Colonial Renaissance

Opportunities In Casco Viejo, Panama

“First came the Spanish, then the French, then the Americans,” explained friend Hildegard Vasquez, addressing the group at our conference last week, trying to give them an idea of the history of Panama City’s old quarter known as Casco Viejo.

“Each group left its mark. The neighborhoods in this enclave boast typical Spanish-, French-, and what I call ‘American’-colonial architecture…plus very European-style plazas and squares, with trees for shade and small bandstands for celebrations. The charming (and, yes, in many cases, crumbling) colonial structures feature balconies, iron work, and interior courtyards.

“On the surface, Casco Viejo is ruined gentility. At its heart, this is a Panamanian barrio.

“Sometime in the middle of the last century, Panama forgot Casco Viejo and turned its attention to building the Panama City we know today. Over the decades, the buildings, the parks, and the plazas of the old town fell to ruin.

“Then, in 1998, UNESCO declared Casco Viejo a World Heritage Site, and foreign investors with an interest in historic architecture noticed an opportunity. The process of re-gentrification has continued ever since.

“And shows no sign of slowing down. The global crisis hasn’t hit Casco Viejo, and I don’t believe it will. Not in any significant way. The world has recognized what this place has to offer. These 100-, 200-, and 300-year-old buildings have an intrinsic value. And there are only so many of them. About 900, to be precise, about 200 of which have been restored. We’re talking about very limited supply.

“I’m an architect,” Hildegard continued, “and my focus is restoration. I returned to Panama after studying in the States when the Casco Viejo revival was just beginning. It has been exciting for me to be part of what is really an extraordinary renaissance.

“However, the more I’ve gotten involved with the architectural regeneration of this special place, the more I’ve recognized the bigger opportunity.

“It is a great thing to restore these old buildings and neighborhoods. But I see a chance to restore the community, as well.

“When Panama forgot about Casco Viejo, it wasn’t only the buildings that were neglected. It was the people living in this part of the city, too. Much of the population here lives in near-poverty.

“Mostly it’s women and children.

“About nine years ago, I became involved with a non-profit, grass-roots organization that is trying to help these people. The group is called CAPTA, which stands for Capacitación Para el Trabajo. We focus on the women. We know that, if we can help to educate and train the woman, the children have a better chance at being educated and trained.

“Our goal is to help as many women as possible to learn the skills they need to get and to keep jobs. We train them as housekeepers, for example, then help them to find jobs in Panama City hotels.

“So far, we’ve helped 60 women.

“I live in Casco Viejo with my family. This is a part of Panama City where you can walk from place to place, sit in the park with an ice cream, have coffee or a meal al fresco at a café. My children and my husband and I do all these things every day. We’re very connected here.

“So, really, I’m just trying to help my neighbors.

“But, as I said, I see a bigger potential.

“Our biggest limitation is funding…”

By this point, Hildegard had my full attention. I, too, am enamored of this small, historic enclave. I, too, have been delighted by the renaissance it’s been enjoying. And I, too, believe in the idea of Capacitación Para el Trabajo (Training for Work).

I’ve asked Hildegard how I can become involved.

If you’d like more information, too, you can get in touch here:

Kathleen Peddicord

French Course Online