The End of Manila

SOME years ago, the motto of the city of Manila was “Buhayin ang MayniLA (Revive ManiLA),” an attempt by then Mayor Jose Atienza Jr. to resurrect the urban mess by the bay, and a thinly-veiled excuse to put his initials on every piece of public property.

That the motto has now been changed to “Linisin Ikarangal Maynila (Clean up and honor Manila)” reflects not just the political fortunes of Manila, but also the grim fact that the city is a dead end. The best we can hope for, really, is to keep it clean until the next mayor comes up with another clever motto that incorporates both his name and some abstract civic virtue.

Even then, we cannot hold our breaths for either because no play on words can change the fact that this is the end of Manila.

By sheer force of will, the city will remain the seat of government and the arbiter of Filipino culture, but it will no longer be the Manila of Rizal. It’s not even the city of the Hotdog song of the same name, come to that. Manila, Manila/ I keep coming back to Manila, they sang in the ’70s, deserves the question, more than thirty years later, of why bother? Manila will come to you eventually.

True to form, Imperialistic Manila is no longer even just one city, but a tenuous alliance of sixteen cities and one town, each far larger than its last native king could ever have dreamt of.

Created in 1976, Metro Manila forced together Quezon City and Manila with municipalities and cities torn from the provinces of Rizal and Bulacan. Thirty three years later, the conceptual Manila has eaten up vast tracts of land in Laguna, Bulacan and Cavite, and the urban sprawl will keep on spreading until it covers the island of Luzon. At which point, it is hoped, the entire land mass will simply sink into the sea from the sheer weight of it all.

Surrounded on all sides by itself, Manila has become a dead culture, endlessly reenacting old Bembol Roco flicks of provincial lads heading to the city to find their fortune (or a barrio sweetheart who has broken off contact.) Conveniently forgetting that Roco’s character dies in the end, often after finding out that his sweetheart has been either forced to work in a sweatshop or into prostitution. Rape usually comes into it at some point, as well as establishing shots of slums and depressing city streets. Success stories are in the minority while tales of heartbreak and tragedy are so commonplace you can pretty much map the general plot on a flowchart.

It’s not just a matter of population, either. Although a ballooning population scrabbling for limited resources is a factor. Former Mayor Lito Atienza did, after all, ban contraceptives in his city (another aspect, it seems, of Buhayin ang MayniLA).

But blaming Manila’s problems on a need for a Malthusian culling of the herd does not quite illustrate the sheer lack of planning that went into the whole thing.

Seventeen mayors acting independently, and an overall chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority insisting on putting his imprimatur (and U-turn slots) on everything is like the old Indian tale of the blind men describing an elephant.

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope and so on. In the Manila version of the tale, however, the blind men actually try to put together an elephant to inevitable failure.

How else can you explain, for example, surrounding an oil depot with slums that catch on fire with the regularity of Manila Bay’s tides? Or allowing shanties to line railroad tracks, or building posh villages within a stone’s throw from power plants and international airports? Or, for that matter, having different sets of traffic rules along one hopelessly clogged and depressing highway?

Metro Manila is like Joseph’s technicolor dream coat, but after said Joseph had been beaten up by his brothers and thrown down a well. In a megacity where zoning refers more to a method of keeping warring gangs within their territories than of urban planning, hilarity (but more likely criminality) is sure to ensue.

Admittedly, Manila comes from a time when urban planning was more about worrying about keeping pirates and insurgents out and the primary concern was where to put a restive population of Chinese immigrants (within range of cannon, as it turned out.) And, really, the city belongs there.

Daniel Burnham and Manuel Quezon tried to enforce a semblance of planning, but one cannot effectively plan for chaos. If the continued existence of the MMDA is any indication, Manila is still, and will always be, in a state of development. Which is to say we are not getting anywhere.

Atienza’s vain hope of ressurrecting Manila ended with his term, leaving no significant changes, and his slogan was eventually painted over. And one dares not blame the man because the metro’s problems are beyond one man, and, ultimately, beyond all hope. Short of demolishing everything and starting anew, no solution presents itself except to stay away, or abandon hope all ye who enter here.

It is not too late, however, for the rest of the country’s cities and municipalities. Although the phenomenon of urban sprawl has already started in Cebu, Davao and Baguio, a drastic change now would not be as painful or impossible.

There is still a chance for the cities long neglected by Imperial, solipsistic Manila to develop into proper urban centers that do not force factories to coexist with residential areas. The country has thousands of islands that can be turned into self-sufficient communities that will no longer feel the need to send its youth out to dash their hopes against the rocky sea wall of Manila Bay.


Submitted in 2008 (to no avail) as an entry to the UP Visayas Writers’ Workshop.

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One response to “The End of Manila

  1. Gets ko kung bakit di pumasa sa workshop. Not enough navel-gazing, not enough regional angst. It’s about Manila, for chrissakes. Captain Obvious, away!

    (I like it though. I can detect your voice in it but I think it’s stronger now.)

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