• Quo vadis, Manila?

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    MANILA is 446 years old today, June 24.

    What has it got to show the world after nearly five centuries since its founding by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571?

    Nothing much, we’re afraid, but poorly managed railway systems; overpasses and footbridges that are perfect hiding places for criminals; unsafe passageways for pedestrians and commuters; uncollected garbage; jeepney drivers who think they can give Formula 1 racers a run for their money; maddening traffic that should have been resolved decades ago; polluted and barely liveable communities; and half-naked children begging like it were an excuse for their parents not to work because they are just illiterate or lazy, or both.

    Unfortunately, this tapestry of the city has room for more of the despair and destitution that can never be masked by malls, among other trappings of a decaying social and economic fabric that apparently drives its impoverished residents to sacrifice meals for mobile phones.

    Manila has been a victim of its own potential to become one of the best cities in the world in terms of peace and order and political and social stability, on top of general cleanliness, concerned bureaucracy and compassionate health care.

    It has always had character, having been part of the highs and lows of Philippine history, unlike more recent creations that can only boast of malls that could thrive only in a consumerist society best exemplified by a Manila where many residents are marginalized sidewalk vendors, port stevedores, tricycle drivers, jeepney barkers.

    But many of Manila’s mute witnesses to the country’s glorious past—with the possible exception of Rizal Park (the old Luneta)—are shrouded in grime and neglect and blissfully ignored by Manileños who think that Paco Park is, well, a park (it is a cemetery).

    Fort Santiago, where the national hero Jose Rizal awaited execution in 1896 and where Filipino patriots chose death over collaboration with the Japanese occupiers during the last world war, cries out for local visitors.

    So does the National Museum, which seems to be visited only by students under pain of not being given grades or points for a particular subject in school.

    Plaza Lawton, now Liwasang Bonifacio, a landmark that supposedly immortalizes the heroism of Andres Bonifacio, is one big parking lot, a virtual home for vagrants and maybe some barangay officials apparently living off the coffers and the generosity of the “Most Distinguished and Ever Loyal City,” a title bestowed on Manila by King Philip II of Spain in 1574.

    During the day, locals and foreigners can tour the city’s limited attractions by hiring a calesa, a horse-drawn carriage pulled by an animal so unhealthy it looks like a lumbering donkey, once again a reflection of the economic status of the city’s people.

    Availing of the carriage will set you back P500 to P600 for a 30-minute ride, probably the most expensive 1,800-second ride in the world.

    Elsewhere in the city, once genteel neighborhoods have given way to urban jungles of high rises and other “symbols” of progress that evidently is not inclusive, or they could have housed by now the hundreds of thousands of Manileños who are homeless.

    It is ironic that Malacañang–the center of political power–is found in Manila and yet seems to have defaulted on its presumably assigned role to exercise political will to restore to the city the “Pearl of the Orient” renown it deservedly earned in the past.

    Putting Manila on the same level as Hiroshima or Hanoi would be a pipe dream but can it be achieved in this lifetime?

    No, because the city blames its past for its present woes, unlike Tokyo and Hanoi, much, much older than Manila, but which have risen from the ashes of atomic bombing and military carnage to become the cities that the Japanese and the Vietnamese write down on their wish list of places to visit, not to regret what could have been.

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