Panama City Feature

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Tale of Two Cities

For the better part of the 20th century, Panama City was actually two cities—one American and one Panamanian—separated by walls and fences. When the newly created nation of Panama ceded a strip of its territory to the United States for the construction of the canal, a border was drawn along the edge of what was then the tiny capital. As that city grew, it soon found itself squeezed between the American Canal Zone and the Pacific Ocean, which led to a cramped urban core that sprawled eastward and suffered serious traffic problems. The Americans, on the other hand, had more than enough room; the U.S. government built orderly towns and military bases where tropical trees shaded sidewalks and vast expanses of rain forest were left intact. To house the thousands of laborers who flocked to the country to build the canal, the Americans built hundreds of wooden tenement houses on the Panamanian side of the border, in a neighborhood called El Chorrillo; though they have been largely replaced by cement buildings, the area remains a slum to this day.

Although the fences were dismantled following the signing of the Panama Canal Treaties in 1977, the border remains quite visible in areas such as the Avenida de los Mártires, where the greenery and stately buildings of Cerro Ancón stand to the west and the crowded streets and buildings of El Chorrillo and Santa Ana lie to the east. Since the last American properties were handed over to Panama on January 31, 1999, the country has begun integrating the former Canal Zone into the city, building new roads and allowing some development, but strict zoning will likely ensure that the former Canal Zone retains its green areas and distinctive ambience.

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