The Housing Exoduses- Deplorable Conditions on the Zone

Silver Housing in Cristobal in about 1912.
Notice the appalling lack of sewage/drainage.
This is the housing unit in Red Tank known as the Titanic Building.
It was originally a wing of Ancon Hospital which
was already quite old and deteriorated when it was
moved to Red Tank to serve as housing for the Silver
employees and their families.

By the time I was born n 1936, the Silver people had undergone many periods of privation in so far as their housing needs were concerned. In supporting several posts regarding their struggles with finding decent housing I have provided for you a succinct history following an outline originally written by George W. Westerman.

During the Canal construction period or even two years after its inauguration (1916), the bulk of the labor force lived on the Canal Zone. Some limited form of private property did exist, however, and different, albeit limited, forms of private enterprise were carried on by individuals on their own accord. Many Westindians took advantage of the opportunities offered in the area of gardening and agriculture, for which they had been receiving help. In 1915 the Canal Zone Silver population, however, except for the citizens of the United States and out of military necessity, was forced to abandon the Zone housing and properties.

Upon this sudden removal from their lands and houses, the Westindians saw themselves forced to live in the terminal cities of Panama and Colon. This sudden influx created an absolutely urgent need for the improvement of existing housing laying the ground, thereby, for excellent opportunities for investment in real estate by landowners and businessmen- an opportunity that promptly was avidly pursued by a small group of individuals.

In 1916, the then governor of the Canal Zone, Chester Harding, made a special request for budget allocations to the U.S. government to provide adequate housing units to Silver Roll employees. After the initial construction was completed, the U.S.’s energy and resources were shifted to operation and maintenance and, what’s more, the U.S. government was more concerned with devoting resources to its participation in WW I. Allocations to the Canal Zone, therefore, were sharply reduced and the monies necessary for meeting the Silver Roll population’s housing needs were diverted.

This situation prevailed until after the end of WWI; in fact, it wasn’t until FY 1927 until some monies were allocated for Silver housing. In the meantime, however, the deterioration of all the buildings, many of which had been in service since the French Canal period (1880-1889), was so marked that many of these structures had to be abandoned.

These were the words of a Canal Zone governor in his annual report during the 1920’s, “The issue of housing is of utmost importance in the operation of the Canal. Owing to the lack of dwelling units, a large portion of the labor force has to seek housing in the cities of Panama and Colon where the rents are high, the standards are inadequate and the atmosphere much less satisfactory than in the Canal Zone. In order for the Canal to function satisfactorily and to maintain better discipline and morale, the workers should live as close as is possible to their places of work, under United States protection.”

During this period the growing voice of opposition would, quite naturally, come from the Panamanian property owners and landlords, eager to expand their lucrative real estate projects and businesses like finance companies, furniture establishments, jewelry stores, etc. They went so far as to bring their grievances to the U.S. governor’s office in reaction to the measures that were being sought to provide better Zone housing for the Silver Roll workers insisting that these measures would harm the Panamanian economy and generally create an unfair advantage. We must note that, according to union figures of the time, approximately 5,000 workers and some 14,000 to 15,000 dependants of these workers would have to move to the cities and their outlying areas. Continued pressures on the Silver Roll work force was even evidenced in The Panama Tribune articles in which, in 1947, for example, the by-line read “Increase in Rentals for Zone ‘Silver Quarters’ to be Effective Sept. 1st.” The precious little housing still available on the Zone was becoming ever more expensive.

Even as late as the 1950’s, according to a CIO* study, Panama Canal Zone Silver Roll workers had to live in dreadful and intolerable conditions that could only be compared to the worst ghettos in the United States. The study further sustained that in these housing conditions, the people were extremely overcrowded; the rooms were generally termite and moth infested and full of all manner of insect pests, all within a lamentable state of deterioration.

* 1947 Housing Survey of Local 713, United Public Workers Union of the CIO.

This story continues.

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