New Life Comes to the Heart of Panama's Old City

Just a few miles from the gleaming but largely uninhabited white towers of modern Panama City's skyline, it's a small area of crumbling but glorious architecture some of which dates back to the 17th century.
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Like Keith Richards, Casco Viejo has an appealing mix of wealth, decay and glamour. The old capital of Panama, Casco is one of those strange places that's changing so fast it's hard to say what the neighborhood is. Just a few miles from the gleaming but largely uninhabited white towers of modern Panama City's skyline, it's a small area of crumbling but glorious architecture some of which dates back to the 17th century. Parts of Casco Viejo have been painstakingly renovated with a hyper-sophisticated aesthetic that juxtaposes exposed brick and plaster with conceptual art and luxurious amenities. Next door to these gems are hulking ruins that might soon be future million dollar condos but at the moment could also be home to squatters and gangbangers. Which makes walking around Casco Viejo an exercise in cognitive dissonance that demands intense awareness. One block is littered with abandoned decaying structures. Turn a corner and your can pay $9 for a coffee. Or get robbed.

What's clear is that Casco Viejo is one of Latin America's most beautiful Spanish Colonial Cities. In the late 1800s, when the Panama Canal was first being planned, the area was the site of some grand architectural monuments to colonial power. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the 28-block area is defined by the remnants of a massive stone wall built in the 1670's to defend the city from attack by the pirates.

Unfortunately, at the time, Captain Morgan was more than just the name of a spiced rum. As rumors spread that the notorious British pirate approached, the governor of the Panama City decided he wouldn't give Morgan the satisfaction of sacking his city, and so he burned it down himself. Either that, or Morgan somehow got messages to the city's slave population (which at the time accounted for two thirds of the city's 6,000 residents) and the slaves burned the city in an act of insurrection. Either way, nothing stopped Captain Morgan from coming ashore and burning the city some more.

Preserved as the conquistadors left it, Casco Viejo has that frozen in time authenticity you feel in Havana, and Old San Juan, the sense of a place that is crumbling from such great heights that even in despair, there is glory. The oldest city on the Pacific Coast of the Americas, Casco was the center of Panamanian life for nearly 300 years, a home for the rich and the powerful until the 1930s, when, like many old quarters in Latin America, the area began a period of long slow decline. Although many of Panama's upper crust built and owned mansions here, with the development of the automobile, they moved to suburbs and by the 1980s the old city had fallen under the control of gangs.

Like many other once-grand Latin American old quarters, lawless decades of decay have recently given way to restoration and renewal. One example of the neighborhood's transformation is the American Telegraph Building, which until recently was home to 60 gang members and their families. 16 homicides took place inside the structure, which is now operated by Ace Hotel where you can enjoy artisanal ceviche and East Hampton-priced beers.

Casco Viejo is a work in progress, and that's part of the appeal: trendy restaurants stand next to ramshackle houses, upscale bars abut abandoned ruins. You can stroll past coffee bars and art galleries and breathe in a living history of the place. Architecturally, it's a bizarre mix: neo-georgian mansions stand next to colonial gems and typical Caribbean row houses. Walk a few blocks too far and the mood can swerve suddenly from charm to menace. Minimum wage amounts to a salary of about 5k a year, which makes most of the newly renovated apartments far out of reach for the people who managed to endure the city's most difficult decades of decay.

For those with means, there's a lot to enjoy here. Food, music, art, and an unmistakable striving authenticity. The sights and scents of the old world are never far: street peddlers sell soft corn wrapped up in corn leaves, Kuna Indians sell colorful molas in the Plazas, and as you dodge the traffic in narrow streets overlooked by the flower bedecked balconies of two and three-story houses, it's easy to imagine you are travelling back in time.

The good news is that the area hasn't yet gone the way of Williamsburg. Casco Viejo is an experiment in a new kind of urban revitalization. Rather than simply tearing down the old, and slamming up glass towers and fancy brand name retail outlets into the area, a loose-knit group of socially conscious developers has been trying to save Casco's heritage while helping locals get jobs, and stay in their homes.

The idea of sustainable urban revitalization is admirable in theory and incredibly difficult in practice. The idea is that instead of Casco Viejo becoming a place where yuppies sip expensive cappuccinos and the poor are forced out by a rising tide of gentrification, the cultural vibrancy of the place is valued as a long-term intangible asset to be protected and nurtured.

There has been a mix of success and failure so far. Some of the most violent gangs have been transformed into tour guides, started businesses, and put down their guns. A new system of valet parking has enabled local Panamanians who live in the gleaming new white towers in downtown Panama City, to enjoy the old district without the headache of navigating its narrow streets, and created some stable jobs. Real estate developers have begun trying to create a mix of affordable housing with rent to buy programs that enable poor people to own their own homes. On the other hand, overall population has fallen and there's a very clear sense that two worlds are colliding in unpredictable ways, as wealthy locals and tourists rub shoulders with those who survive on next to nothing.

At present, the area is still a weird mixture of buildings that are falling down or waiting to be restored next to others that are highly manicured. Maybe that's part of the appeal. Walk a few blocks in one direction and you can have sunset cocktails on a lovingly restored plaza. A few steps in another direction and there are malnourished children stepping over dead rats. This juxtaposition of expensive apartments next to abandoned buildings creates a frisson and an exciting alluring edginess. Overall, there's more of a sense of hope than dislocation and disparity, though certainly there's a feeling that while things are moving in the right direction, none of this is preordained and things could easily get ugly fast.

Still, there is much to charm the eye in Casco Viejo: beautiful ruins from the days of Spanish Explorers and Pirates, balconies filled with geraniums and bougainvillea wrapped around sculpted wrought iron, ocean views. And then there are some dark doorways you just hurry past. The blend of Spanish, French and American colonial, neoclassical and art nouveau architecture gives the whole neighborhood a kind of effortless beauty. It's a place that welcomes outsiders, and those who have a tolerance for rough edges will find a community in flux, filled with possibility and risk.

It's by no means a done deal, but like Harlem in the 90s, or Detroit right now, Casco Viejo might be one of those once in a lifetime opportunities, a place in the midst of an unlikely and triumphant second chance.