One of the biggest things you learn about as a foreigner living in Casco Viejo is change. Change may sound like a simple thing to grasp, but when it impacts every aspect of your lifestyle – where you eat, how you do business, with whom you interact – the task of adapting is actually incredibly hard.
Under the umbrella of “change,” of course, sits tons of little sub-categories and one of the most prominent of these is development.
When I first moved here in 2007, the term “historic district” elicited the kind of look you’d typically get from telling someone you are in the porn industry, as if to say, You’re doing what? Not many Panamanians frequented Casco Viejo and even fewer lived here.
Today, of course, the neighborhood is a thriving example of renewal and change. Martinis are being served for $12, illegal parking kids charge $5. You can get a $70, 5lb lobster in butter and garlic on the same corner there used to be stray bullets. Yet still, wander a few blocks outside of the green zone, and some scary percentage of gang members will be watching you and your spouse…very closely.
So the clash of rich and poor is still very much mid-coitus in Casco Viejo. And to most people, the awkward part of walking in on that sex affair is kept at an arm’s length. But sometimes, you find yourself smack dab in the middle of it.
Back in January, 2013, Los Cuatro Tulipanes took over management of the Canal House, which is officially Casco Viejo’s oldest existing boutique hotel. The property is immaculate, the staff is incredibly, almost genetically warm, and it’s loyal guests (including Daniel Craig) allow the hotel’s reputation to proceed itself.
Not expected to be challenge-free, our first obstacle came when we realized that our next door neighbors – a run-down mansion housing about 10 families, using nickel-sized PVC pipes jerry-rigged to run fresh water – enjoyed a very particular party schedule that consisted of late nights, thumping sub-woofers, and many many cases of beer bottles (that often turned into cases of beer glass). Here is a review from before my management team arrived.
For the first few months, this was all I could think about: how could we possibly operate an exclusive (and expensive) hotel next to such loud neighbors. And frankly, after plenty of peace offerings, the problem never got any better.
So it was a total surprise (and at first, a total relief) when I saw the building was being evicted and the families displaced elsewhere in Panama. This happens on occasion in Casco Viejo: one day, out of the blue, a team of government men will show up to evict a house of squatters. There’s screaming, there’s pushing, there’s large piles of infested wood stacked up outside, and then *POOF* the building is boarded up and only cats sneak in and out.
When this happened to the house next door, it was the solution to our biggest problem! No more angry guests! No more firecrackers at 3AM! No more kids pissing on our doorstep! No more house-rattling music!
But fast forward to today and it’s been a few months: the change has been tangible, but not quite in the way I had originally expected. Sure there have been absolutely ZERO complaints from our guests about noise from next door. But walking past the boarded up building this morning, I realized that I miss it. And by “it” I don’t mean that I miss the novelty of being able to say “we have squatters living next door.” That’s kinda easy and unfair and cheap-shotty to say now that they’re gone.
Rather, I miss the energy that came out of that doorway and I miss the reminder of how graphic and harsh our neighborhood could be just on the other side of a simple wall. When I used to look down that hallway, there was a burbling of activity. Now, it’s just a stale smell of Armageddon.
I miss the sense of contrast and the sometimes-arduous challenge of dealing with people entirely different from ourselves. I miss the very real-life differences we had with our neighbors and the weekends they would move their entire living room (couches, tables, and carpets) out into the street.
To the worm in the horseradish, the world is horseradish. This is one of my favorite ways of saying that when you are inside of something so closely and for so long, oftentimes your perspective and your awareness changes.
The word “gentrification” is social charged with plenty of (probably very legitimate) arguments coming from plenty of (probably very smart) people on both sides. Yet when you choose to live and do business in somewhere like Casco Viejo, sometimes you just find yourself in the middle of it. It’s hard to say what’s good or what’s bad, what’s right or what’s wrong, what’s fair or what’s unfair about some kinds of change because without even taking the time to think, *POOF* things are different.