|Catherine the Great(source)
||Tropicana Showgirls, Havana (source)
‘It improves the look of the neighborhood like 1,000 percent…’
—Advocate for neighborhood revitalization, Albany N.Y.
The Russian minister Potemkin is apocryphally said to have erected a series of hollow facades and empty homes—the shells of real village life and real infrastructure—in order to impress Catherine the Great. She was the queen and his lover and all was to be in order for her 1787 review of the Crimean countryside.
While this vision—of false townships glowing in the Slavic wilderness, of a tremendous project presented to an adored, royal woman—holds a mythic appeal, the ‘Potemkin Village’ has since become a useful and potent metaphor, assuming a weight and cultural meaning that obscures its origin story. The phrase is now used to describe any number of initiatives that present a theater of deception, a world somehow duplicitous. The Potemkin Village operates according to facades and is false specifically in its superficiality.
Today, the motive for falsehood is no longer the great monarch in need of consolation or confirmation of her subject’s well being. While the presentation of apparent success remains a priority, the individual or institution to which that presentation is directed is diffuse and far from obvious. Infrastructural accountability is directed at vast networks, and the standards, rather than those of royal service, are notions of urban success and municipal efficiency.
In Cleveland, a city affected by the kind of blighted deprivation much documented across the American Middle West, a civic initiative assumes the function of Potemkin Village. This duplicitous project—which pioneers a trend similarly manifested in cities across the United States—is cheerful and seemingly unobjectionable, taking the guise of urban artwork: the painting of floral arrangements atop the boarded up windows of abandoned homes. These crudely rendered murals are, supposedly, a deterrent to squatters and derelicts and, in their iconographic invocation of the well-tended domestic world, are said to have a positive influence on the evolution of a depressed neighborhood.
The claimed artistic renaissance of these same blighted cities becomes an insidious parallel to Cleveland’s painted boards. Perhaps more sophisticated in their tones and forms, they are nevertheless invested with both falsehood and a strange faith in that falsehood. They are corrective measures, superficially manifest, Potemkin Villages amidst American cities.
Havana’s Tropicana is a place, out of time. While in many ways, much of Cuba is living in the past, with the island’s limited resources ensuring that little has changed since the 1959 revolution, this seventy-two year old cabaret-style nightclub has evaded the worn aura that sweeps over much of the rest of the nation, making it one of the few lasting testaments to Cuba’s pre-revolutionary decadence.
The experience of the Tropicana is steeped in fantasy, reminiscent of old Hollywood films studded with visions of gangsters, starlets and dancers clad in flamboyantly voluminous, yet strategically scant costumes. With a cinematic entrance, that winds around a lush tropical roundabout lit with glorious neon signage, it is difficult not to get swept into its deeply displaced atmosphere from the moment of arrival. Doormen escort patrons from their 1950s Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Fords and Chevrolets to the club’s entryway, a glamorous mirrored hall with crystal chandeliers, which cast a sparkling light all around the reflective space. Here guests are presented with gifts—long stem roses for women and cigars for men. Moving onwards into the main space, staff in vintage-style tuxedos seat guests, as others deliver complimentary champagne and rum. All the while, a dazzling show begins—betraying no shortage of sequins or feathers on the island—in an intimate space surrounded by a dense canopy of tall trees, laid out across multiple stages at varying heights, amplifying the venue’s ability to intoxicate with, above all else, overwhelming visuals.
As cans of Coca-Cola begin making appearances on the streets of Havana and with the recent meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party (the first in fourteen years), changes are taking place that signal a shift in the values and priorities of this nation. Hopefully the Tropicana will endure, as an island within an island, continually moving to its own rhythm.
Erandi de Silva