Los Cuatro Tulipanes interviews Enrique Restrepo of Casco Viejo, a company which restores buildings in our historic district. Enrique, being a Panamanian from Veraguas Province originally caught sight of Casco Viejo when writing his graduate thesis, which was published at the time, as arguably the most complete study of this UNESCO World Heritage site to date.
1. As lovers of art and travel, it’s easy to see why people become impressed with Casco Viejo upon visiting. But as an architect, what originally drew you to here?
What initially attracted me to Casco Viejo was not only the architecture, a dream for someone like me, but the feelings of tradition and life that could be felt in Casco Viejo’s streets. While studying architecture at university I completed my thesis which later became the data base for the official master plan for Casco Viejo. For me as an artist, having an education as to what these buildings once were, and what they can sometime be in the future is a promising feeling. And the combination of all these things could not be found anywhere else in Panama. The richness and depth of this community is what drew me here.
2. With the large masses of travelers and investors making there way to the neighborhood, what is the biggest mistake first timers make investing in Casco Viejo?
I think first timers make the mistake of looking out for themselves rather than having the community in mind. Whether developing themselves or renting an apartment or opening a bed and breakfast, I don’t see all newcomers truly embracing the community. Some might call them selfish maybe. But moving to Casco Viejo should come with some sense of social responsibility which is something that can get blurred by big dollar signs.
Also, too many first timers make the mistake of paying too much for real estate. This effects their pocket but it also effects the community by inflating prices. The real estate agencies will never tell you this, but wh en someone pays too much for an apartment or building, it has a negative effect on the rest of us. This is damaging to the community and the real estate industry because it encourages speculation and exploitation of our heritage rather than a genuine restoration of the area. I believe real estate agencies paint too pretty of a picture and overlook, or even hide, the implications of such high prices.
3. Having been here from, more or less, the start of it all, how has Casco Viejo changed over the last ten years?
The percentage of buildings completed or in the process of renovation has increased tremendously over the past ten years. Dating back to ten years ago, now-popular plazas and streets were still dirtied and dangerous. However, with the arrival of new businesses, construction projects, and energy, Casco Viejo is very much evolving as a true City always does.
There are the obvious changes like the decrease in crime, but there are also a lot of things the same: such as traditions like lowering the basket from balconies to collect groceries from passing vendors. I would like to see these humble traditions continue as they are an important part of the fabric of Casco Viejo society, which should not be overshadowed by the entrance of big money.
Back in 2000, there were roughly 25% buildings completed in terms of renovation in Casco Viejo. Today, that number stands around 30%. This is a huge jump, and currently, the number of buildings in progress (meaning, that have plans for renovation) is close to 70%: a staggering number.
4. How do you predict Casco Viejo will change in the next ten years?
I hope that Casco Viejo will be able to preserve some its tradition. Of course it is the right of investors to come here as they are contributing to the community,=2 0but if the neighborhood feel that made Casco Viejo special in the first place is lost, then we have nothing left. If we are not able to incorporate the people from different sectors of society that live in this neighborhood once it is fully restored, then we will have none of the contrast, diversity and authenticity that made it great. The only real way this can be maintained is better government enforcement.
There are now preservation laws, but mainly only for architecture: there needs to be better preservation laws for culture and society. Ensuring the integration of low income housing is a critical example. Better educational opportunities and services for the children of the neighborhood are essential as are job opportunities for their parents. We need to maintain the place of long-time families living in the community in this piece of history. Currently, the state does not do nearly enough to make this possible.
5. What, in your opinion, does Casco Viejo as a city and a community need most desperately?
Some might say a gym or a grocery store. But I think Casco Viejo most desperately needs better government influence as I just mentioned. There are of course basic needs like schools and clinics, but those will undoubtedly come with time. What concerns me most as an architect and resident is the neighborhood losing its true essence which currently is beginning to disappear.