By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Gabriel García Márquez wrote that the first thing he did when arriving in an unfamiliar town was to take a guided city tour. He said that these tours let him check all the typical tourist attractions off the list, thus freeing up the rest of his time to experience the real city.
Panama City certainly has its share of “must-sees,” such as the banking district, the Panama Canal, the charming and ancient Historic Quarter, and the seascapes of the coastal beltway. But there is another section of this Central American city that is not so acclaimed, even though it forms part of the historic center and features a wealth of architecture and culture: the 395 acres of Calidonia, including unique precincts like La Exposición, El Marañón, Perejil, and San Miguel.
Each one of these neighborhoods has its own defining characteristics. San Miguel is a rough-and-tumble area near the Panamanian capital’s classic shopping district on Central Avenue and Perejil is a multi-faceted neighborhood that serves as a transitional zone between the historic center and the financial district. El Marañón, with its deep working-class roots, is closely linked to the Trans-Isthmian railroad that ran between Colón and Panama City for many years. Very close to Plaza 5 de Mayo and the sea front, Marañón provides access to the Seafood Market and its stalls selling ceviche and fried fish from noon onward; Santa Ana, a poor outlying district during the Colonial era; and the heart of Calidonia: La Exposición.
Why is La Exposicion considered the heart of the area? There are several good reasons. In the early 20th century, 1915 to be precise, when President of Panama Belisario Porras decided to expand the city, he opted for a grid design that included green spaces, avenues, and beautiful buildings. A National Expo was held in 1916 to present the assets of the brand new country, which had just separated from Colombia in 1903, and show off the greatest engineering feat of its time: the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914.
Since the Expo was intended to showcase the city, structures from that time, such as the Spanish Embassy and the buildings occupied by the Ministry of the Interior and the Office of the Attorney General, still draw admiring glances today. The neighborhood retained the name of La Exposición (Expo) after the exposition ended, and although it no longer dazzles, vestiges of its former splendor remain.
La Exposición covers some 210 acres (more than half of the district), and its eighty blocks are dotted with plazas, bookshops, hospitals, businesses, museums, schools, and distinctive buildings like the National Archives. Across the way stands Plaza Víctor Julio Gutiérrez, the former site of Sunday gatherings, where cultural shows were performed before the national lottery drawing; thousands of Panamanians continue to nourish hopes of riches every Wednesday and Sunday, even though their pockets are a little emptier.
Two blocks away is Plaza Porras, another iconic site in the historic center. It has seen demonstrations ranging from protests against the visit of the first President Bush, around 1990, to those demanding higher pay, social security benefits, better pensions, education, and health care.
The problem in La Exposición and the rest of the city center is that people have been trickling away in recent decades, resulting in abandoned buildings, unauthorized use of public spaces, and a lack of safety.
When surveyed, local residents and workers pinpointed the area’s most serious problems as the loss of its traditional character and architecture; the invasion of public spaces by street peddlers; a lack of parking; badly-maintained sidewalks; trash; poor lighting; too much advertising; and a defective sewer system.
Once the problems were identified, the Panama City Government proposed a Calidonia urban renewal project that would emphasize its good points and improve pedestrian areas, cultural offerings, and land use. It is hoped that the project will serve as a model for other parts of the city.
As Carlos Rodríguez from the city’s Urban Planning Department explained, public spaces are a major focus of the renewal, “since city spaces have been subject to the real estate market for a long time.”
The reasons are simple, but the plan is not easy to execute. More and more people live in cities, so it is important to provide spaces that improve their quality of life.
Better use of space in urban centers translates into infrastructure savings for the government. “We want to provide people with places to gather,” added Rodríguez, “and we envision a renewed city because expanding toward the outskirts is ultimately not sustainable.”
As described in the Calidonia Urban Renewal Project, it is a matter of consolidating a system of green corridors along the district’s main roadways, integrating transportation alternatives (subway, bike ways, and pedestrian zones), connecting public spaces, restoring cultural assets, increasing population numbers through affordable housing, and creating cultural programs that are interwoven into the urban fabric.
What kinds of projects are being proposed? When the city expanded in 1915, the La Exposición area was connected to the sea front via Ecuador Avenue, which ended in Plaza Porras. The idea is to reconstruct this avenue with the renovation of Plaza Porras and Francisco Arias Paredes Park, “to create a single plaza-park” that encourages free movement between two spaces that are currently divided by railings. Work on the park has already begun, and the plan includes a new building for a conventional library and a media library. Ecuador Avenue will have more plazas, which will be home to community centers, theaters, and a children’s park, among other facilities.
Another area slated for development is that near the Afro-Antillean Museum, across from the new Plaza 5 de Mayo subway station. The City Government would like to create an Afro-Antillean Museum Plaza to better showcase the museum and the historic capital. There are also plans to improve the infrastructure of the Calidonia Market and to connect these two areas with pedestrian streets.
The goal in El Marañón is to repopulate the area and bring in businesses, since vacant lots now predominate here.
The project is undoubtedly enticing, especially if it can be successfully linked to another current project that is intended to integrate the Curundú neighborhood―near Calidonia― into the city center by eliminating certain streets and converting them into pedestrian walkways, building more affordable housing, and relocating bridges and markets, among other ideas. “We want to revive the city center, and we are working on height and density regulations,” noted Rodríguez.
How long will all this take? It is estimated that it will take ten years just to revitalize Calidonia. Initial funds will be allocated from monies received by the Panama City Government thanks to the decentralization law, which allows taxes on personal property to be transferred directly to municipalities instead of going through central government coffers. An assessment tax, which would be imposed on residents and businesses benefiting from infrastructure projects, is being studied.
Calidonia can be seen as spearheading municipal development in Panama City and other districts in the metropolitan region (San Miguelito, La Chorrera, and Arraiján), as explained in another document presented to the city government last December: “The Panama City Metropolitan Region: Sustainable, Human, and Global.”
If the project succeeds, Calidonia will no longer be that marginalized neighborhood overshadowed by the tall apartment blocks rising along the coastal beltway, becoming instead a diverse and vital neighborhood rich in culture and featuring public spaces meant to be enjoyed by all.