In Panama City's booming colonial core, locals fight to stay

In this May 22, 2018 photo, long-time residents of the Casco Viejo neighborhood sit in a shelter outside the Nicolas Pacheco school where they live with other displaced families after they were forced out of their apartments by owners in Panama City. Locals initially welcomed the UNECSO designation as a UNESCO world heritage site, hoping to reap the benefits of the revitalization that would come, but ended up getting pricing out, as long-absent landowners converted properties to hotels or night spots or rented instead to well-heeled tenants. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, a new building goes up next to a restaurant in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Authorities say displacements of long time families who decades ago took over the deteriorating buildings would have happened sooner or later, once landowners saw value in retaking those properties. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, a building carries a sign announcing a new luxury hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Over the years, the neighborhood fell into disrepair as newer neighborhoods in the city became more attractive and wealthy residents moved out while low-income families and gangs moved in. Today, the UNESCO world heritage site declaration reversed that trend. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 22, 2018 photo, a tourist overlooks Plaza Herrera, featuring a statue of General Tomas Herrera, from her balcony at the American Trade luxury hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Ariana Lyma Young, director of the governmental Historic Heritage agency that approves building restoration projects, acknowledged the real estate boom has affected poor residents but said the economic benefits have been tremendous. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, Miriam Bethancourt sits in her room at the Nicolas Pacheco school where a group of displaced residents live after being forced out of apartments in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Many locals who've been forced out over the years ended up in homes far away on the city's outskirts, but many swear they will not accept relocation outside the neighborhood they call home. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, clothes dry inside the Nicolas Pacheco school building where displaced residents now live after being forced out of their rental apartments in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Sleeping in converted classrooms, they share bathrooms and hang laundry out on interior balconies just down the street from a luxury hotel that used to be home to local gang leaders. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, people are reflected on a glass door of a restaurant in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. The Casco is now the country's No. 2 tourism draw after the nearby Panama Canal. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, Esther Marina Sanchez, leader of a residents' association, stands on a balcony inside Nicolas Pacheco school building in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Sanchez and her relatives ended up in the abandoned school with no electricity, after being forced out of their homes by landowners, pushed by a fast-moving real estate boom spurred by the 1997 declaration of the Casco Antiguo district as a world heritage site. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, men play soccer near the sea in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. A real estate boom in the historical center has all but disappeared scenes of elderly residents chatting in public squares, kids kicking around soccer balls and laundry flapping from balcony clotheslines. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, graffiti covers a wall near the beach in the Casco Viejo neighborhood in Panama City. According to census figures, the population of the Casco and neighboring San Felipe has dropped from about 16,000 in the early 1990s to a little over 2,000 today. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this June 5, 2018 photo, a construction worker stands in the window at the Hotel Colombia apartment building on Plaza Bolivar in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Tourists and well-heeled Panamanians now stroll the paving-stone streets among gaudy hotels, fancy restaurants and trendy discos that have popped up in once-dilapidated colonial-era buildings. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2018 photo, tourists and residents mill about Plaza de la Independencia during a celebration of San Felipe Neri, patron of the Casco Viejo neighborhood in Panama City. Long time residents have been replaced by tourists during the day and music through the streets at night, as the Casco Viejo is transformed by its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

PANAMA CITY — Esther Marina Sanchez has watched her neighborhood — the heart of Panama City — transformed by its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. Tourists and well-heeled Panamanians now stroll the paving-stone streets among gaudy hotels, fancy restaurants and trendy discos that have popped up in once-dilapidated colonial-era buildings.

Gone are the gangs, the decay and abandoned structures — as well as Sanchez's home, and those of most of her neighbors.

Sanchez recalled how her landowner offered the family money 2½ years ago, but said they didn't really have a choice: "Take it or leave it, but you're leaving."

A fast-moving real estate boom spurred by the 1997 declaration of the Casco Antiguo district as a world heritage site has irrevocably altered the character of the neighborhood.

Locals initially welcomed the designation, hoping to reap the benefits of the revitalization that would come. But it ended up pricing them out, as long-absent landowners suddenly saw money to be made by converting properties to hotels or night spots or renting them to well-heeled tenants.

"Instead of being a benefit, it has brought us pain, powerlessness. It has diminished us as a family," said Sanchez, the 59-year-old leader of a residents' association. "The social fabric that was declared here has been torn apart."

According to census figures, the population of the Casco and neighboring San Felipe districts has dropped from about 16,000 in the early 1990s to a little over 2,000 today.

The seaside Casco and its defensive walls were founded in 1673 to replace the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast after it was sacked by pirates. It housed — and houses — some of the country's central institutions: the official presidential residence, the Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Theater.

Over the years it fell into disrepair as newer neighborhoods elsewhere in the city became more attractive. Wealthy residents moved out, and low-income families and gangs moved in, in many cases squatting in abandoned architectural treasures.

The UNESCO declaration suddenly reversed that trend.

The change is readily apparent. Scenes of elderly residents chatting in public squares, kids kicking around soccer balls and laundry flapping from balcony clotheslines have all but disappeared.

They have been replaced by flip-flop-clad tourists snapping pictures of historic churches and dining in sidewalk cafes near a scattering of jacaranda flowers. At night, music echoes through the streets.

"It is more developed. You can tell that they have brought substantial labor to the restoration," said Roberto Perez, a tourist from Madrid. The last time he visited, in 2008, a group of youths mobbed him and made off with his camera. This time he enjoyed the Casco so much he extended his stay.

"There was a good vibe, good music, good atmosphere," Perez said.

Sanchez and her relatives, along with 27 other families, ended up in an abandoned three-story school with no electricity, among the last holdouts of longtime residents. Sleeping in converted classrooms, they share bathrooms and hang laundry out on interior balconies just down the street from a luxury hotel that used to be home to local gang leaders.

Nearby, they maintain a round-the-clock protest camp on an empty lot that authorities had hoped to auction off, demanding the government build them new housing on the spot. They posted a sign reading: "The country is being sold to the highest bidder."

Many locals who have been forced out over the years ended up in homes far away on the city's outskirts, but Sanchez and others swear they will not accept relocation outside the neighborhood they call home.

Authorities say displacement of families who decades ago took over the deteriorating buildings would have happened sooner or later, once landowners saw value in retaking those properties.

Ariana Lyma Young, director of the governmental Historic Heritage agency that approves restoration projects in the Casco, acknowledged that the boom has affected poor residents, but said the economic benefits have been tremendous. The Casco is now the country's No. 2 tourism draw after the nearby Panama Canal.

"You have to find a solution for them because they are people who have lived here 20, 30 years," Lyma said. "But on the other hand, you have to think about the economy of the country. These investments contribute and create work."

Rene Quiros, a Bolivian who moved to Panama 35 years ago, said that when he arrived, the Casco was "very dangerous, very uncomfortable." He has had a front-row seat for the transformation, and has also reaped the rewards through the tapas restaurant he runs in a restored building off the main square.

"I have seen many changes. Everything is positive as far as what's beautiful and showy, but there is a very negative aspect to this with the displaced people," Quiros said. "There were people who should have stayed because they have a long history, an encyclopedia of what the Casco Antiguo is."

Related News

APNewsBreak: Legality of Yosemite park expansion disputed

Sep 10, 2016

A U.S. lawmaker says Yosemite National Park violated federal law by adding 400 acres to its boundary without clearing it through Congress

German economy minister, business delegation to visit Russia

Sep 16, 2016

Germany's economy minister plans to travel to Russia next week with a business delegation, a trip that comes as Western sanctions and a weak Russian currency have weighed on trade between the two countries

Lights out at Vegas' Rio casino forces 900-room evacuation

Dec 30, 2016

The Rio casino in Las Vegas is scrambling to find alternate lodging for guests after a power outage led to the evacuation of 900 rooms just before the busy New Year's Eve weekend

Search

Welcome to The Zig Zag World. This travel blog will help you to make the most out of your travel time with interesting destination guides. Our paths will definitely cross some day as we zigzag around the world.

Contact us: sales@thezigzagworld.com