Above the smells, noise and prying eyes is a secret world where the city’s rooftop communities await their next adaptation

© Sarah L. Voisin

The technical term for it is “parasitic architecture.” The Cuban government doesn’t encourage the practice, but in the city’s oldest and most dilapidated neighborhoods, longtime roof-dwelling families like Alonso’s were usually allowed to stay. The parasites became permanent.

Cuba is like that — built for one thing and adapted to another. Beat-up Studebakers run on Soviet jeep engines. Restaurants occupy old mansions. Boatless fishermen float baited hooks out to sea on homemade buoys of condoms, puffed up like big balloons.

Many of the grand homes of Old Havana were designed for one family, with a business on the ground floor and space for multiple generations and servants’ quarters on the upper levels. Now they are crowded tenements, in varying stages of decay.

You can’t see the secret world of Havana’s rooftops from the street. But get high enough and look out across the skyline and it’s there, a whole other city in the air.

It’s a hidden village of makeshift apartments, chicken coops and tiny vegetable gardens, where boys in flip-flops fly homemade kites and shirtless men play dominoes in the sea breeze, with drying laundry flapping around them.