Casco Viejo Glamor and Grit

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Written by Matt   
Sunday, 03 January 2010 18:15
Once one of the richest and most densely populated neighborhoods in Central America, then a model of neglected badlands, people have different feelings about Casco Viejo nowadays. Some like it and some hate it, but one thing most can agree on is that Casco Viejo just feels different. You sense it the minute you turn off Avenida Balboa or enter valiantly through its bordering Chorilo slum. Few places in Panama have such recognizable iconography: a low-impact profile of colonial peaks and arches, narrow alleyways, and this overwhelming sense of potential caught preciously in an eternal stage of transition.  It wasn't long ago that you couldn't find a place to stay the night in Casco Viejo, unless you counted the four-dollar hostels overrun with druggies, stray animals, and vagabonds that like to pee in the hall. These were they days that true Casco pioneers chose to invest their faith in a wild, vaguely menacing frontier neighborhood. Casco was (and in some places still is) no-man's-land. And to the offbeat investors, that's precisely what made it so alluring.

It can be easy to forget how unsavory Casco Viejo is just fifteen blocks northwest of the Presidential palace. Even periphery spaces like Plaza Herrera - home to Mojitos open-air bar, La Comedia gourmet Mexican food, a new luxury hotel, and a boutique beer brewery - are subject to occasional car break-ins and the sporadic gang mishap. To some, risks like these suggest that businesses in Casco Viejo are too premature to profit. For others, the golden time to invest is in some cases too late.

Casco, as with this and many other examples, is a world of endless contrasts: about as far as geographically and figuratively possible from the sterile development of downtown Panama City. Gaspard, a painter by trade, runs his thirty-year-old workshop from a street-side living room. This, the same block of an open-air tequila bar, a gourmet ice cream parlor, and an arch dating back to the days of looting pirates. More than almost anywhere else in Panama, Casco Viejo readily evokes Then and Now. History flows from the open doors of its churches and from the underlayers of its uneven cobblestone streets. Just below the new spackle finishes - in the cracks between the doors of cafes and lounges - a stirring, pioneering spirit relentlessly surges on.

Casco Viejo is, and has been for some years now, becoming increasingly populated by a host of kindred spirits: foreigners and Panamanians alike who find beauty and authenticity in their neighborhood's quirks.  They remain dedicated yet are oftentimes the first to admit Casco Viejo's misgivings. Like issues with trash and crime and the sharp rise in real estate prices over the past several years: resentment for gentrification is nothing new, but it has remained to be seen whether money and dollar signs will break Casco Viejo's spirit.
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Casco Viejo's optimists believe a slow real estate market may devise opportunities for new adventurous projects. And while prices haven't necessarily fallen in Casco Viejo as they have elsewhere in Panama, one sometimes gets the feeling that speed bumps are in fact essential governors on the road to sustainable development: that booms lead to uncontrollable tailspins and that natural, albeit unfavorable, market forces are part of what makes Casco Viejo development steady and genuine.

To me, Casco Viejo is about more than just history and culture. It's about seeing beauty in unconventional environments. It's about living in those interzones. In places that people wouldn't normally think of as appropriate or safe. The grungy fringes of Terreplen. Glamour and grit. The recession seems to have affected many of Panama's industries to the core and Casco Viejo is certainly no exception: development has slowed, restaurants sometimes struggle to stay afloat. But to a number of Casco investors and residents, it seems that another kick in the balls is just part of what you sign up for.