The Housing Exoduses- City Living Not Much Better

An original image of Muller Building,
one of the largest rental buildings built to
house Westindian working men and their families
in downtown Calidonia, very close to the entrance to
the Zone. There is a post office branch right in front
(Correos Nacionales)
Image thanks to

These deplorable living conditions within the Westindian community on the Zone, the study further explained, gave rise to a series of problems owing to the decline in morale and efficiency of the group- problems of poor health and exposure to contagious disease. Following the revelations from the findings in this study housing on the Zone became a topic of careful consideration even when the dwelling units were quite limited in number by treaty restrictions to a small portion of employees.

With the passage of time Congress began showing an increasing concern and gradually began allocating funds to improve housing conditions on the Panama Canal Zone. At the same time, and in accord with treaty conditions, the number of employees (Silver employees) who were permitted to live on the Zone dropped off sharply and the highly coveted “privilege” of shopping at the Zone commissaries was granted to only those employees and their dependants that actually lived in Zone housing.

Governor David Parker expressed, before a U.S. Congressional Committee, that housing privileges on the Zone represented an “additional bonus” of $2,000 to those individual workers who were benefited by it. What the governor failed to mention, however, was that these families paid rent for these housing units and they experienced many rent hikes throughout their dealings with Zone housing officials.

On the other hand, the situation in the terminal cities of Panama and Colon in the areas inhabited mainly by Westindians, became centers of many social ills. In one specific seventeen block area studied in 1946 by the Banco de Urbanización y Rehabilitación (Urbanization and Rehabilitation Bank, Panama government, Sept. 1945) it was glaringly evident that, of the 4,600 housing units in said area, 86% were one-room units.

Even the Silver People’s everyday language reflected these painful adaptations to an uncomfortable reality. Throughout my childhood I always heard members of my family and my neighbors speak in terms of “one-room” or “two-room” rentals- never an apartment or an entire house, and these rooms were often bereft of private sanitary (bathroom and shower) facilities and kitchens. Families with several children had to make do with shared or communal bathroom facilities and tiny makeshift “kitchen” areas outside on their balcony (usually in front of their entrance).

Laundry areas were also communal and were often located downstairs in the buildings’ “patio” (courtyard) that were equipped with a water spigot and concrete washing sinks which were shared by all the neighbors and also served as a source of potable water for their families. The women would string their laundry on the communal clotheslines to dry in the tropical sun. In those days, however, the Westindian families usually managed to keep the bathroom, in particular, scrupulously clean. There was an unwritten code that most of the ladies and their children followed faithfully that the bathrooms and showers should, at least, be a fitting place for human beings to carry on their daily needs.

As a result of the housing shortage, the average Westindian, who was limited to living in these squalid rentals, remained adversely affected by the conditions in these neighborhoods. It would only be after many years of trying to cope and some changes in government attitudes (Panamanian government) that the Westindians would begin migrating to the suburbs and owning their own single family dwellings. For decades, however, they would have to suffer through the indignities, limitations and dangers of living in the squalid “facilities” of the Zone and urban housing.

This story continues.

3 responses to “The Housing Exoduses- City Living Not Much Better

  1. I remember the first time I visited some people in Marañón just a few blocks away from Muller Building, and was surprised what a “one room” dwelling was like. It was just that a room crammed where several people lived eating, sleeping, etc. I still remember standing while chatting and the room began to shake. I assumed an earthquake. No one else even flinched. It happened infrequently but I found it disquieting so I peeked out the door only to find out that when people walked in the common area the whole building shook. I am hoping you will dedicate an entire blog to Mueller Building (btw what is the correct spelling?)

  2. Ocho-Gritos,

    Muller Building’s story is our next post, complete with a brief history of its origins. It probably should be spelled Mueller but everywhere I looked it is written Casa Muller or Muller Building. Stay tuned.


  3. Roberto A. Williams

    Yo fui criado en este edificio desde que naci por mi abuela y bis-abuela paternal , Y hasta me acuerdo de su direccion postal, que era 23-32 Avenida Central, Panama 4, Panama. my papa era sastre, Y mi abuela trasbajaba en el Hospital Gorgas. Y de paso yo atendi una escuela privada en el edificio llamado French Hall, en donde aprendi a leer y escibir en ingles. My maestra se llamaba Miss. Reid o Reed.