We Were the First Middle Class

Renta 10

This is Renta 10 in the district of
Marañon, a dilapidated memory of
years gone by when social interest housing
became briefly fashionable.

The “Karchi” or the factory whistle
sounded for miles around the Canal Zone
and Panama City at noon and the end
of the workday.

The imposing “
Magnolia” edifice underscored the importance of the Westindian residents for the Barrio of Calidonia. The newest and largest of the surrounding buildings had seen the end of the terrible economic times of the 1930’s to be a boom in Panamanian real estate. The building stood, and continues to stand, at the celebrated corner of “P” Street and Mariano Arosemana, which historically became one of Panama City’s landmarks, and in that period became known for a distinct Westindian middle class.

As we’ve seen, the Barrios of San Miguel and Calidonia gave the Silver Roll laborers nearby access to the white Canal Zone to get to and from their employment quickly and thus enjoy some relief from their denigrating status as they would ingress and egress the colonized area upon hearing the “Karchi“- the old factory whistle- signalling lunch time or the end of the workday like so many company towns in the U.S.. In fact, the Canal Zone was run very much like a factory town.

Even the architecture of Magnolia highlighted a trend harping back to 1930’s in which Panamanian architecture mimicked the “Art Deco” (1925-1939) architectural style used in American and European cities. With that artsy approach to the concrete building façade, now an interior of a two-room apartment was offered, maintaining the classic wooden walls and floors. This newer version of working class housing offered more space to the growing Panamanian middle class seeking affordable housing. The growing middle class, however, which had started with the Black Westindian laborers, would naturally be followed by the growing numbers of Panamanian Mestizos entering government service.

The new Mestizo middle class of the mid to later 1940’s would, in fact, join their Westindian neighbors who had survived the brunt of racist persecutions of the years between 1904-1940 in which an urgent need arose for the development of the urban areas and expansion of housing construction both within Panama and the American Canal Zone. It became somewhat of a building frenzy in its moment that witnessed the erection of edifices with a certain tropical charm, while at the same time offering a modicum of tropical functionality.

By the time the Westindian second generation arrived on the scene, around the mid ‘30’s and 40’s, everything in the way of building housing for the working class seemed to come to a complete halt. Indeed, the times had changed from that period in history when “neighborhood buildings” had become a prevalent mode of housing. The focus had now changed to a less communally oriented type of culture to one in which neighbors were more isolated. These issues in architectural circles would not crop up again until the development of the “Rentas,” which were also called housing for “interés social.”

For the prominent stakeholders such as the nearby Canal Zone authorities, the Westindian work force, which remained readily available and eager to be exploited, would no longer be important. By the time we Reid kids made it to Spanish School, even the newly founded public schools with names such as Josefina Tapia and Guillermo Andreve would be housed not far from our school, Pedro J. Sosa. We had made it into a school that was different from the classic, airy tropical wooden “Casonas,” originally mostly built for Black Westindian Canal Zone employee families.

Although Westindian families still abounded even during and post-WWII, supported by the permanence of the low income wages and salaries from their permanent place on the Silver Roll of the Panama Canal Zone, very little in the way of their housing needs would change. Even today, as we reach the 21st Century, some of those same deteriorated tenements linger to sadly remind us of the passage of time as abandoned and dilapidated as the historical graves of the Silver People on a Canal Zone that, after having lived out their utility, became a some forgettable and quite dispensable piece of history unworthy to even mention.

This story will continue.

2 responses to “We Were the First Middle Class

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    On the first picture is there a court yard in the middle of the building. I am trying to get a mental image of that building.

    I see a square building that has an open court yard for kids to play in.

    Looks like buildings in Russia. With stores or business type on the first floor and living in apartments (flats) above..

    I do not know just guessing. 🙂


  2. Kyle and Svet,

    All of these buildings built for poor people back before and during WWII had a courtyard in the middle. The Rentas, unlike say Magnolia building which was rectangular with the courtyard in the middle, were often triangular with a courtyard in the middle with its communal areas.

    But the Rentas, I believe, had individual apartments with a private bathroom. You could not see the courtyards from the street. This was supposed to be an improvement over the old board building tenements. Government housing.