"Palindrome"

Jose Castrellon

2017 - 2019

Panama City, Florida, United States

What began as a curious inquiry into the naming of Panama City, Florida and any relation it may or may not have to my Panama City (Panama), quickly developed into an in-depth survey of the aforementioned city’s history, culture, and both its natural and man-made landscape.

Over the course of 4 years, I traveled to Florida in search of answers, parallels and differences, with one phrase always present; “a man a plan a canal Panama.” The famous palindrome has been recited to me countless times whenever I’m asked where I’m from. That man is surely Teddy Roosevelt who—in his words, legend has it—“bought” Panama from Colombia in 1903 and gave us our independence, in exchange for American ownership of the Panama Canal and its surrounding land. That was the plan.

However, in my travels to Panama City, Florida, I found that another man, George Mortimer West, also had a plan involving a canal and his Panama City—Florida. An entrepreneur and real estate developer, West renamed Harrison, Florida to Panama City in 1909, to capitalize on the buzz coming from south of the border, anticipating the conclusion of the United States’ construction of the Panama Canal. After the city’s rebrand, West proceeded to establish a tabloid newspaper he named The Panama City Pilot, which he used as a vehicle for self promotion. It was through my research in the Bay County Library’s old newspaper archive that I came across ads ran in the Pilot in the early 1900s. “BUY DIRT” read one of the ads. “The Nearest and Best DEEP WATER PORT For the immense commerce that will be done with Cuba, South America, Central America, The Panama Canal!” reads another. Both are bookended with “APPLY TO Gulf Coast Development Co., Panama City, Florida,” George Mortimer West’s company. Unfortunately, his opportunistic plan to make that small coastal town an important port city in the southern United States never materialized; it remained the fabricated, utopian idea of a dreamer. The Pilot, on the other hand, still stands to this day.

Dichotomies and analogies continued to appear through my investigation. From pirates, Native Americans, African salves, and the influence of religion; to military bases, the dollar, flora, fauna and climate, eerily similar characteristics arise to highlight our disparities further. Much like a mirror reflecting an image backwards towards the viewer. Same but different.

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