Last February 19, 2012, I had to take a government exam for the entire morning at the Universidad de Manila along Arroceros Street in Manila. Since I was already there and I had nothing to do in the afternoon, I took advantage of my then current location by walking around the immediate area to do an ocular inspection of 3 notable places that have been casualties of the slow but steady extirpation of Manila’s cultural and environmental heritage.
I started my walking tour right after I stepped out of the university and explored the surroundings of Mehan Garden, where it is located.
But first, a backgrounder.
The site where Mehan Garden now stands was part of a much larger area designated as El Parian de los Sangleyes, or the original Chinatown, where the city’s Chinese residents numbering in the thousands were confined so that they could be more easily monitored by the Spanish authorities (and, most notably, within sight of their cannons in Intramuros.) Then, as now, the enterprising Chinese were vital to the early Philippine economy. As such, the Parian also became the city’s commercial district and economic hub.
As a consequence of the successful British invasion of Manila in the 18th century – yes, kids, the British actually invaded us – Spanish authorities undertook a massive upgrading of the city’s defenses at the resumption of their rule, and this involved clearing the entire area between Intramuros and the western bank of the Pasig River of all stone structures. (To give you a better understanding of the scale of this effort, just imagine flattening all buildings east of Taft Avenue, from the Post Office all the way down to the Philippine Normal University.)
This sudden excess of open space came to be known as the Plaza Arroceros and indirectly contributed to the establishment of the Jardin Botanico in 1858, which was later renamed Mehan Garden during the American colonial administration. It served as a fully-functioning public park until its decline in the 1960s.
Nowadays, except for the trees that still dot the area, it’s hard to see why this place is still called a garden at all. Much of the original area of the park has been appropriated for the building of concrete structures and cemented walkways that cover much of the grounds.
The very little open space left hosts a scattering of trees that have almost no visual appeal. Attempts at landscaping can be described as deficient at best, and downright ugly at worst. If the point of landscaping is to beautify a place, then it’s an effort that utterly failed in the case of Mehan Garden. Below is a video I took while walking from one end of the park to the other. At one point, you’d even see laundered clothes being dried by the monument of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (which, by the way, is another unnecessary construction.)
Although there’s high police visibility, there doesn’t seem to be a park administration of any kind. Trash can be seen strewn everywhere and the area contains entire families of homeless people who have settled here with all their makeshift shelters and whose children roam around and beg money all day from passersby. According to Carlos Celdran, some even live on the trees. All in all, this hardly falls under any known definition of “garden”. Yes, the trees still provide some shade, but that’s all there is to it. There’s no sense of peace here. The place is as grimy, noisy, and overcrowded as the city itself.
This is unfortunate because this formerly well-maintained public park is also a valuable archaeological site – being one of the oldest inhabited parts of Manila dating back to pre-Spanish times. In fact, previous archaeological excavations in the area have yielded historical artifacts dating back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The widely protested construction of the Park N’ Ride building and other structures effectively destroyed or rendered impossible to salvage whatever artifacts that still could have been excavated there.
This degeneration of the Mehan Garden is due to a lot of factors: lack of historical/environmental awareness, urban planning, and a basic sense of aesthetics. These piled one on top of the other throughout the years since the end of the last world war. But most of the blame can be placed squarely on the administration of former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, where the mismanagement of Mehan Garden, as well as many other historical sites in the city, reached its peak.
(I will refrain from further discussing this last point lest this blog stray from the topic at hand, but agreements/Disagreements on this point can certainly be can be lodged in the comments section below.)
THE ARROCEROS FOREST PARK
Speaking of former Mayor Atienza, another area in which he notoriously got entangled with during his three successive terms as Manila Mayor is the Arroceros Forest Park. As the name suggests, the place is a forest in the middle of the city. In fact, it’s the only forest left in the entirety of Manila, making it a valuable patch of green in a noisy and polluted metropolis.
The forest park is situated on the western bank of the Pasig River, right beside the point where one end of the Quezon Bridge is situated. The forest park was envisioned and created by then former (and now current – let that sink in for a moment) Mayor Alfredo Lim. It was intended as a refuge of Manileños from the chaos and pollution of the city. At just above 2 hectares, the park hosts a diverse array of plant life, and naturally, also is a refuge of city-dwelling avian wildlife. Once one steps in here, one is literally transported to a different world.
The name “Arroceros” is a Spanish word that approximately means “cultivators of rice”. This probably gives one a clue on the history of the entire area where the street is located. Interestingly, the forest is not as old as many people think. A survey of old maps reveal that the area was the exact location of the Estado Mayor (military barracks) during the American colonial administration (see map in previous section).
Even older maps from the Spanish period reveal that prior to the Estado Mayor, the area was the site of the historic Fabrica de Tabacos in the 19th century. This old photo of the destroyed Quezon Bridge during World War II clearly shows nothing but rubble in the area where the forest park is now located.
In the years after the war, the site was largely left unused and this was presumably the reason why it became overgrown with vegetation. As the rest of Manila and its suburbs rapidly urbanized in the postwar years, this little pocket of green grew and grew until it became the only remaining forest in the entirety of Manila.
It was purchased by Mayor Lim from the Land Bank of the Philippines using the city government’s funds earmarked for educational expenses, and subsequently placed an NGO in charge with developing and safeguarding it. Some minimal landscaping was done (mostly walking paths) to enhance visual appeal and to enable visitors to walk within the park, but just little enough to retain the feel of a true forest.
Upon taking office, former Mayor Atienza used as justification the source of funds used to purchase the land to build an administration building for the city’s educators within the forest park. This was immediately opposed by the NGO and other environmental groups and a well-publicized legal battle subsequently raged.
Unfortunately, Atienza decisively won on the legal front and subsequently closed the park from the public as the construction of the administration building commenced. In a tongue-in-cheek move, he proclaimed the uprooting of trees was supervised by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – an office of the national government that he later on was ironically appointed as head.
Eventually though, term limits caught up with him and during the last local government elections, Alfredo Lim made a successful comeback as Mayor. The forest park was again opened to the public and was once again placed under the care of the NGO that was previously in charge with it immediately after he took his oath as Mayor.
Today, the forest park is safe at the moment, although 1/3 of its original size has been irretrievably lost due to the aforementioned building construction. Be that as it may, it’s still worth the visit despite the diminished size. The thick vegetation insulates the visitor from the noise, the heat and the pollution just outside its borders. It’s a very accessible refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life.
If there’s one thing that can be learned about the woes of the Arroceros Forest Park, it’s the fact that appeals to environmental interests can be brashly set aside by naked political power if the wielder of such power deems other interests as being more important. This puts the forest park in a precarious situation wherein the only way to ensure its continued existence is to make sure that people elect officials with the correct mindset.
THE METROPOLITAN THEATER
If you are approaching Padre Burgos Street from Quiapo via the Quezon Bridge, no doubt the first thing that will come into view is the distinctively-styled Metropolitan Theater. Inaugurated in 1931, it was built near the western end of the Puente Colgante (now Quezon Bridge) on the large tract of land that was known as Plaza Arroceros.
Interestingly, it’s built near the site of a much older theater named Teatro del Principe Alfonso XII (which opened in 1862) but this earlier theater had unfortunately burned to the ground in 1876. As a consequence, there are very few maps at the time of Spanish rule in the Philippines that showed it ever existed.
I am an admirer of the architectural style known as Art Deco. And as far as Art Deco goes, the Metropolitan Theater is as much a masterpiece as it is unique among all others. The straight lines and symmetry that the style is known for has been given a distinctively tropical flavor by Filipino architect Juan Arellano, with significant contributions from Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti and Filipino artists Isabelo Tampingco and the Fernando Amorsolo.
Whereas most Art Deco buildings are monochromatic and symmetrical, the Met (as it is called) is a delightful hybridization of Asian styles, indigenous themes and the flawlessly streamlined modern design that Art Deco is known for. The mottled and various hues of the exterior exudes warmth and vibrance even as sculptures of bamboo shoots, asparagus and banana leaves exist alongside straight walls, sharp edges and rounded corners. Capiz shells seamlessly fit alongside ceramics, stained glass, concrete and metal.
Some 20 years ago when I was in high school, I remember watching a play here entitled “Ibong Adarna”. At that time, the theater was still fully functional but back then, I had no idea about the significance of this building. It’s only now that I’m beginning to imagine the scale and magnitude of the effort and talent that created this architectural masterpiece.
Sadly, the Met has fallen into neglect and disrepair. In the past few decades, it has deteriorated, brought about by a combination of water seepage at the roof, and a natural calamity (Typhoon Rosing in 1995) which exacerbated the water damage, among others. To make matters worse, it has been the subject of an ownership dispute between the GSIS and the City of Manila. As a result, the theater closed down and absolutely no action was made to maintain the facilities and make the needed repairs to further arrest the deterioration.
Without the needed funds and actual warm bodies to act as caretakers, the exterior of the building began to accumulate the dust, grime and dirt of the surrounding metropolis. Certain areas, particularly the eastern side, reek of dried urine and the walls are a mass of peeling paint and graffiti. The exquisite metal grill work is now rusting. And in places where glass panels have broken, they have been boarded up.
Yet despite all this, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty of this building. The sheer detail of the design is astounding and gives one an idea of the imagination of Arellano. Only a true artist could have envisioned this building in his mind. The privileged location of the greatness of the Met might have been diminished by neglect and the reckless construction of ill conceived structures surrounding it (chief of which is the aforementioned Park N’ Ride monstrosity), but it still catches the eye of anyone who has a sense of beauty and style.
Among the three spots discussed in this entry, the Metropolitan Theater shows the most promise in terms of being restored to its former condition and glory. Whereas the Arroceros Forsest Park and Mehan Garden have been permanently marred by building constructions, the Met is thankfully not of the same nature as the previous two and it is not in danger of being supplemented by similarly ill-conceived structures. It fully occupies the lot that it stands on and the building itself still has structural integrity. All that it needs is a major clean-up, a paint job in some areas, and some cosmetic and functional repairs.
In 2004, the GSIS and the City of Manila have set aside their differences and have entered into a tripatite agreement with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for the rehabilitation of the Met. Although millions have already been pledged for this noble effort (most notably a P50 million in funds disbursed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), it’s hard to see any improvement if one casually makes an inspection on the outside. I’m sincerely hoping that most of those millions of pesos have been spent making important repairs inside the building – including the mosquito-breeding pool reportedly at the orchestra section – and not have it all gobbled up by graft and corruption, as is typical in this country.
There is another reason to be hopeful, and it’s this: the Met just refuses to die. It has withstood much greater adversity in the past, including the infernal World War II, which utterly destroyed all its contemporaries. It has been repaired, been turned into “an ice cream parlor, boxing arena, garage, motel, gay club and eventually a squatter colony of about 50 to 70 families” before undergoing a very comprehensive and meticulous restoration with full support of former First Lady Imelda Marcos, a known patron of the arts.
Mrs. Marcos, for all her faults, truly deserves full credit for demonstrating that it is possible to bring back the Metropolitan theater to its former glory. At the same time, her example is a scathing critique of the efforts of present authorities who have had the resources and manpower for close to a decade yet haven’t reached the level of achievement of what Mrs. Marcos has achieved for the Met.
Even though I grew up in neighboring Quezon City, I have developed a profound love for Manila and have professed this many times in the past. In the course of writing this entry however, I realized that I actually am in love more with Manila’s past than what it is now.
I’m in love with the old Manila that I see in the prewar photographs, the Manila I see in the Spanish maps, the Manila as told of in the stories of Nick Joaquin and the Manila that Daniel Burnham dubbed as “the Milan of Asia”. This is a Manila that is gone forever and of which only traces remain. It is a Manila that has been damaged by ignorance, neglect and a gross lack of appreciation for its history, mostly perpetrated by populist and shortsighted politicians.
Having said this then, is there still a point in advocating for conservation of the city’s cultural and environmental heritage?
Absolutely. If anything, conservation, by its very nature, preserves and keeps alive the memory of better times. And as such, it can inspire people of the present to strive for something better. Who knows, maybe someday, every mistake and misdeed ever done to the city’s environmental and cultural heritage will be reversed and a better Manila reminiscent of its past glory might yet come out of this. But without conservationists planting the seeds, there is no hope of this ever happening.
But there is a vital condition to this. People have to be educated. After all, those who don’t see the point in conserving something will not likely support such an effort. It’s pretty easy in the case of environmental awareness. Practically everybody agrees that trees are important to everyone. It’s a different story in the case of cultural heritage. How can one possibly communicate the idea of the importance of Art Deco or Neoclassical architecture, or even just the concept of retaining wide open spaces with landscaped gardens to a populace, many of whom are homeless and are more concerned with their very survival?
Obviously, there is no easy way to undertake conservation. Social problems don’t exist in a vacuum. Fixing one part of society usually entails fixing the other parts (or all parts) at the same time. If one wants to solve the problem of homeless people in Mehan Garden, one has to be ready to spend resources to provide dignified resettlement for those people. If one wants to save trees in the Arroceros Forest Park, one has to at least do a parallel effort in looking after the welfare of people, especially those who live in poverty.
Other than suggesting that city officials and administrators do their job efficiently and plead that they put a stop to corruption, I don’t really know of any win-win solution that would allow them to balance competing human interests. How exactly can the idea of cultural and environmental conservation exist in the midst of the modern reality that the people who have the power to support conservation are the same ones who are notoriously more fixated on what would get them elected or re-elected? Again, I don’t know.
But until things get better, conservationists must always be at the forefront of every battle to preserve whatever is left of what was once a truly beautiful city. Some may be won and a lot more may be lost. But ordinary people need to see that there are those who are willing to fight for heritage even against gargantuan odds. Hopefully, they’ll get intrigued enough to ask why and seek the answers, and in the process educate themselves.
It is in this manner that the seed was planted in me. And I am hopeful that it will work just as well on others.