Manila: The City that Might Have Been

With more than 10 million people, Metro Manila is the sixth largest city in Asia, a sprawling megalopolis that perhaps more than any other in Southeast Asia has become a symbol of urban chaos, mismanagement and decay.

Anyone familiar with the city knows about its gated compounds for the wealthy in protected suburbs surrounded by squalid squatter settlements.

Once a jewel of a harbor, Manila Bay is these days usually shrouded from view by clouds of dense air pollution. The longstanding and painful fact that thousands of people live atop garbage dumps in parts of the metropolis as they eke out a living from smoldering trash heaps is a poignant reminder of the city's failure to manage its explosive growth.

I have lived at various times in Manila over the course of some 30 years. And it was always this way. A jumble of painful neglect punctuated by liveliness inspired, one imagines, by the need of its residents simply to survive. I admire the tiny shops that spring up selling roast chicken or repairing flat tires for a few pesos, but while other Asian cities have become hubs of progress, Manila has gone from being the cosmopolitan heart of Southeast Asia in the 1950s to being a place often feared and loathed by both travelers and residents. But I like it.

No, I love it, not because it glitters with efficiency like Singapore or is finding a way to cope with the messiness of massive growth to build a new urban landscape like modern Bangkok. I love it because its citizens persevere with such good humor despite a lack of urban planning, the abandonment of most of what must have once been elegant about the city's public spaces and the fact that it is hard to imagine Manila ever getting much better.

The broad avenues that once traversed the city with a certain grace now seem a distant memory. Not too many years ago, Roxas Boulevard along Manila Bay was a picturesque and sweeping avenue before it lost most of its view of the water to reclaimed land projects at the same time that many of the stately structures on the land side of the boulevard decayed from neglect.

Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or EDSA, where the four-day People Power revolt against then President Ferdinand Marcos unfolded in 1986, is now a nightmarish collection of grey concrete overpasses, fuming buses and gnarled traffic. When I was there in 1986 it was still possible to walk along the highway; none but the foolish would dare do so today.

The Pasig River, which empties into the bay and was the reason Manila was founded there centuries ago, was the heart of transport and development until World War II. It has long been abandoned by both business and the wealthy and is now considered biologically dead; the smell of decay rising from its blackened waters in the dry season can be overpowering. In the rainy season, its many tributaries and creeks, long blocked by chaotic development and lined with squatter shanties, are unable to drain properly, and flooding is a constant problem.

But coming here more than 30 years ago fresh out of university and with little money in my pocket, I learned the contours of this remarkable mess of a city from the backs of jeepneys, the inside of chaotic buses and on foot. I would walk from Taft Avenue in the Malate district near Manila Bay toward the old downtown district of Quiapo along the Pasig River, where even today one can still make out the remnants of what the country's second colonial conqueror, the United States, had in mind for what was then a quaint, semi-rural Spanish-colonial city.

Putting aside the wisdom of America's colonial adventure in Asia more than a hundred years ago, it is still remarkable — and now somehow tragic — to consider the master plan for Manila conceived by Daniel Burnham, the famed Chicago architect who rebuilt Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Few people today know it, but Burnham designed a plan for Manila with grand boulevards, green spaces and neo-classical architecture, only a fraction of which was ever built.

I still marvel at the open space of Manila's Plaza Lawton near the Pasig River (now called Liwasang Bonifacio) and the central post office, which was intended to be the end point of Taft Avenue, a street once lined with massive acacia trees for several kilometers from the post office to the boundary with Pasay City to the south. Designed in classical style by Filipino architect Juan Arellano in 1934, the post office is still there and still wonderful, even if it is surrounded on all sides by traffic and fumes. The acacia trees are, of course, long gone and Taft Avenue has been largely left to decay in the shadow of the city's light rail transport system.

Near the central post office, a bus terminal obscures the view of the abandoned Manila Metropolitan Theater, another of Arellano's architectural jewels. Built in 1935 as an art-deco showpiece with gilded statues, grillwork of birds of paradise and stained glass, it was rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II. For decades it drew crowds when the center of Manila life was on the Escolta, the once-posh downtown shopping district that in the 1950s still drew shoppers from Singapore and Hong Kong for the quality and style of its stores. Imelda Marcos renovated the theater in the 1980s but it soon fell into disrepair, largely because potential paying customers more accustomed to a night out at five-star hotels in Makati considered the neighborhood inconvenient. It was closed in 1996 and successive government plans to reopen it or turn it into a museum have yet to bear fruit.


Other echoes of what might have been remain, such as the Mehan Garden, a former botanical garden during the Spanish colonial period that was a public park until it was abandoned to decay and controversy in the 1960s. Paco Park, a tiny circle of vegetation in old Manila was a cemetery during the Spanish period and is now an oasis of greenery and one of the few quiet places in the city. Rizal Park, long the city's only real public park and the site of the execution by the Spanish of national hero Jose Rizal in 1896, remains. When I lived in the area, I enjoyed long walks in the park despite warnings from Filipino friends who feared it was unsafe because of the crowds of beggars and squatters.

The nadir of the city's senseless decay was the demolition in 2000 of the Manila Jai Alai Stadium on Taft Avenue to make way for a municipal courthouse that was never built. American architect Welton Becket, who also designed the original Los Angeles airport and many homes for Hollywood stars, designed the four-story Jai Alai building. Opened in 1940, the Manila Jai Alai's glistening, cylindrical glass front was supposed to evoke the velocity of the Basque game after which it was named, and that was once a craze in Manila.

Adjacent to the old Congress building, Jai Alai's Sky Room was the place to see and be seen in its day and walking by the abandoned structure years ago it seemed to me like one of those magical buildings like the Raffles Hotel in Singapore that captures an entire era. A spirited campaign to save the building was ignored by former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, who decried the structure as a reminder of gambling and other vices, despite the presence of numerous government-owned casinos in the city.

John L. Silva, a member of Manila's small network of preservationists, told Asiaweek magazine at the time: "Every time we tear down an old structure, particularly one that resonates with history and milestones, we as a people lose another marker that explains who we are as a nation, where we came from and where we are going."

The former national Congress building, the abandoned Manila City Hall and a handful of other neo-classical structures from the Burnham plan still remain near the end of Taft Avenue, but the area is no longer a destination for government activity or much of anything else except chaotic traffic, and few people visit the structures.

What lingers is a reminder of what might have been had the commonwealth administration of President Manuel L. Quezon not scuttled the Burnham plan in the 1930s. Burnham envisioned a capital city of parks and buildings that would become the heart of the capital, with neighborhoods fanning out from the center near the bay. Quezon instead opted to move the seat of government to a city he created in his own name in what was then rural land far north of Manila. Ever since the creation of Quezon City, what became Metro Manila has gradually lost its heart, becoming like Los Angeles without the infrastructure.

While the charm of the city now lies in its interior spaces and oddball gems, like the scenes of penitents marching up the aisle of Quiapo church on their knees in search of salvation, the overall effect of total decentralization has been a mess. Quezon City never became a proper capital and its national government buildings are poorly maintained. The Presidential Palace remains in old Manila. The House of Representatives is in Quezon City and the Senate is stuck on an out-of -the-way piece of reclaimed land in Manila Bay. It can take an hour or more to drive between the two legislative bodies.

After the destruction of World War II, the center of commerce and business gradually moved to the vast property development that became Makati, a brilliant plan hatched by the Ayala family to transfer the wealth of the city to an entirely new series of communities. The gated "villages" of Makati isolated the wealthy from the chaos of the urban landscape and allowed for the construction of an efficiently run commercial hub under the control of the Ayala Corporation. I suspect that the truly powerful, rarely forced to see the steady decay of the metropolis, easily put it out of mind.

Meanwhile, governance was in the hands of the 17 cities and municipalities that now make up Metro Manila. Attempts to manage the sprawl through a central authority have been hampered by political rivalries and bureaucratic infighting. The current central body, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), has no control over water systems, taxation or public transport.

"The central government controls the financing, construction, and maintenance of roads and bridges. MMDA is in charge of garbage disposal but provinces and municipalities will not allow it to set up sanitary landfills or dumps within their territories," according to a report by the Asian Development Bank, Managing Asian Cities, released in 2008. The result, a portion of the report concludes, is a "disjointed and fragmented setup [that] also abets parochial behavior and negates the agglomeration benefits of effective metropolitan governance."

In other words, no one is in charge. That leaves a lot of quirkiness and pluck to admire, but it also puts Manila and its environs near the bottom of the heap in terms of livability. Me? I plan to retire there. How to explain love?

This piece first appeared in Global Asia.