The last time I visited Calcutta, India’s cultural and intellectual capital, was in the 1960s. It was then a vast slum with people living and dying on the sidewalks. I recall an old joke about Calcutta told to me by a Bengali writer. That it is crowded with Banerjees, Sukherjees and Mukerjees, but no energies. But in spite of all the dire predictions for its future, Calcutta today is still very much alive, thriving and throbbing as energetically as before.
I was thirteen when I first came to Manila in 1938, and my memories of the city, which had less than a million people then, is still very vivid. All the way from the Bonifacio Monument to Antipolo Street were rice fields. Dimasalang and España were lined with kangkong plots. All the way from the Welcome Monument in Quezon City to Diliman was cogon wilderness. Makati was the world’s end, with few rice fields and vast stretches of grass.
I lived with my uncle and his family in a small accessoria in Requesens near Bambang, and I walked every day to the Far Eastern University High School, which today is now the Isetann Mall, on the corner of Quezon Avenue and Recto.
RIZAL AVENUE WAS LINED with banaba trees and a streetcar ran through it all the way from La Loma to Plaza Lawton. The Pasig was green and clean, and I remember swimming there with my classmates after school. Or we would walk through Escolta and Intramuros to swim in the Manila Bay, right in front of the Quirino grandstand. Not a single tree stood in the Luneta — it was grass all the way to Taft Avenue.
I was in the province when Manila was liberated in February 1945 and, almost immediately after, I visited Manila. Ruins everywhere, charred skeletons of buildings, cratered streets, Intramuros obliterated. As I sat in front of the blackened shell of Manila Hotel, recalling my fond memories of the city, I began to weep.
Over the next four decades, I saw Manila reconstructed and spread out. The other day I visited the places where I spent my early youth -- the Bambang Oroquita area, Antipolo Street which is the setting of my novel Mass, the last novel in the Rosales saga. Many old, wooden buildings, decrepit and unpainted, stand side by side with the new constructions of stone and steel.
I also went to Taguig via Makati and Forbes Park, and backtracked through the reclaimed area of Manila Bay to my bookshop in Padre Faura, Ermita. It was one of Manila’s most genteel neighborhoods, but today, like much of Manila, it is dirty and dilapidated.
I often say the Philippines is poor, but anyone visiting the country for the first time and touring through Taguig will be amazed by the magnificent truculence of its monoliths, brand new and shining in the sun. It is a strange ultra-modern world that could easily be in Southern California or in any of the new and bustling cities of Asia’s four little dragons.
HOW ELSE COULD all this modern magnificence come about but through the wealth and genius of the very rich Filipinos?
That famous English writer, Jan Morris, while traveling through America once wrote — and this I will always remember — America’s cathedrals are its highways. This apt observation unfolds when one travels those intertwining eight-lane freeways. Such beautiful symmetry in concrete.
To paraphrase Morris, let me say that our cathedrals are our shopping malls — so many of them, so huge, bursting with the world’s goods, so many restaurants, ritzy shops and, in each mall, a chapel. Indeed these malls are also our public parks, where people can watch other people, eat, and relax.
But Manila had been left behind.
Then in his first week as Mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno did something spectacular. He began ridding the sidewalks and streets of all vendors. He is faced with a City Hall that is broke, and he still has a lot to do -- garbage collection, for instance, the restoration of public services, or simply the painting of so many shabby buildings for Manila is perhaps Southeast Asia’s ugliest city. He could follow what San Francisco did, which makes that city so picture pretty. The city paints buildings whose owners have failed to do so and the owner is then charged for the job.
The sidewalks of Sampaloc and Sta. Cruz, too, should be cleared for the people. Manila is smaller than Quezon City, Isko Moreno is young. He must move around, make City Hall efficient. He should get to know each nook and cranny of his city, their problems, and improve their lighting and security.
MORENO COULD PUT all those non-performing city hall officials to work keeping the sidewalks clean and open, ensuring the cleanliness of restaurants, the safety of fire-trap buildings and that crime is at a minimum because the police are visible everywhere.
He could also take over the municipal golf links right in the heart of Manila and turn them into public parks. As for those peddlers who have been expelled from the streets, he should find a public area that could be a night market.
And, finally, having once been a movie actor himself, he should have a cultural program for the city wherein ordinary folk are exposed to the best performances in music, dance, and theatre.
The mansions, the soaring condos, and urban munificence of Makati and Taguig emphasize the wide, pernicious chasm between the Filipino elite and the masa. He must work to narrow this divide, and make Manila an exemplary city.
How I wish that the cathedrals of this country – our shopping malls -- are much, much less conspicuous cornucopias, that our cathedrals be our barangays instead, the smallest political units composed and managed by the masa. They will then become living and formidable representations and fitting symbols of our capacity for building democratic institutions, and of our creativity and genius as a people.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 15, 2019