Beauty and blight

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

Despite being happily rooted on the right side of the old equation “a picture equals a thousand words”, I have recently become attached to an interesting and talented group of people who call themselves the Philippine Outdoor Photographers.

Apart from their being just about the nicest bunch of people anyone could hope to meet—which is certainly reason enough to make new friends—there is a value-added intellectual benefit in joining them on their photography outings: Photographers, by nature, are wired to look at things in fine detail; for a writer like me whose interests and expertise necessarily require taking a broad view of things, seeing things through their eyes can be revelatory.

Such was the case on Palm Sunday morning when I and my constant companion—my eight-year-old daughter—joined the POP’ers on a Photowalk that traced a meandering path from the Santa Cruz Church, along Escolta, across the Jones Bridge, and winding through Intramuros to end at the newly-reopened Manila Cathedral.

The route covered much of the historic heart of the city, and while the importance of the area is certainly not lost on many advocates of historic preservation, the impression one is left with after such a tour is that those advocates obviously do not work for the government, or anywhere else where they would be in a position to do anything about the alarming decay.


A passage quoted by Bobi Tiglao last week in the second part of his extended review of Robert Kaplan’s new book Asia’s Cauldron (“‘America’s colonial burden,’” April 16) perfectly epitomizes the sad state of what, in most any other city in Asia or elsewhere would be a tourism-oriented showpiece: “ . . . the cityscape of the Philippine capital of Manila is . . . one of aesthetic and material devastation.”

As Tiglao explained, that sort of criticism stings no matter how aware one is of the reality, and a quite natural reaction from people who do legitimately put a lot of physical effort and mental energy into trying to preserve something of Manila’s interesting past—particularly in Intramuros—when confronted with others’ impressions that their city is a forlorn ghost of what it once was, is to be defensive about it. For one thing, they are quick to point out, the Americans practically leveled Manila in 1945 (a perspective that tends to overlook the brutal Japanese response to American entreaties to withdraw and spare the city), and so it is rather remarkable that it has been restored to the extent it has.
That’s true enough, and so is the argument that many preservation and maintenance efforts and results are indeed visible; on our excursion, we encountered one group of volunteers conducting a clean-up project in the Estero de la Reina, and another group—a cheerful gaggle of 40 or 50 college students—trudging down Escolta armed with brooms and garbage sacks, on their way to do their good deed for the week. The number of buildings within Intramuros which have been cleaned up and restored to something that closely resembles their original appearance has steadily grown in the past decade, capped off by the just-finished renovation of Manila Cathedral, which really was a nice piece of work.

The otherwise praiseworthy enthusiasm that has accomplished so much, however, is unfortunately wasted on a piecemeal approach, and that is why the city has never achieved the cultural status it could. There is no comprehensive, sustainable vision for the environment of Manila’s historic districts—or for its urban environment in general—and if the authorities and other stakeholders say there is, then it clearly isn’t working. It is not enough to restore a building here or there, or pick up the trash along a couple hundred-meter stretch of a drainage canal. At best these create bright spots in an otherwise gloomy environment, bright spots marred by everything else that is ignored—everything from decaying monuments to indifference like the Metropolitan Theater, the Capitol Theater, and the Intendencia, to the unsightly tangle of utility cables screening the view of the nearly 400-year-old façade of Santa Cruz Church (Thanks for that one by the way, Meralco. Nice work.), to the proliferation of jerry-built food stalls and grubby street vendors hustling visitors in Intramuros, to the heartbreaking sight of the filthy and forlorn inhabitants, many of them—far too many—children, of the lowest stratum of society, who are nearly as numerous as the stray cats who keep them company.

Manila is, underneath the grime, the noise, the anarchy of unrestrained traffic on streets and sidewalks alike, and the first impression that it is “a city held together by glue” to borrow a charming phrase from Kaplan’s book, a fascinating and beautiful city when you look closely enough. It should not be just a place to pass through on the way to some other trite and overwrought tourist mecca, a place to kill some time while waiting for the tour group to depart for Boracay or Sagada—which is exactly what it was to the half-dozen or so foreign visitors I encountered (a couple of whom my photographer comrades immediately turned into impromptu models) on our Palm Sunday outing. For a country that has a chronic anxiety about two related issues—establishing a cultural identity and building a competitive tourism industry—to continue to ignore the potential to address both those that lies, in a manner of speaking, right at the country’s front door seems more than a little shortsighted.

benkritz@outlook.com

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