| The United States took over the construction effort in Panama in 1904,
spurred by the unalloyed conviction of Teddy Roosevelt that the objective was both
possible and just. Included in that drama were artful if less appreciated efforts by
architects and others to accommodate a difficult terrain to the needs of people. They
created in the process a unique place neither Yankee nor Panamanian: "the zone."
Presidents McKinley and Taft had also been instrumental in the canal's construction, but
the most striking single photograph associated with it shows Teddy, wearing a white linen
suit and a white Panama hat, at the controls of the huge steam shovel in the cut,
optimistic, impatient, seemingly oblivious to workers arrayed about him like extras in the
ultimate industrial drama.
Great was the world's appreciation, in 1914, when the colossal ditch opened for business. Digging it had involved the efforts of as many as 50,000 men at a time; in all, roughly 5,600 of them died of disease and mishaps, including the extreme prejudice of dynamite. An unimaginable 225 million cubic yards of earth and rock had been displaced; islands were made of it off Panama City; The United States became an instant world power of undisputed energy and vision, and in the 85 years since, the canal has helped to consolidate the United States economic and military might.
Panama City abuts the southern end of the zone; strung along its course on the western
side are towns created by the North Americans, from Balboa on the outskirts of the capital
to Gamboa on the banks of the Chagres River, in the approximate center of the isthmus. The
United States gave it all up in the treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, after
six years of negotiation. The American hand washing was self-imposed because, as Carter
would say later, the United States "should stop treating Panama as a puppy dog on a
leash, with the U.S. at the other end of the leash." But whatever the reason, the
U.S. decampment would leave behind a hefty complement of cultural artifacts.
The zone today brims with possibility and what feels like historical inevitability. Most "zonians," those born and raised here, have already gone the way of the British after the Raj, but McDonald's has endured. The golden arches, sturdily planted in the middle of the old train station in Balboa, the once-exclusive North American domain and still the canal's administrative hub, are emblematic of U.S. commercial supremacy even as they oversee a loss of U.S. control. That loss is as real as France's a century ago. Furthermore, the arches suggest that free enterprise is more important to Panamanians-whose country has a GDP a thousandth that of the United States-than any sentiment about the past or its structural embodiments.