A short, impromptu DIY Manila walking tour
It was a sunny and windy Friday afternoon. The chaos of the city was apparent in the cars and public utility vehicles that were choking the roads, the loud voices of street vendors and their customers, the dust and honking of horns that were floating in the air. Having just been to the Presidential Museum and Library in Malacanang several minutes earlier, I was still filled with the desire to uncover more about history and the city of Manila, where many architectural treasures reside. I, together with my sister, decided to make a quick DIY walking tour and see what developments were brewing mainly in the vicinity of Calle Escolta.
Calle de Escolta (or simply Escolta), which in Spanish means “to escort”, is one of the oldest streets in the city of Manila. It used to be a thriving financial district in the 1800s, but eventually it lost its vibrancy sometime in the 1960s to Makati City. A number of heritage buildings are present there and in the surrounding areas, but they – like many in the capital – have faded into the bustling madness of 21st century cityscape. However, thanks largely to several private organizations and some government agencies, Escolta and its other neighboring streets are being revived. Albeit the process is slow, it gives hope that one day more people would come to prize and preserve these historical areas.
The brief DIY tour started the moment we got off our vehicle. The first building that greeted us was the Commercial Bank and Trust Building. This hamburger-shaped-slash-UFO-looking structure, now known as the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) Escolta Branch, was designed by Jose Maria Zaragoza.
After taking a look at the Commercial Bank and Trust Building, the streets led us to a few more locations:
First United Building, which was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, and Juan F. Nakpil in Art Deco fashion, is currently being used as a commercial building. The first level of which houses the HUB: Make Lab, a space where people can sell and buy vintage items, handmade crafts, artworks, antique pieces, and many others.
Our impromptu tour also led us far beyond the streets of Escolta, seeing the Manila Central Post Office and the world’s oldest Chinatown in the Binondo District along the way.
The city of Manila is a fascinating place: its vivid past, historical edifices, and the culture of the people who call it home make it rich. On the surface, however, it is hard to appreciate. With all its endemic problems like the ones linked to traffic, trash disposal, stray animals, pollution, and informal settlers, it’s hard to see its charms. In fact, just this May, i-Discover City Walks, a travel app, called Manila as “the ugliest city in SEAsia.” The comment garnered some angry reactions. Eventually, i-Discover City Walks later on edited the post and apologized for using the word “ugliest,” realizing that it was too harsh a word to describe the capital.
Yes, it is true that the word “ugliest” was too strong, but instead of getting all fired up and exerting all these negativities, this should be accepted as a challenge. Many who live in the city are fully aware of Manila’s failings to make the city as livable as it should be. What reactions then do we expect from tourists?
Haay, Maynila, you have so much potential but you lack – more than political will – vision and a sense of history. What do you want your people to be? What identity would you like to carve?
Distinguished architect, Paulo Alcazaren, previously pointed out that many Filipinos desire to go to Europe to see and experience its plazas, historical buildings, and grand architecture not realizing that the same can actually be found here. During the short walk around some parts of Old Manila, I saw places comparable to Amsterdam’s canals, a bridge leading to Chinatown similar to one in Berlin, plazas like those in Praha, and many others. The difference, however, is that those European locations are so much cleaner, more accessible, and are more appreciated. I’m not saying Manila should copy those foreign cities. What I’m trying to say is that the city can be so much greater than what it is now if it seriously wants to.
The city of Manila celebrated its 445th anniversary just several months back. How many centuries more would it take before it truly tackles the many problems that plague both its environment and its people? When will it significantly improve so that it can keep up with modernity while preserving its historicity?
*Another Manila walking tour (this time a longer and more comprehensive one) happened several months after this one during the Q Festival last August. Details to be posted soon.