Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Bit of Old Flint (and Detroit) in Cuba

Author, illustrator and artist Tom Pohrt reflects on visions of Flint's past during a trip to Cuba:

The Pastelaria Francesa is nestled between the Hotel Telegrafo and Hotel Inglaterra, facing the Parque Central Parque in Havana Cuba. It is a good place to sit early in the morning with your cappuccino and chocolaté Napoliatana and watch the street life. There has been a café in this same location since the 1850’s. The shouts of the old guy selling maní, (peanuts wrapped in a paper cone) or the latest edition of the state newspaper Granma, on the other hand, has only been here since the late 1950’s. Youthful looking policemen saunter back and forth, school children in their Young Pioneer uniforms - backpacks filled with books, the hustlers, the tourists, the beggar or two, uniformed clerks on their way to work, can be counted on to parade by.

Depending on where you are sitting you can have a grand view of the traffic emerging from Prado and Neptuno onto the Paseo de Marti, once arguably the grandest of avenues in all the Americas. Horses still clip-clop along pulling carriages, keeping to the right of the faster moving vehicles. You will see Russian Lada’s, the odd Peboda, various Japanese and now Chinese made cars and buses. But what stands out are all the vintage Chevrolet’s, Buick’s, Chrysler’s and Fords, dating from the 1940’s and 50’s, cruising along under a sub-tropical sun. No matter how many mornings over the years you stake your table here it is always a wonder to see these Flint and Detroit made vintage cars, especially in such numbers. The Paseo de Marti is not Saginaw Street Flint nor Woodward Avenue Detroit but the sight of these automobiles will surely stir memories in those who grew up when these cars ruled the streets.

Havana is not the only place to spot these vintage American cars. They are all over Cuba and I expect must number in the thousands. How the Cubans keep these cars going is a testament to their ingenuity under trying conditions. It is not a surprise to look under the hood of one of these cars to find a Russian engine, most likely from a Lada. Parts are butchered from who knows what, they are hand made or brought in piece by piece from outside the country. The condition of these cars too vary from excellent to rusted-out-panel-less heaps with a cinder-block supporting the front seat.

Mention Cuba and many think Mafia, cigars, rum and all the old American cars. It’s all still there, except the Mafia. Havana is a bit beat down at the heels and like the old cars manages to patch itself together here and there. Should anyone think to bring these cars back to the U.S. the current Cuban government would not allow it. They are considered a part of the Patrimonio Nacional. Maybe things will change some day but I hope the cars stay. They have become part of the landscape.


  1. Thanks for posting Tom. 55 Buick . . . a classic.

  2. It's amazing the places Buick and Chevy endure, even as a lot of Americans shun the cars. Who knows what the future holds for GM, but it's good to see they are making decent cars and innovating again. In a strange way, Cuba shows the enduring legacy of the company. Maybe they can make a real comeback.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.