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A Walk Through History La Avenida Central

Today, Panama City’s Avenida Central is down at the heels, but in the first half of the 20th century it was the city’s main shopping center, the place for architects to showcase their work, and the place to socialize.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Fotos:  Javier Pinzón

There are crowds, stalls selling pots, mangos, nail polish, avocados, stuffed animals, handbags, bananas, necklaces, perfumes, little bags of millet, water, and papayas. There is the contrast: on one sidewalk is a pastor shouting about how to reach salvation; on the other, a street barber is quivering all over to the bass of reggaeton music.

Panama City’s Avenida Central bewilders, satisfies, and surprises. You hear the noise of horns and the murmur of crowds; you see the stands for old neon signs. There is history and there are memories. Here, the centuries-old Santa Ana Church shares a space with the small Salsipuedes market, as well as shops, bars, hotels, small homes, restaurants, and buildings that tell, although half-muzzled, the glorious history of this commercial nerve of a city that is no longer… The city of the first half of the 20th century.

Sprouting from the neighborhood of Santa Ana, Avenida Central began to form as a suburb for blacks, mestizos, and Spaniards displaced from inside the city walls. They built the Church of Santa Ana and the plaza of the same name, which from the 18th century to the early 20th was the scene of political and cultural activities.

With the growth in population, the Casco Viejo and its outlying areas remained narrow, and Avenida Central —which used to be called Calle Real— began to extend to the Plaza 5 de Mayo. Here is a look at the architectural and social history of this area of Panama City.

 

Plaza Santa Ana

The Plaza of Santa Ana was, from the beginnings of the new city, a suburb. Initially it was an empty space used for fiestas; it wasn’t until 1892 that a park was built with paths and trees. The gazebo in the center was built in the 1920s. The Plaza of Santa Ana is memorable because it was the setting for important meetings and social protests. Surrounding it you can find vestiges of the movie theaters that gave birth to the area, such as the Teatro El Dorado (1912) and the Variedades. The Heurtematte Building was built opposite the plaza; it was there that the well-remembered Bazar Francés (1932) was established: a store that sold imported goods from France and had the best tailors for suits and dresses. The Church of Santa Ana, located at the bottom of the square, was built between 1751 and 1764.

La Pollera Building and the Walk Down to Salsipuedes

“La Pollera,” a work by the Peruvian architect Leonardo Villanueva Meyer, is an Art Deco style apartment building built in 1928, named because the design of its balconies resembles the work that adorns the traditional “pollera santeña” dress of Panama. With its five stories, it was the skyscraper of the age and there were shops on its ground floor. Until a couple of years ago, there was a very popular stand that sold costumes for the “pollera.”

Salsipuedes, meanwhile, is a commercial artery that sells every kind of trinket imaginable, although it’s especially gifted in the sale of traditional Panamanian costumes —from “cutarra” sandals to intricate hair adornments— as well as books and second-hand magazines. Considered the city’s first pedestrian street, its name (literally meaning “leave if you can,” in Spanish) is apt because of the precautions one should take walking here. However, it has the charm of a flea market that can’t be found anywhere else in the city.

The Calle 17 Intersection

At one time, this was the border of Panama City; beyond was considered “rural Panama.” What’s interesting about the intersection of Calle 17 and Avenida Central is that it brings together several landmark buildings in one spot. There’s the National Bank (1938) and the former headquarters of Kodak (1946) which, with its rounded shapes and Art Deco and Streamline styles, represents the city’s architecture from the 1930s and 1940s. Next to the National Bank you can still see the old Power and Light Company (Fuerza y Luz) building, a U.S. company that provided this service to Panama City. The ornamental details and the building’s murals can be seen only if you pay attention because the store’s signage hides much of the building’s splendor.

Until a few years ago, the Savings Bank building (1948) was also at this intersection. Its architects, Méndez & Sander, used brise-soleils to mitigate the light and tropical heat. The building was demolished, though the branch of the Savings Bank remains.

The Old Sears

Located just steps from the intersection of Calle 17, the building that housed the Sears department store was the most important shopping center in the area. Its beauty lies in the design of the floors and the false ceilings that take the form of a honeycomb, as well as the façade designed for the tropical sun. The inner courtyard and fountain are also stunning, as well as the green tiles with elaborate ethnic designs bordering the eaves of the courtyard. Some of the marble that used to cover its walls still remains. Older people remember the ice cream shop that stood near the fountain  —which has been dry for many years now— and the record store. At one time, the place had tables for enjoying the afternoon and a good chat.

Plaza 5 de Mayo

This space has existed since the late 19th century, but became a sought after area when the Railway Station was built, back in 1912. The architect Eduardo Tejeira Davis points out in his book, Panama: An Architectural and Landscape Guide, that the building is “an echo” of Penn Station in New York, although the one in Panama has twin entrances and two waiting rooms, instead of the “great central portico” of the New York building. “In the Canal Zone there was a rigid caste system (gold roll and silver roll), so they wanted to ensure travelers of color were segregated from the whites.” The station stopped operating in 1960. In the 1970s the Museum of the Panamanian Man (later the Reina Torres de Araúz Anthropological Museum) was installed there. Then it became the Higher Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Superior de Bellas Artes). Today it is completely abandoned.

The plaza was named after the marble monument built to honor the firemen killed in the “Polverín” event, the explosion of a gunpowder and dynamite deposit that took place on May 5, 1914. The Plaza’s heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, when the Hotel Internacional —which replaced the Hotel Central of the Casco Viejo in prestige and fame— and the International Insurance Company were built.