August 2nd, 2014.
It is surreal, standing on the cobble stone streets of Casco Viejo, the Old Town, surrounded by crumbling colonial ruins and gazing across the Bay at modern skyscrapers reaching into the sky with cranes that are busy building even more skyscrapers for a city that is on steroids. . This is the dichotomy of Panama City, the vibrant high energy new and the more tranquil, mellow “old” that is in the throws of a renaissance.
Tucked into the furthest “tip” of Panama City overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a glimpse of the Panama Canal in the distance, Casco Viejo was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997. The main “Casco” neighborhood is four blocks wide and eleven blocks long, which makes it even more precious.
One can stroll the streets endlessly, never being bored, admiring the buildings that range in states of decomposition to fully restored These ruins represent a slice of history going back five hundred and fifty years. It is a mix of architectural styles; Spanish Colonial, built by the first Spanish Settlers who arrived in the mid 1500’s, French Colonial from the 1880’s when there was an influx of workers that came from France with Ferdinand de Lesseps in an aborted effort to build the Panama Canal, plus Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings added to the mix by other arrivals from Europe. The narrow and brick paved streets now alive with pedestrians and cars have been restored in their original authentic style with matching materials. The potholes are gone and the sidewalks have been fixed.
There are skeletons of buildings that are only one wall, bolstered by wood and metal scaffolding so they do not fall down,
and others that have four walls, no windows and no roofs with flowers growing out of the crevices. Doors and openings of deserted buildings are bricked up to prevent squatters moving in – this is not always successful. The squatters find a way and salvage enough building materials to create very basic living conditions, cooking off a primus stove and hanging their washing on the decaying rafters. They have no sense of history except their survival from day to day and carelessly cause fires that have destroyed a few of these lovely ruins.
My fascination is with the facades that have trees growing out of them, with roots running down the walls and into the foundations and others where ferns and saplings have managed to find life by forcing their roots into a crack in the eroding bricks and mortar.
Much of Casco Viego is being restored with scaffolding, securely in place, to support the exterior walls, because when inside walls are removed, they have to be very careful the entire building does not collapse. There is restoration going on in every block and the area is alive with construction. Throughout the neighborhood you can see and feel that Casco Viejo is being restored, one building at a time to its former glory. This is urban re-newal and it is beautiful.
How did this shift happen ? About twenty years ago, a kernel of a renaissance began when “someone” saw potential and beauty in this neighborhood among the ruins, where squatters and gangs had taken over, drugs were sold openly on the streets, and murder was a daily occurrence. It took a while to gain momentum and only in the last six or seven years, has the Old City shown a genuine re-birth. Now there is no stopping it.
This is the result of a few developers who recognized the faded beauty and potentiol of revitalizing the area and restoring the crumbling buildings. They had the courage and foresight to begin the process of restoration. Key among these is Arco Properties, who have completed several refurbishments to a high standard, restoring the architectural details, working with a Panamanian architect who understand and appreciates the importance of restoring this valuable slice of history.
Conservatoria S.A. the construction side of Arco Properties worked together with Ace hotels from the United States in restoring four dilapidated old houses into the fashionable American Trade Hotel. They had formerly been occupied by five gangs, each gang occupying one floor, selling drugs, committing murder and doing other illicit business. Now fully restored, this is Ace Hotel’s flagship hotel, employing some of the recovered drug dealers. Now that it is complete, it attracts the same demographic that it does in the U.S., trendy fashionable and young. It is the place to stay in the Casco.
Arco is a family business, the founders being K.C. Hardin, formerly a Corporate lawyer from NYC, his Panamanian wife Patricia, a Panamanian partner with whom K.C became friendly when he arrived in Panama City and who is an MBA and Clara Keyes Hardin who is K.C.’s dynamic Mom and a former Realtor from Santa Fe, New Mexico. This group has dedicated themselves to the Casco, making sure it does not become over commercialized – no food franchises or “chain” stores and also doing their best to prevent the “get rich overnight flippers” from spoiling the landscape. Arco has a philanthropic arm and for every property that Arco refurbishes, they are putting profits back into the community by building Affordable Housing for people who are being displaced by the newcomers and giving job training to former gang members who have shown an interest in turning their lives around (More about this in another blog). So far, they are succeeding. There are some interesting Boutique hotels, great restaurants, good coffee shops, wine bars, open air cafes, artisan ice cream stores, unique galleries and gift shops amid the restoration and the ruins.
One of the facts about Casco Viejo is that it is a living breathing community and is very real. It is a dichotomy of squatters and people who have lived here for generations in delapidated buildings, interspersed with the newly restored properties.
Casco Viejo is a photographers dream. You can see tourists walking through the paved brick streets, crossing over the picturesque Plazas always looking up at these incredible buildings, whether they are old or “new”. I am passionate about old cities and urban renewal and spent time in Cuenca and Quito in Ecuador, Cartegena and Prado (Medellin) in Colombia and now Casco Viejo in Panama. Cartegena is a case in point: it is also a Unesco World Heritage Site, and has been fully restored. Prices have gone crazy high because it is a small, unique neighborhood and there are enough people in the world who want the unique home and can afford to buy what they want irrespective of price. Casco Viejo has not reached that point yet. It is in the middle of its transition, and now that the “before” and “after” can clearly be seen in this little corner of Panama, prices will continue to move up as demand increases. Presently my guess is that the restoration is about thirty-five percent completed – another few years until every building is refurbished and at that time prices will soar. Quality real estate appreciates, especially in unique neighborhoods where demand exceeds supply – Unesco World Heritage Sites are limited as are restored historical neighborhoods.