"How can we exert pressure on our officials to restore Manila to its old glory?"
Can Manila be saved? Is the Pearl of the Orient still capable of being revived?
Six years ago, while visiting Phnom Penh for an Asean pre-summit conference, I remarked to our delegation host how wide the boulevards of their vieux ville (old city) were, clearly a remnant of Cambodia’s French colonial history.
To my surprise, he returned the compliment by saying that Manila, especially in the Luneta-Intramuros area, was quite beautiful. He was in Manila in 1980 though.
Last 2017, I called upon the Chairman of TAITRA, the Taiwan Trade Association, Mr. James Huang, and was surprised to learn that his engineer-father used to work for Philippine Blooming Mills, the iron-smelting plant owned by a Chinese-Filipino family. He said that as a young boy, his father would send them pictures of Manila, which impressed upon him the beauty and wealth of the Philippines. At that time, Taiwan’s living standards were quite poor compared to ours, then the second-largest economy in East Asia. I was quite embarrassed because of the unspoken underlying message that sunk: how far they had overtaken us.
In previous articles I have written about the urban rot that best describes the state of the premier city. I have also disagreed with proposals to reclaim portions of Manila Bay because the same will only be magnets for more migration into the capital region, leaving the inner cities to absorb the influx of migrant workers who will not leave the city and return to their depressed, jobless provinces.
Meanwhile, those artificial islands created by reclamation will be jewels of high living reserved for the rich of China, Japan, Korea, and a few of the local elite. The decay of Manila and environs will only worsen.
It is heartening to note that even the DILG, with both Secretary Eduardo Ano and his undersecretary, Epimaco Densing, have spoken against reclamation in Manila Bay.
Is the urban rot beyond redemption? Is Manila for one, a hopeless case that can no longer be renewed?
I sat down over the usual sumptuous lunch with former President Joseph Estrada in his Greenhills mansion When he was running for mayor of Manila six years ago. I told him that he had the rare opportunity to institute the urban renewal of the premier city. Further, I said that he really had to concentrate on just two districts: District 5 where I reside, which includes Malate-Ermita as well as Intramuros, Luneta and Liwasang Bonifacio; and District 2, which includes most of “downtown” Manila, but especially Chinatown, the Escolta, the Avenida and Quiapo.
Invite the best architects and urban planners, I suggested, to draw up a major urban renewal of these historic and cultural jewels, and transform these into tourism magnets for both locals and foreign visitors.
Take Ongpin, I suggested. Imagine if you were to make it a pedestrian walkway of cobblestones, considering how narrow this often traffic-clogged artery was. Allow only horse-drawn “caretelas” uniformly decorated with “cocheros” in starched cotton “camisa chinos” the only means of transport, other than in the wee hours when delivery trucks and utility vehicles would be allowed. Illuminate Ongpin and perpendicular streets with 19thcentury lampposts, and require all commercial establishments to sport well-designed facades reminiscent of the Parian district in the Spanish colonial period.
You could cover the esteros after dredging and cleaning the same, within and around Chinatown with concrete slabs upon which motor vehicles could park, for a fee that accrues to the city, I further said. Movable concrete slabs would allow periodic inspection and cleaning of the waterways. Light steel structures could be put up and used for parking vehicles.
Imagine doing a similar renewal of the Escolta, Dasmarinas and Juan Luna streets in what was once the financial and shopping district of the nation’s capital. Up to now, some of the turn of the century buildings still exist, and some, quite unfortunately, are being torn down by property developers for garish high-rise developments.
Go to Port Area and weep at the abandoned and rotting warehouses which some enterprising settlers have converted into their illegal habitat. Note in envy how Senator Frank Drilon initiated the renewal of Iloilo’s downtown district, centered on the old Iloilo and its Aduana beside the wharf. Note how Drilon built an esplanade after cleaning the Iloilo River, beautifying the same and making what was once-passe neighborhood into prime real estate.
Years before, after the “moralistic” Fred Lim vowed to clean up the Ermita, particularly M.H.del Pilar of its honky-tonks, I recall asking his then vice-mayor, Lito Atienza, “what next?”
I suggested basically what I proposed to Mayor Erap for Ongpin, to resurrect the feel of Old Ermita, once haven of the elite and upper middle class before the Liberation and the great migration to Ayala’s Makati villages, and Quezon City’s New Manila.
Fred Lim just allowed M.H.del Pilar to rot and did nothing else after closing the notorious nightspots. Now the entire Ermita is decked with cheap nightspots catering to flesh-hungry Aussies, Japs, Koreans and backpackers. From what could have looked like Notting Hill and Portobello, Ermita has degenerated into an Angeles or Olongapo during the days when the US military bases were still here.
Mayor Atienza did much to improve the Baywalk astride Roxas Boulevard, and lit up most Manila streets, but after him, nothing was done.
Lynchpin of course to the urban renewal of Manila is the massive clean-up of Pasig River, including the esteros that flow into it. The massive Manila Bay rehabilitation ordered by the president would do well to focus on the Pasig River clean-up started by President FVR and snail-paced after him by uncaring administrations.
It is nice to read about San Miguel’s Ramon Ang volunteering to undertake the clean-up of Tullahan River from Quezon City through Caloocan to Malabon-Navotas where it empties into the putrid bay. Hopefully, more private citizens and corporations would follow the example set by RSA.
But urban renewal is not possible unless first, the local and even national leadership are impervious to its need; and second, if the people themselves do not have pride of place or a sense of history.
That we have allowed the desecration of what ought to be considered national treasures through all these years speaks volumes of our lack of a sense of history let alone pride of place.
Yet we have seen how President Duterte’s political will jumpstarted the rehabilitation of Boracay. And because of this, people are beginning to be conscious about preserving the environment. Would that we could exert pressure on our officials to likewise revive and renew Manila and restore it to its old glory.