The Mercado Único will be renovated ... but don’t hold your breath.
"Mala lengua conocida/ hablando mal de Machado/ que te ha puesto allí un mercado/ que te llena la barriga/ La mujer de Antonio/ camina así" (A famous sharp-tongued woman/ badtalking Machado/ who put a market there for you/ that fills your belly/Antonio's wife /walks like this) sang the trio Matamoros in its popular guaracha, back in 1928. But if the Mercado (market) de Cuatro Caminos was the inspiration for the song's lyrics, they made a mistake, as the landmark building opened in 1920, when Mario García Menocal was the President of the Republic. And in early 2014, without any official explanation, it was closed.
However, in the last 15 days, its perimeter has been covered with galvanized steel plates, and signs have gone up reading, under a sketch of the building in perspective: "Work on the Mercado de Cuatro Caminos; License: 2304-100-1609-1 -2013; Designer and Investor: CIMEX; Contractor: ECUSE; Completion date: December / 2019." Among other details we can deduce, based on the code, that the project dates from 2013, one year before the closing. And the traditional participation of the Office of the City Historian has been forgone.
In this way the military consortium GAESA went public with the commencement of work to reconstruct the popular market delimited by the streets Monte, Matadero, Arroyo and Cristina, in the Havana municipality of Cerro. The construction involves two levels; a basement and a surface area of 11,000 square meters.
Without even entering the site one can appreciate the ramshackle state of the light, hipped roof, which lacks a significant number of corrugated asbestos cement tiles resting on a frame of steel, joined by rivets that remain rusty due to the lack of paint and their exposure to the elements.
Despite its age (96 years since its construction), neglect, lack of maintenance, and the heavy toll taken by car fumes, the building's exterior is not in such bad shape.
Exhibiting an eclectic style typical of the first third of the 20th century, its four exterior walls feature a number of pillars, openings, arches, cornices and brackets, among other architectural elements which, to the naked eye, do not feature damage that would prevent its restoration.
The mezzanine floor is of reinforced concrete and sustained by a series of square columns with expanded capitals, affected by some structural problems not classified as serious by the experts consulted, as are the public entryways. Unfortunately, the state of the basement could not be assessed, as access to the area was barred.
According to the sketch appearing on the sign, skylights or dormer windows will be used – a plausible solution given that these features can reduce energy costs during daylight hours by up to 25%. This system was, in fact, widely employed in industrial architecture during the era.
What is distressing about the information one finds on the fence is that the restoration work will take three years, an extremely protracted period, in the view of specialists. And, according to sources with the contractor hired for the project (ECUSE is a company attached to the CIMEX corporation, dedicated to the repair and maintenance of automotive systems and construction), the lack of skilled labor to complete the work is alarming, due to the meager incentives. Therefore, it is possible that the late deadline will not even be met, as is often the case.
In the memories of old Havanans
The original name of the property was the Mercado General de Abasto y Consumo (General Supply and Consumption Market), and its construction cost 1.2 million pesos at the time. Its administration was initially assigned by the City of Havana to the Cuban politician and entrepreneur Alfredo Hornedo, back when the capital listed a population of some 400,000.
In an article entitled "El Mercado Único" (The Sole Market), published in the daily Juventud Rebelde, Ciro Bianchi stated that the concession granted to Hornedo prohibited the opening of another similar market within a radius of 2.5 kilometers, and within 700 meters for the most humble sellers of foods and fruits and vegetables, hence its "Sole" designation.
On the ground floor of the market agricultural products were sold, and upstairs, meats and foods of all kinds. The freezers were found in the basement. In the late evening the goods arrived on trucks, and were then unloaded in the central courtyard, from which they were distributed to the sales stands. There they were usually sold in the early morning hours. After 9:00 am the products were discounted and sold to the mobile vendors, to keep from storing them in the basement freezers. At 11:00 am the market closed for cleaning.
Felipe, a 78-year-old retiree who worked as a vendor in the 50s, said the carts were rented at a daily cost of 40 cents, from a warehouse on the Calle Vives, just a few blocks away. Many of the products were sold "with the pointing of a finger;" that is, they could paid for later, after their second sale. "Back then honesty was a good deal," he recalls.
Fish and shellfish were brought directly by the fishermen. They came fresh and packed in zinc boxes full of ice. Lobster, shrimp, snapper, yellowtail snapper, sawfish, grouper and other species stood out, among others on offer. There was also a stand called El Escorial, where live animals for sale were kept in cages on a shelf.
Most of the sellers were Spanish and Chinese immigrants; the former mainly ran the stands selling meat, while the latter hawked fruits and vegetables. Later Polish Jews began to run some of the stalls.
Some companies were present at the Mercado Único: the Compañía de Armadores de Barcos, the American Chomer Fruit Company, and others. The market housed a tavern, and various cafes and bars that were open 24 hours.
Antonio, a former tobacco vendor, age 82, still laughs about a trick he played on a Chinese man at the Mercado Único. He shared how he put a dead cockroach in a matchbox, went to the tavern and, after bingeing on fried rice, dropped the insect into what remained on his plate. Discreetly, but with an expression of outrage, he went up to the Chinese man and said: "Look at this," to which he replied, "You no pay, you no pay, you shut mouth."
José Candelario, an 84-year-old retiree, before 1959 was one of the many night owls who, after frequenting bars, cabarets and other nightclubs ended up at the Mercado de Cuatro Caminos. "Those soups cured your hangover in a flash," he recalls. "I couldn´t even eat a full plate of fried rice, the servings were so huge .... Oh, and the price for both dishes was 25 cents. Those days were wonderful, until Mr. Barbatruco (Fidel Castro) showed up, and brought hunger and misery."