I was recently asked “what’s it’s like to live in Casco Viejo?” and the bulk of my response revolved around the theme of unusual charm. I think I even quoted an Apple advertisement citing the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the round pegs in square holes.
When I discovered that everyone in Casco Viejo had their own crackhead who stands outside the building and guards cars from ghosts and thieves, I realized this neighborhood was unlike the vast majority of developing slums. What makes it different, I think, is that people care more about the process than they do the final product. And that, as I have learned, is a deceptively complicated mindset.
I’m sure residents of most fashionably developing neighborhoods around the world would tell you they care more about the process than they do the final result, because it sounds overly gentrifying (and kinda irresponsible) to disconnect a place of its living history.
But the very nature of “progress” (at least, what I was taught in school) is that visionaries must push through the present like it is a tiny hallway; and not just to achieve some kind of final result, but to even be considered as a textbook success.
I don’t believe Casco Viejo people think this way (and that’s why outsiders don’t invite them out to fancy dinners). In a weird way, Casco Viejo residents are mostly “just along for the ride,” which tends to confuse a lot of people. They care about the process (maybe) more than they care about the future. And by process, I don’t mean building highways or tunnels or subways.
I like that Casco Viejo single-handedly revolutionizes Panama on a daily basis, which is great for the neighborhood (and fine for the country as a whole). It has been an anchor of culture and authenticity, usually by accepting artists and romantics and dreamers and round pegs in square holes – people who would look entirely out of place anywhere else in Panama – without asking any questions. This acceptance is not common to Panama and I love how a simple sense of inclusion throws everyone for a loop. I love how some nationals dread ever coming here. And I find it interesting how some nationals choose to live here for that exact same reason.
Some Panamanians dread coming to a neighborhood that is upfront about its identity and its values: diverse, historical, responsible, honest. But here’s the rub for me: for Casco Viejo to qualify as a success, it can’t really change all that much for the “better.” Its beauty is in its imperfections. In other words, what makes this neighborhood successful to me is that it’s still relatively “unsuccessful.” That residents are constructively critical of one another acts as a governor keeping anyone’s head from getting too big or moving too fast. That (almost) all residents are truly proud about living in Casco Viejo has a way of self-regulating and authenticating everything too.
Another thing I value about Casco Viejo is that money (as it relates to happiness) is very much a non-factor. If everything in Casco Viejo was to be divided into two classes – nowadays, it seems like everything in Panama can be divided into two classes – there should be no clearer schism, on paper, than Casco Viejo’s haves and have-nots. Mansions next to rundown buildings, Range Rovers parked up against hideous trash heaps…
But what you learn very quickly is that relatively few Casco Viejo people fall into those two conventional categories. The vast majority of people in Casco Viejo are not haves or havenot’s: they are simply happy to be there. There is a comforting sense of egalitarianism in Casco based on honesty, doing what’s interesting, and doing what’s right. I love respect like that.
For me, there are so many quality threads woven through Casco Viejo that it’s simple for everyone to come up with their own answer to the question “what is living here all about?”
It’s pretty easy to make the argument that living in Casco Viejo is “about” patrimony, or preservation, or art, or being eclectic, or the dissonance between a maniacally developing third world country and a tiny peninsula of sustainability. I suppose it’s about all those things to individual extents. But I’ve always believed the true vortex of Casco Viejo living is the neighborhood constantly reinventing itself (pushing the boundaries of what is cool, weird, fair, beautiful, smart, friendly, unique). Things are constantly being torn down and built up in Casco Viejo. People that are constantly being knocked around are always bouncing back. Plants grow from rubble on almost every corner and it is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
This reinvention of the neighborhood, I think, helps the neighborhood’s people reinvent themselves. And after several years now, I understand that reinvented people in reinvented spaces is one of the intangibles that I adore so much.
In this same breath, I like that Casco is inherently a social place. A neighbor once told me, that to live in Casco Viejo is to want to want to walk out your front door and within one block, see ten faces that you know. It may be common to know one or two or even five of your neighbors in any given city. But I never take for granted the pleasure in identifying entire blocks of individuals in Casco Viejo by name.
In the words of that same Apple ad, you can love Casco Viejo, hate it, choose to live in it or avoid it like the plague. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore it: because Casco changes things. And the neighborhoods and residents that think they can change things, are the ones that do.