If ever you plug into a legitimate debate about the social dynamic of Panama City (and by legitimate I mean anyone who suggests Calle Uruguay is irrelevant), the word you will most often hear is not cosmopolitan or advanced or even modern.
The word you will hear the most is Casco. And regardless of whether the context is positive (“Casco is developing a really nice restaurant scene”), negative (“Casco is too dangerous so I avoid it at all costs”), or merely expository (“Casco sells ice cream of interesting flavors”), people are obsessed in one way or another with the historic district of Casco Viejo: the views, the challenges, and the history that have come to mimic authenticity in the Republic of Panama.
Amidst a sea of change
Casco Viejo is probably the clearest illustration of Panamanian culture that exists in a city otherwise infatuated with the newest, the biggest, and the best. The backbone of Casco Viejo is its residents, both foreigner and local, who seem less swayed by the modern allures of the twenty first century. Casco Viejo doesn’t have a supermarket or a gym or really even an internet café. Casco doesn’t have a movie theater or a car wash or a place to rent a car.
Outsiders tend to view Casco Viejo as a renegade spot, good for a show at the National Theater once in a while or a dinner in the plaza (as long as they can get someone to valet their car). But this really isn’t accurate. Casco Viejo is more of a philosophy than a place. And unlike most new and populated neighborhoods in Panama City, Casco doesn’t know any chain stores or heavy traffic. It is stripped-down and connectedly authentic, with comparatively few changes since its chronicled past.
How accurately that description fits Casco Viejo’s residents is less clear: some residents represent raw culture simply because they are poor and have pretty much nothing else to do. Other (almost always wealthy and/or from other countries) are straightforward and uncompromising in their allegiance to the soul of the neighborhood. They are idealists and they are visionaries and they drive around in exceedingly luxurious cars.
Nonetheless, the current status of Casco Viejo development scene is thriving. As the gap between First World and Developing World closes, more and more people are starting to become drawn to what authentic, underground neighborhoods like Casco Viejo represent. Virtuosity has never been higher. Tourist groups have never been more curious or more dense.
Just outside Super Gourmet Delicatessen floats Flacco (or at least that’s what everyone knows him by), a self-described “man of business.” While Flacco doesn’t generally have more than a few dollars to his name, he draws up scenery of Casco Viejo on cardboard slats and sells the portraits for around twenty-five cents. His portraits are similar in dexterity to those of a ten year old. He uses the profits he makes for food and, depending on the time of day, malt liquor.
“I am just a natural artist,” he says. “You name it, I can draw it in any number of colors.”
Plaza Catedral, Casco Viejo’s biggest and most iconic plaza, comes alive at lunchtime with construction workers eating the $2 daily lunch special out of Styrofoam containers. Government employees in their suits and slacks buy fifty-cent hotdogs and twenty-cent chichas. And the clickety-clack of a schizophrenic man and his cane can be heard all the while as Henry scours the area for someone who speaks, as he puts it, “a new dialect of Hebrew and Spanish that is recently gaining popularity in Belize.” When asked where this new dialect is documented, he says it came to him one night in a dream.
It is and it isn’t
It’s difficult to say anything insightful about Casco Viejo, mostly because the neighborhood has already absorbed every possible criticism and accolade that she can entertain. While the main goal is convincing the Panamanian public about the merits of human patrimony, Casco’s diverse factions simultaneously couldn’t give a shit. “If you like gritty neighborhoods, you’re authentically invited to come and stay,” they seem to be saying. “If this isn’t your kind of place, you’re welcome to get the hell out.”
The Canal may be Panama City’s greatest asset (or so everyone says), but Casco Viejo is my pick. I can’t think of a neighborhood that’s harder not to fall in love with, nor one that harbors so much reality and dealings with its sense of self. In some outsiders’ eyes, this is precisely what Panama needs to avoid: streets that are uneven, menus without English translation, buildings that are old and crumbly. But to others, Casco is one of the last remaining bastions of the old-world magic amidst a capital city racing desperately and frantically into the future.