A few days ago, a food dehydrator went up for sale in Panama’s historic district of Casco Viejo, the neighborhood where stray dogs will shit in your hallway if you don’t keep the door closed. The resident that was selling the device had posted the notice on a Casco Viejo web site along with two other items: “Jack Lalane power juicer and electric cooler for cans or bottles with wheels,” the classified ad read.
Days of inquisitive community banter ensued: “Did you see that dehydrator up for sale?” “Maybe if you bought all three machines you’d get a large discount.” “I wonder if Blayne could use it over at Super Gourmet?” “There’s that guy on Avenida A selling four pineapples for a dollar. We could dehydrate those and freeze the slices!” The dehydrator from the website was never purchased. In Casco Viejo, things of value matter, but the need to gossip about them oftentimes matters more.
If Casco Viejo were a country, its chief exports would be optimism, hope, and reality. If Casco were a Broadway show its scenes would involve romantic foreigners, vagabonds, lovers, gangsters, dirty convenient stores, art galleries, bad odors and breezes that flow whimsically off the sea. If Casco were a cult, it would be — wait a second. Casco Viejo is a cult. “The Simple Life,” one of its residents had printed up on cotton t-shirts, hooked on the neighborhood’s subscription to family, friends, tradition, and an innate ability to roll with the punches. It’s like Sesame Street on crack I often say about my adopted neighborhood (artists, squatters, old souls and new ones, vagabonds, millionaires, Italians and do-nothing retirees). And yet, somehow everything works.
It’s difficult trying to decipher how and when Casco became cool (which is to audaciously say that it already is so). Some claim it was the art galleries and youth hostels. Others say it’s the consumption spaces — the restaurants and plazas and bars and shops. As Sharon Zukin, author of “Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places,” once said about a young Brooklyn, it’s the places where you could look through plate-glass windows and see people living a kind of aspirational life, but in a low-key, affordable way.
There’s supposed to be a difference between bohemia and vagrancy but a lot of times in Casco Viejo its hard to tell. Traveling Argentineans throwing fire, drug addicts creating artwork on cardboard paneling, local developers who dress the part of hobo and government officials dressed in suits and blouses: a Star Wars hodgepodge of appearances.
Casco Viejo has the look and feel of a young urban think tank sprinkled with bits of grunge and rough edges. Diablo Rosso Café service quinoa salad at one of its many art exhibits. The welding brothers, or at least that’s what I call them, creating fifty-foot lizards of plaster and steel for Carnaval. The baker, the seamstress, the wandering man who sells fresh churros for fifty cents. The young entrepreneurs. The twelve year-old smoking a blunt on his stoop. The retirees who walk and curb their dogs – the stray dogs that shit in your hallway if you forget to close the door.
Casco Viejo used to be the place to see and be seen. It then deteriorated into the place to shoot and be shot: the place to sell and to buy drugs. It’s resurgence is organic and mostly stimulated by private entities. It’s not for everyone, nor is the development path clear and paved. That’