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In the mid-nineties, a terrible mistake was made and my high school organized a trip to Colonial Williamsburg for somewhere around fifty students including myself. While most of my fellow students spent the majority of their afternoons stealing anything that wasn’t bolted down to the floor, I remember being mystified by the Williamsburg concept as a whole.
There is an easier way to define this debate, an easier way to explain this movement: it is a fight between those who value authenticity and those who don’t. This makes the hunt in Casco Viejo a beautiful, tangled mess.
The re-created village itself had an interesting history. Back in the 1700’s, Williamsburg was the thriving capital of Virginia, which was the largest, most populated, and most influential of the American colonies. It was in Williamsburg that the fundamental concepts of our culture – leadership, public service, self-governance, liberty – were born. Precisely the kind of place that an American would want to have come from.
The difficulty however was that while Williamsburg seemed to be a functioning community – there were farms and gardens and religion and trade. People knew each other’s names and worked together on a regular basis – it was also just so…fake. How great, I thought, would it be to see Colonial Williamsburg after the gates close for the evening? Antique shoe cobbling would be put on hold, candles would be put out, and the life of this bustling little village would be frozen inexplicably until the next day’s dawn.
There are a lot of similar places in the world. Towns that are real in nature (which is to say, they exist on a map, they have stoplights, their citizens vote), but that are also, when it boils down to it, synthetic at the core. The OK Corral and Ye Ole’ Gift Shop. Who really wants to dress up in costumes and take pictures “like it used to be?”
To its credit, the folks at Colonial Williamsburg had enlisted the best researchers on the planet. They invested a great deal of money and believed wholeheartedly in a vision to preserve or at least recreate the past in real-life proportions. I felt happy Colonial Williamsburg existed. Both for the entertainment value (there’s nothing quite like seeing a man in full Revolutionary War garb drinking from a Starbucks cup) and for the things many people could learn there.
Simultaneously, it was just so…sad. The candlestick maker smoking a joint, the court jester on his Blackberry, my friend Jack Richter getting to third base with the milk maiden in the shadows behind the town steeple. Colonial Williamsburg was precisely the kind of place I never wanted to visit again.
To understand this, consider an art company called Brushstrokes Originals. They’ve devised a patented technology that meticulously recreates all the textured brushwork and color of famous original paintings like, say, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Brushstroke’s “academy-trained” artists then take the machine-reproduced painting and further enhance it using oil paints and the finest wood frames. For a few hundred dollars, who wouldn’t want an exact replica so precise, so identical, that even experts may have a tough time telling it apart from the original?
You wanna know who? Me.
While I would happily purchase a poster of the Mona Lisa at a gift shop or maybe an embroidered towel or something, I would not be caught dead with one of Brushstroke’s identical impostors on my wall. They do not read, “I am a sophisticated appreciator of Da Vinci,” or even, “I collect artistic things,” but rather, “I aspire to fool you into thinking I own expensive works of art.” Fake attempts at authenticity stick out like sore thumbs. They are embarrassing and they are expendable in every sort of way.
Forgive me for sounding snooty, but when it comes to destinations, similar is true. The process of preservation is too often subsituted by museumification and in Panama, you can see evidence of this first hand.
The entrance to Mi Pueblito is just off Avenida de los Martires: a steep driveway, which leads to a neatly-quaffed town square surrounded with view of Panama City and the sea. Mi Pueblito consists mainly of several replica villages, gift shops, a pollera museum and a cute little church. When cruise ships are in town, Mi Pueblito is buzzing like a pen full of cattle. When no cruise ships are in town, Mi Pueblito sits dauntingly bare. Mi Pueblito, just like Colonial Williamsburg, is an extreme example of its phenomenon in maybe the worst way: the full scale, destination-as-museum. Unabashed replicated authenticity.
Just a mile away sits the historic district of Casco Viejo, a neighborhood that seems to honor the past more than most regions of Panama. This is not to say, however, that the movement for preservation in Casco Viejo is by any means unanimous, particularly when it spills outside the realm of restoration and starts implicating the way people live.
Today in Casco Viejo, the debate over preservation tends to organize itself around class and caste. Summarily speaking, there exist natives who have lived in Casco Viejo for fifty years and who are, for the most part, poor and there are newcomers who have arrived in the past generation (or past two generations), many of whom are foreigners, and many of whom are rich. This is not to ignore a greater facet of influence in Casco Viejo that is governance (or lack thereof). Governance tugs at both the native and the newcomer strings. Governance is what both divides and unites, in a very counter-intuitive sort of way, the people here.
The hunt for authenticity in Casco Viejo is a tangled, beautiful mess.
The natives sell buildings (or in many cases receive money in exchange for eviction notices). They make up the largest population of Casco Viejo. They “add to the character of the community,” and they work for the newcomers in various ways. These are the same newcomers who spend their time and money visibly – or, to the natives, ridiculously – on expensive food and picking up shit after their dog. Casco Viejo’s newcomers will grapple with the government over potholes in the streets or alleyways that are too dark or insufficient parking; the natives will grapple with the newcomers over gentrification; both the natives and the newcomers will claim that preservation of human patrimony downright sucks, and other topics will fly over everyone’s heads.
But all this is a confusing way to put things: to say that preservation of Casco Viejo – and perhaps the direction of Panama future as a whole – is a battle between rich and poor, between the government and the people, between dollar signs and culture. There is an easier way to define this debate, an easier way to explain this movement: it is a fight between those who value authenticity and those who don’t.
It was a byproduct of my trip to Colonial Williamsburg that I began identifying with the truly authentic, began not to seek subjective things like tastes or preferences, but truthful references to originality and the way identities are preserved. Authenticity describes the perception of a piece of art or a destination or a personality as faithful to oneself, rather than conforming to external values like commercial worth. Besides Casco Viejo, I am not aware of any other neighborhood in Panama where this crusade is quite so vibrant or so evident or fulfilling.
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