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  HOME | Central America

Residents of Historic Panama Neighborhood Fight Gentrification

PANAMA CITY – Doris Martinez takes out of a dilapidated refrigerator a jug of chicha (maize brew) and fills a glass to the brim. The heat is relentless and she is eight-months pregnant. She straightens out some papers left in disorder by the previous shift and sits in a plastic chair to have her drink and cool off.

She has three hours of guard duty ahead of her in this makeshift building with its zinc roof and wooden walls that she and her colleagues call “The Trench,” and which has became an emblem of the fight against gentrification in the colonial heart of the Panamanian capital.

“We’re on duty here 24/7. It can’t be left vacant because the cops would take advantage of it and get rid of us,” she said, while getting her 3-year-old son Moises to blow his nose – he stays with her every time she’s on guard duty.

“I do this for the kids, for their future,” EFE was told by the woman with the big eyes who was born in the downtown area 40 years ago and who observes very sadly how it is being turned into an exclusive neighborhood that only the well-off can afford.

Tired of promises not kept, about 100 of the locals for the last two years have protected from speculation a vacant lot of some 500 sq. meters (5,400 sq. feet) in the colonial district, where different governments have promised to build public housing.

There they put up big signs with slogans like “Without inhabitants there is no heritage” and “This country goes to the highest bidder,” and there established The Trench, a kind of barracks that attracts curious tourists and poor neighbors under pressure from landlords who want to boost the value of their property by restoring the old colonial mansions.

“Renting the most expensive house used to cost $150 a month, and now the remodeled houses don’t rent for less than $1,200 a month. Tell me who can afford that,” the president of the San Felipe Residents Association, Esther Sanchez, told EFE.

“We’re not leaving here until they build the housing they promised us,” said this combative woman, who was evicted from a ramshackle mansion where she had lived temporarily with the consent of the authorities and now stays with other families in an abandoned school on the Plaza Herrera.

The voracious real-estate boom in the colonial downtown area of Panama City, a monumental complex of colonial buildings and defensive walls from the late 17th century, began in 1997 when it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations and has intensified in recent years.

The government’s Historical Center Office, a unit of the National Culture Institute, estimates that half of the almost 800 colonial buildings have been restored.

During the day, the colonial center is filled with the sounds of stone being drilled and the shouting of construction workers, but at night the luxury restaurants and beautiful terraces are full of tourists. Day after day there are fewer children playing soccer on the cobblestone streets and grandparents chatting in the plazas.

“They don’t want poor folks, but we know that’s a problem in all the downtown areas of the Americas,” Esther’s husband Anibal Chacon told EFE.

Census reports show that la population of low-income residents in the district to which the historical center belongs has gone from 16,000 at the beginning of the 1990s to a little more than 2,000 today

Despite their exhaustion from the struggle, the locals see some light at the end of the tunnel with the recent naming of the director of the Historical Center Office, Fernando Diaz Jaramillo, who is aware of the human drama and who knows that the solution is to build public housing in the area and not send residents to the outskirts of the city.

“The Panamanian government has the duty not to permit the essence of the neighborhood to be lost. Our people have a leading role in safeguarding this universal heritage,” Diaz told EFE.

 

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