Whenever I go to the City of Manila, whether it be for research, leisure or work, mixed emotions would fill me. There’s disgust and remorse, hatred and sadness but at the same time, hope and pride, awe and love. Manila remains close to my heart despite the fact that I am thankful I am not a resident of downtown Manila.
Last week, I went to Escuela Taller in Intramuros to finish my interviews with the students there. I came from Ateneo (Quezon City) and took the LRT lines 1 and 2 to get to Intramuros. As I rode the train, I really saw the change in scenery. Upon reaching Recto, the sky became darker, the air pungent and the people, well, different.
As I was walking through the connecting pedestrian bridge from LRT2 to LRT1, I just can’t help but gaze at the former Bilibid prison, once the most orderly correctional in Southeast Asia. Around it are squatters, presumably the family members of those imprisoned. The Bilibid Prisons are now in Muntinlupa and the present occupant is the Manila City Jail. It was a unique jail then because of its radial design, where prison quarters revolved around some sort of central office. The area was big enough also for marching and daily drills. Now, it is cramped and really dangerous-looking. Isetann looms while the shacks cover the beautiful art deco façade of Far Eastern University.
Walking from the Central Station to Intramuros, I walked towards the once beautiful Art Nouveau Metropolitan Theater. Though it is undergoing restoration, its façade as well as its external body is in great need of maintenance. Once the fabled theater of Manila is now a really disappointing reminder of government inefficiency and apathy towards heritage preservation. The area also smelled of human urine. Though it was nice smelling the breeze from the Arroceros forest, the stench of human waste was still unbearable. On my way to the Manila City Hall, where there was an underpass leading to Intramuros, I saw people actually living under Bonifacio’s monument. It was really thought-provoking.
Of course, upon entering Intramuros, all the more did I feel sad because even if I’ve been to Intramuros so many times, the feeling of regret and sorrow never leave me. A once beautiful and internationally-acclaimed city now gone forever. Intramuros used to house the most beautiful churches, the most extensive collection of books and manuscripts as well as the best books in Asia. It was really “Insigne y Siempre Leal”: Distinguished and Ever Loyal.
I write, speak and teach Manila because its story captures the story of our people. When Manila was coldly and brutally destroyed not by Filipinos but by Americans and Japanese soldiers, they pulverized our city with their guns, bayonets, grenades, flame throwers and bombs. They destroyed our beautiful mix of Medieval, Neo-Classical, Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture and stole our pieces of art and other masterpieces. But more than anything, the violence and destruction of war took our soul and identity as a people and also as citizens of Manila.
Due to the trauma of war, many long-time residents of Manila decided to sprawl out of Manila to the old suburbs of San Juan, New Manila, Cubao, Pasay and Parañaque. Then Quez ón City began to also expand immensely. Its older districts of San Jose del Monte, Banaue, and Quezon Avenue would become populated as well. Today, we experience the consequences of unmonitored and unregulated urban sprawl and expansion that took place after the War and that continues to occur to this date. Next thing you know, Manila might be already at the door step of Laguna.
But going back to Old Manila, one is simply tempted to resign and leave two questions unanswered: Is Manila ugly because it’s poor or is it because Manila’s poor that’s why it’s ugly? Indeed, trying to solve the questions above could lead one to insanity. For now though, I just hope people in authority listen to our belittled and unappreciated cultural workers. I hope urban planners spot the crux of the matter and not simply permit new ugly buildings to be built. We are swiftly losing our Filipino aesthetics because of the many modern buildings being built, modern buildings that sometimes feature very non-modern features anyway. When foreigners spend a day or two in our capital, doesn’t it hurt you they find our capital ugly? Doesn’t it hurt you when they say “Your city doesn’t have much of its own Filipino culture, right?”? Even Manileños tell foreigners to get out of Manila and go to the provinces to have a taste of the beauty of the Philippines. But that isn’t the solution to the problem.
Let’s all visit Manila and take a look at an ugly beautiful city. In that way, we’d be compelled to do something.