which began with fourteen signs around town, but has now relit dozens more—as a question. “How might lighting these new signs, which are also old, both ignite memories and change our ‘now’?”
Nostalgia feeds on memories, and memories require light—the more dramatic the better. So believes Adolfo Nodal, the energetic returning emigrant helping to lead the effort to re-light Havana’s dormant neon signs. He told us that this idea informs his love for lucent landmarks that “relate to the old cars on the street—the cars that have become a part of Cuba’s national patrimony, that these signs should be too.”
The Mella theater is perched on one of stylish Vedado’s main boulevards, a few blocks from the sea. Opened in 1952 as the Rodi Cinema, the 1,700-seat theater was renamed after the revolution, in April 1961, for a martyred Cuban communist. To honor Julio Antonio Mella, Fidel Castro’s government also commissioned a neon sign whose bending form echoed both the lines of the Fords out front and the Gaudí-esque curves of the theater’s balcony inside. From that balcony over the years, I’ve caught performances by the greats of Cuban jazz and dance. But it wasn’t until late 2015 that I saw the Mella’s marquee lit up. Its spectacular new sign, restored by Nodal and Havana artist Kadir López, was afforded with the help of some musician friends from New Orleans—the storied Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who donated the funds to build it just before visiting Havana for the first time.
On the night the sign first buzzed alive, the band stood cheering on the sidewalk out front. Then they took the stage, with a troupe of Cuban musicians, and brought down the house.
The Havana theater now known as the Cine Payret first opened in 1877, a building funded by Cuba’s nineteenth-century sugar boom, with seating for nearly 2,000 people. Sited on Old Havana’s edge and near its colonial port, the theater hosted the zarzuela musicals that once ruled Cuban theater, along with ensemble performances of danzas by local composers such as Ignacio Cervantes. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Payret’s stage hosted boxing matches that helped turn more proletarian icons, like the Havana-born pugilist Kid Chocolate, into heroes. In the 1940s, the Payret’s interior was redone and Cuba’s leading exponent of Art Deco sculpture, Rita Longa, affixed nine plaster muses to its walls. When it reopened in 1951, as one of Havana’s grandest movie palaces, a protruding marquee—and multihued neon sign—were added to the stone façade.
Like other theaters whose signs have been restored by Havana Light, the Payret isn’t in operation (it’s been “closed for repairs” for years). Yet when we showed up, the front door was ajar. We entered the dingy lobby. A young man emerged from the darkened theater whose sloping rows of seats were mostly gone. He was the nephew of a watchman charged with guarding this pile, and an artist (he’d taken to using the theater as his studio). He showed us, there in the dust under Longa’s muses, his own small sculptures made from wire, as well as thick sheets of artisanal paper he’d made from scraps of newsprint and which were hanging to dry in the haze all around us. He told us how, when the Payret’s sign was first turned back on a few months before, people from the neighborhood had stood out front gazing at it wide-eyed, reminiscing. Then he flicked a switch so we could ogle it ourselves, and disappeared back into his cave of paper and wire.
Back outside, the sign’s colors were reflected in puddles left by an afternoon shower, and in the mirrored sides of tourist buses splashing through them.
The intersection of 23rd and L, in Havana’s Vedado district, has long been Cuba’s most famous crossroads. Its corners sit atop a low hill near the sea, and are abutted by the iconic 1950s-era edifice Habana Libre hotel and the famous Coppelia ice cream park, whose sweet helados gave the film “Strawberry and Chocolate” its name, and where people still queue for hours for four-cent bowls of state-sponsored treats. What most grants this intersection its enduring spot in Cubans’ minds, though, is its movie palace. The theater now called the Yara first opened in 1947, as a part of the new Radiocentro complex: a state-of-the-art center for entertainment whose main theater’s high steel façade—which also featured neon signage—immediately became a symbol of Cuban modernism in architecture and the arts. Inside, the Radiocentro complex boasted its era’s most advanced systems for sound, projection, and air conditioning. In 1957, it made Havana the second city in the world to screen films in 3D and on multiple screens. Today the air conditioning is long gone and “state-of-the-art” is the last descriptor you’d attach to catching a film here. The Yara’s back rows often play host to louche layabouts or teens engaged in pursuits less pure than film-watching. But the Yara, looming over Cuba’s most hopeful corner, has always been a wall onto which Cubans project visions of the future—and only more so now. “Neon signs were always a symbol of the ‘new,’” said Adolfo Nodal. “We’re hoping they can be that again.”