Summer Field Research in Panama

mfaughna's picture
Casco Viejo Panama City

Greetings from Panama City, Panama!  Thanks to the Stone Center for Latin American Studies’ Summer Field Research Grant, I’m here researching changes in the city’s Historic District (called Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo, and San Felipe interchangeably) since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 along with the archaeological ruins of Panamá Viejo.  I call this process ‘culture-based urban revitalization’.

I’ve been toying around with the intersections of culture and development as a potential dissertation topic - the cultural economy, placemaking, cultural heritage & diversity, the utility/value of cultural practices, arts and community development, cultural norms and social capital, cultural capabilities, etc. (see Agenda 21 for culture for more info).  To narrow my focus, I submitted a proposal for field research in PC to test methods and learn about these concepts and relationships firsthand.  I’m also assessing the feasibility of the research site and scope. 

Panama Viejo was founded in 1519 and is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast.  The settlement was moved to a new site - Casco Viejo - in 1673 after being sacked by pirates.  After years of disinvestment and deterioration, a period of architectural restauration and revitalization began in the Casco in the 1990s, though many dilapidated buildings still sit empty.  Tourism and the service industry flourished, investment flooded in and property values rapidly increased.  Census data, observation and interviews indicate there’s a wide socioeconomic disparity in the neighborhood and a demographic shift towards wealthier inhabitants and tourists.  However, evidence also points to efforts to develop the Casco in a 'socially inclusive and equitable way'.

To complicate matters further, PC is undertaking multiple massive urban development and infrastructure projects.  They’re even putting in a metro – Central America’s first!  Traffic and transport seem like an absolute headache here, but so is the construction going on seven days a week.  One current project, the Cinta Costera 3, is a marine viaduct highway connecting the eastern part of the country to the west (see pictures) by circling the Casco Viejo peninsula.  The original plan for this connection was an underground tunnel.

Understandably, UNESCO and other civil society groups fear that the viaduct detracts from the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.  News from the 37th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Cambodia this week is that UNESCO is concerned about the overall state of conservation of Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo and will request the government modify the property boundaries or they will remove it from the World Heritage list by 2015.

In his essay in Culture & Public Action, Arjo Klamer urges us to tackle a 'particular development challenge’ -- assessing the intrinsic, not just economic, value of cultural goods/activities (such as monuments and rituals). This evaluation is especially important for a country or community facing difficult trade-offs in investment.  When I read about the contested highway around the Casco, it seemed like a great case study.  Not that I think this case is really about trade-offs and investment decisions – I believe Panama can adequately address both transportation and preservation/cultural development.  But it might be a great backdrop for exploring questions of values, inclusion and capabillities within cultural development and urban revitalization. 

As Michael Watts says in The Holy Grail: In Pursuit of the Dissertation Proposal, don’t question your ‘points of entry’ too much – the things that draw you to your topic of interest. The research changes on a daily basis – sometimes I think when you’re in the field it’s hard to see the big picture or make the large theoretical leaps, and that’s alright.  I recommend rolling with it and immersing yourself.  I know that good research is just a tiny piece of a bigger picture, and I’m trying to determine which piece is most compelling.

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