When I look back on my first four-day visit to Casco Viejo, I think mainly of the curiosities: the man carrying a pig carcass over his shoulders, the six year old child dancing to reggae at 2AM, and the transvestite whore selling “four dollar loving” on the corner of B and 9th. It was about six months into my time in Casco Viejo that I finally acclimated and passed a duo of twelve year olds smoking marijuana on the curb at 6AM on a Tuesday. Call it naivety but the first thing that came into my mind was not how they obtained drugs at such an early age, but why they were awake at such an early hour. This is the way my brain works in Casco Viejo.
There was a time Casco Viejo was seriously dangerous, then there was a time when it was not: police presence was making itself known, most gangs had been eradicated, new restaurants and bars were luring a different sort of crowd. But as many destinations do with the increase of development and foreigners, Casco Viejo has gotten significantly more dangerous over the past years in my view. It’s as if, before, the criminals didn’t notice us white people, like we were an offshoot market not worth investing in: a tour bus here, an unsuspecting couple there: nothing really to warrant an industry. But now, there are more people to steal from, more pocketbooks to grab. There are more nice cars with iPods in the front seat and more first-time tourists who wander past Plaza Herrera oblivious to the fact they’re entering a gang precinct.
As if this kind of constructed crime isn’t bad enough, Casco Viejo also has its share of crime by natural cause: like when the building on fourth fell down and trapped several neighbors beneath a pile of rubble, or the numerous instances terra cotta tiles have blown off rooftops, spiraling downwards like oversized shotgun shells into the street below.
As residents and business owners, we love to shroud ourselves in optimism like convicted criminals considering the polygraph; as if saying that “Casco Viejo isn’t dangerous” enough times will convince us that there’s actually not much to worry about. But just because we tend to live in our own bubbles of gourmet sandwiches and polished floor tiles, doesn’t mean the grimier aspects of Casco Viejo are devolving with time. Just because I personally know every gang member by name doesn’t mean a visiting tourist could avoid robbery in pure daylight or be thrown off by the rabid dogs who occasionally like to attack.
In an attempt to embrace Casco Viejo’s lawlessness, I’d always thought of it as a delinquent’s paradise, but, like everywhere else, is has gotten more restrictive. The police will nab you anytime for not wearing your seatbelt for example. And it is illegal, for instance, to be topless in public (a rule that applies to both women and men). I found this out one summer day last year when trying to help a friend move large pieces of furniture onto a flatbed truck.
“Where’s your shirt?” an approaching police officer asked.
“My shirt? Inside. Is problem?”
“Yes, it is a problem,” he said in all seriousness. “I’ll have to arrest you if you don’t go put it on.”
The shirt rule is apparently a very enforced law in Casco Viejo – more so than drinking in the street or smoking joints on the doorstep. In the United States, turning down a drink is commonplace. In Casco Viejo, you’re not an alcoholic until you’re pissing long range into the narrow neck of a domestic beer bottle. And even then, the definition needs to be qualified by what day of the week the incident fell on. There is still a strong sense of the undeveloped in Casco Viejo today, a harkening back to the Panama guidebooks of old, which warned heavily against visiting the neighborhood without some kind of weapon. While development and progress have made strides on some blocks, crime and poverty have replicated on others: a word to the wise, for anyone considering Casco Viejo as a new frontier.