It was late March, my first day of five in the city, and over the next few days I hoped to get a sense of a city as it enters its teenage years. I would hike through slums where street merchants sold black magic spices, then change my shirt to sip $15 cocktails in the neon glamour of a Hard Rock bar. I would eat terrible chicken and wonderful octopus. I’d spend time with locals, expats, artists, entrepreneurs and a former gangster.
For now, Fabrega wanted to show me his interpretation of some of the changes afoot. We peeled off the freeway, turned down a boulevard and entered Costa del Este, a section of the city with a skyline that looked like a concrete comb. Our destination was a pop-up gallery that had opened the night before inside an unfinished retail space at the bottom of a new white skyscraper. Sixteen of Fabrega’s abstract paintings with bright yellows, blues and reds hung on the concrete walls in an exhibition he called Banana Republic. It didn’t take long to spot some common motifs: finger-shapes that formed no hands, faucets that had no pipes and machines that could do no work.
“This is Panama,” Fabrega said with a shrug. “It’s beautiful, but it makes no sense.” Panama has pretty much always been a bridge for cultures, conquerors and, well, birds, but once that mishmash gets distilled into the 50-some blocks of Casco Viejo, an eclectic, almost Noah’s Ark-like vibrancy prevails. The Chinese run so many small groceries here that Panamanians simply call the shops “Chinos.” The French left their mark on the corner of Avenida A and Calle 4, where a Parisian-style apartment building displays elegant rounded balconies. You hear German, Portuguese and English on the streets.
Parts of the area are still pretty seedy, though, and an elite division of stern-looking police officers patrol the area with machine guns and motorcycles. “I was definitely nervous about coming here at first, with the shootings and the gangs,” recalled Matt Landau, a New Jerseyan who moved to Panama City in 2006 and now owns Los Cuatro Tulipanes, a boutique hotel and apartment enterprise in Casco Viejo. A stray bullet smashed into the Canal House in 2009, and Landau still warns guests not to wander beyond certain blocks. But Casco Viejo does feel quite safe, even at night, when the neighborhood comes alive with busy restaurants and rooftop bars. “I can’t begin to tell you how much it has all changed,” he said.
Hardin, the developer, has been one of the major players behind that change. His firm buys property in Casco Viejo, renovates it and sells it for about $2,500 per square meter on average. Along the way, he builds affordable housing and works to get kids off the streets by offering jobs that ultimately improve the neighborhood. “Revitalization always revolves around a culture, not an industry,” Hardin said. “You need a place with good bones that’s affordable with spaces that people can use to explore — pioneering restaurants, galleries — and then you get events around those spaces. That’s what’s happening here. So yes, it’s like Miami, but Miami in maybe 1989.”
“Panama is not a culture that’s built around the table,” said David Henesy, a New York restaurateur, who in 2005 started La Posta, a contemporary restaurant in the Calle Uruguay area that focuses on local, environmentally sustainable ingredients. It can still be difficult to find high-quality foods to work with, he said. “If you want an heirloom tomato or an organic pig, you pretty much have to do it yourself.”