Two Faces of Panama

A few blog posts ago I made fun of Potemkin Jamacia, a cruise port made to look like the real port, only cleaned up and safe.  Visitors like old towns, especially when they are neat, clean and freshly painted.  Our visit to Panama City’s Old Town Casco Viejo Historic District and the neighboring barrio of El Chorrillo made me want to rethink my own enjoyment of “cleaned up real” old cities vs brand new “ersatz old cities.”

I enjoy cleaned up old towns but was also aware of the cost to the residents of gentrification. Tbilisi, Georgia has a wonderful recently restored old town.  I worked with reporters who told the stories of families displaced by the gentrification.  My own hometown of Jersey City underwent gentrification when the district along the Hudson and Upper New York Bay was gentrified.  Many people were replaced from their low rent tenements, which were remodeled into cozy studio apartments.  But much of that gentrification was done by converting warehouse and factory buildings into shops, restaurants and expensive flats without displacing residents. 

We took a tour, organized by Pete who writes the “Inside Cabin” blog, called “Two Faces of Panama.”  It was a four mile walk through the two neighborhoods that showed us the already gentrified part of the Panama City’s old town, the part undergoing conversion and the part of the barrio that remains.  In all three sections of town we saw colorful murals, some of famous sons of the barrio, including boxer Roberto Duran and Latin jazz and Salsa king Ruben Blades.

The gentrified section of the Old City featured restored buildings, expensive flats that used to go for $50 a month now going for $800 a month or more, restaurants and shops.  Many of the residents were displaced by Air B&Bs, short term rentals for visitors.  It is certainly THE IN place to stay on a visit to Panama City.

The second zone was depressing. Many buildings were unoccupied and crumbling, some with “for sale” or “danger” signs.  Remodeled buildings have “for rent” signs and interspersed were older buildings where people are still living in extended families. 

Our walking guide, Christian, said that the process is that the government condemns buildings as unsafe, sells them and they are remodeled.  I asked him how it works, and he said, “Panama has a Romance with Corruption.”   The displaced are given modern apartments, for abut $50 a month (Average income in the Barrio is about $500 to $600 a month) but they are small, and the relocation disrupts the fabric of neighborhoods where people have known each other for generations. Some of the conversion was unavoidable. In 1989 when the United States invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause, to capture Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman and drug dealer some of the shots aimed at his bunker up a hill landed in El Chorrillo igniting fires burning some of the wooden buildings and blowing up some of the others.  Some of the lots are still vacant, some boast new buildings. 

From the transition zone we went into El Chorrillo, a poor but vibrant community.  There was laundry on the line, kids playing, bodegas and restaurants.  It was quieter than usual because of the holiday; many businesses were closed.  We passed a cobbler, ate in a family restaurant with some wonderfully spiced chicken, fried plantains, local beer and rum.  We saw the Gym where Roberto Duran trained, although because of the holiday it was closed.  We saw store front evangelical churches in this predominantly Catholic country and stopped in a park where old men played dominoes.  We joined in the games and Christian taught one of the local kids to play.  We also visited a yard where fighting cocks are bred and trained.  Each cock was either caged or tethered to a stake in the ground.  Cock fighting is a popular pastime here.

We also visited a police station where community policing was the tactic.  Cops were everywhere, there to protect the fringes of the gentrified old town, but also to stop drug trafficking and street crime.  We saw them engaging with citizens, not only in the police station but on the street.  Christian says that crime has gone down since the government introduced community policing.

I don’t want to romanticize poor neighborhoods, but there is a fabric of community that it is sad to see broken.  Certainly, the new flats have advantages, but they are small and crowded and do not have the individual character of the old buildings.  The blocks reminded us, in a way of Tirana, Albania when we first lived there, and so did the barrio neighborhood.

The tour we were on is run by residents of El Chorrillo and some of the proceeds are donated back to some of community projects to strengthen the neighborhood.  Thank you, Pete, for finding this for us.

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