MANILA, not the metropolitan area but the ancient, grand city, is a place of extreme physical contradictions.
As our original city, former seat of everything and the only city with centuries of real history, it has the Luneta, Fort Santiago, the Walled City, Escolta, the Army and Navy Club and a university (the University of Santo Tomas or UST) that was already there before Harvard College came to exist. Its century-old churches have been administering Catholic rites through wars, political upheavals and natural calamities with unbending piety.
Yet, there is a grim side.
It is probably the only ancient city in the world that has an endless capacity for nurturing and cultivating slum colonies. From the historic area of Tondo on the west, up to where Manila connects with Caloocan City, Quezon City and Pasay City, blighted colonies are the norm. So primordial is the squatter culture that there are even colonies of homeless people living inside and on top of tombs, at its age-old public cemeteries. Not one of Manila’s six congressional districts has been spared from the slum-building binge. The heritage sites that World II failed to eviscerate have been virtually photo-bombed by the backdrop of physical grime and decadence.
We all know what happens to a place that is overrun by slums.
As the slum culture dominated, the places in Manila that used to breed thinkers and heroes and great men despite their humble setting have ceased turning out men of consequence and instead nurtured drug addicts and all sorts of criminals. I am narrating Pampanga-centric lives but they are worth mentioning and they represent what happened to slum-overrun Manila. Tracing the life of novelist Bienvenido Santos from his Lubao roots, I learned that the parents resettled in Tondo, where the young Santos started a life of writing greatness. Tondo, humble yet proud and patrician, was capable of turning out greatness.
Just like the artist BenCab (Sasmuan town to Tondo) and the famous lawyer Estelito Mendoza, from Bacolor town to Tondo. Or dozens of print and broadcast journalists with Pampanga-Tondo roots.
There is an unsubstantiated claim that the parents of Gat Andres (Bonifacio) came from the coastal towns of Pampanga. Then, via the Rio Grande (Pampanga River), they moved south to Tondo, as it was the practice then of many Kapampangan families that wanted out of the fishing and farming preoccupations of the province. Bonifacio, indeed, is a common surname of many Pampangofamilies from the coastal towns.
As a steady stream of adventurous Basques moved to Pampanga from the city to develop vast tracts of sugar and rice lands in the province (for example, the Arrastiasand the Ortigases), the ordinary Pampango families moved south–- mostly to Tondo–-and the migration produced the Santoses and Bencabs of this country.
Of course, there were outliers like gangster AsiongSalonga, who had the same Pampanga-Tondo roots. But such were outliers.
Ok, back to the main topic.
Manila, on top of its endless capacity for encouraging slum colonies, has a preternatural knack for tearing down its glorious and sacred places of history in the service of cheap commerce. Whatever happened to Mehan Gardens, to the grand piece of architecture that was the fronton site, the Army and Navy Club, the old Coca-Cola plant and building?
Under the name of fake restoration, the grand Army and Navy Club was stripped of its grand front to, of all things, build a commercial establishment whose heart is a spa. A spa? It’s like desecrating a piece of ancient Rome to build a fast-food outlet. The torn-down walls of the Army and Navy Club probably heard many interesting stories, from battle campaigns to the secret affairs of admirals and generals. Its second life as a spa is a national embarrassment.
Just adjacent to the Club is the huge ugly horizontal structure that now serves as a backdrop to the Luneta. Ka Pepe (Jose Rizal ) must be turning in his grave. What they did to the fronton site where the Basque pelotaris with memorable names displayed their skills is an assault on our sense of history.
The issue of heritage sites and their desecration would have been a forgotten issue if it were not for the nightmarish recurrence of another assault on an iconic site–-The Rizal Memorial Coliseum. (Poor Ka Pepe, everything that carries your name seems to be the target of ruinous development and greedy developers.) The Philippine Sports Commission is set to leave the Rizal Complex for Clark. And the uncertainty is killing those looking after the heritage sites.
Will the country’s insatiable urge to serve cheap commerce lead to the demolition of this 82-year-old structure so it can be turned over to the giant real estate developers? After what happened to the fronton site, the Army and Navy Club and the photo-bombing of the Luneta, Manila can’t really be bludgeoned by another demolition of a place of history. It will be beyond heartbreaking for a country that is right now discussing and debating historical amnesia.
If no action is taken to prevent the sale of the Rizal Sports Complex to greedy developers for conversion into a “complex” of high rises and fast food outlets and student dorms, then what would prevent Manila from doing all these atrocious things:
. Move Luneta into somewhere far to open up the area to ghastly commercial development
. Raze Fort Santiago to the ground so there will be space for another boxy mall
. Exhume the bones of AsiongSalonga for immediate burial at the Libingan ng mgaBayani
What a soulless city. What a self-destructing people.