Who will save Manila?

Milwida M. Guevara Milwida M. Guevara

I have not visited Escolta, Rizal Avenue and Quiapo for 18 long years. And so I thought that a perfect way to spend my birthday was to walk down memory lane. My three angels, Chingkel, Minie, and Annie volunteered to spend the day with me. Dressed for the occasion in jeans and rubber shoes, we relived history. I served as the story teller.

We had mixed feelings of nostalgia and sadness when we passed by traces and remnants of what used to be greatness. The sidewalks of Escolta used to be made of cobblestone. Now, they are dirty with splatters of rubbish. The Lyric theater where we used to see movies while cutting classes is no longer there. And so is Oceanic which had the finest crystal and watches on display. Once upon a city, there was Villar Records where Beatles' fanatics can wear headphones inside a booth and listen to their records. Soriente Santos was the uppity store which housed the finest shirts for men. I used to stand in front of the glass shelves of Yatco's dreaming when I would be able to wear their elegant bracelets. Armed with my savings, I spent Saturday afternoons browsing over the books at Bookmark. Years ago, we went window shopping at Bergs and Assandas, bought shirts from Crispa, and passed by the stately PNB building. All that is left now is Mang Luis' pen store where fountain pens can be repaired. In their stead are small stores which look cheap, seedy and shady.

Sta. Cruz, Avenida Rizal and Carriedo have now become a Divisoria of all sorts. There are no sidewalks, and instead, a phalanx of vendors and hawkers has taken over. Name it, you have it there: fruits, vegetables, cheap copies of DVDs, blaring videokes, T-shirts, jammies and roasted chestnuts. The scent of fake perfume blends with the stench of garbage and human sweat. The building which housed Good Earth Emporium where we had our first escalator ride still stands, but it looks just ready to crumble. The old landmarks like Corona Bazaar, Otis and Madison Department stores are no more. And so is Ever theater where we queued up to watch "The Sound of Music" and "Cleopatra."

The streets have been made narrow by people who are sleeping, cooking, and going about their business in their own tents. They have converted the avenues into their homes. You have to fend for yourself all the time, lest you be run over by jeepneys and motorcycles. No traffic enforcer or policeman is in sight, and, one wonders how disorder has taken over.

Amidst all the chaos, the beautiful and historical facade of buildings, as well as fountains that are as elegant as those in Rome, stand silent witnesses of the premier city that once Manila was. I am afraid though that they would be demolished one day without any effort to restore them to their former grandeur. The character which Manila used to have would give way to commercialism and greed. This is the surest way to erode our values and sense of identity.

Manila needs a renaissance, a rebirth. It has to recapture the pride, the vigor and the discipline which our people used to have. And we have shining examples of how it can be done. The political will of President FVR and a group of concerned citizens headed by Mr. Ramon Del Rosario converted dilapidated buildings into the National Museum that has become our National Treasure. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian with the support of residents transformed Valenzuela from a sleeping city into a bustling and disciplined metropolis. And so did Mayor Bayani Fernando in the case of Marikina. The story of Riverwalk and Esplanade in Iloilo city demonstrates how urban renewal can spur economic growth and cultural development.

The transformation of Manila can take a number of years. But it can happen with political will, community engagement, and policy changes. The change process can be powered by small steps, and small wins. What is important is to begin.