Metro Manila’s open spaces, landmarks and monuments are disappearing faster than you can say Jai Alai! I spend my spare time tracking down missing landmarks and forgotten places in the hope that their history and current plight may be brought to light. On one such recent foray into Binondo – in search of a reported Statue of Liberty – I happened to pass through Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz. In the plaza’s condition, it might as well be called Plaza Lorenzo Ruins.
The plaza is in an advanced state of neglect. I walked around and in it to check its condition in detail. The two fountains that mark the original space are damaged and have no water in them at all. The two markers commemorating Tomas Pinpin and the Fil-Chinese guerillas of World War II look destitute and in dire need of a cleanup. Finally, Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz himself stands awkwardly at one end of the lozenge-shaped plaza guarding not the souls of the religious but the laundry of the homeless who have made the plaza their home.
The plaza today is a far cry from when it was known as Plaza Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Its history goes back to the origins of Binondo as an arrabal or suburb of Manila. The Spaniards, ever so wary of the Chinese, sought to control them by physically containing them in their own quarter. This was not unusual as a strategy in colonial cities of Asia. The British and Dutch also did this with local populations in their settlements of Singapore and Batavia (Jakarta).
The Chinese in Manila were first resettled just outside the gates on the northeastern side of Intramuros, where the Mehan Gardens and the Metropolitan are (at least the last time I looked). They were eventually sent across the Pasig River where the districts of Binondo and San Nicolas were established. The patterns of building there were not as controlled as the grid pattern within the walls of Intramuros. This and the shape of the numerous esteros that emptied into the river made for odd-shaped building blocks and plazas.
The biggest of these was the plaza fronting the Binondo Church. The church and parish was run by the Dominican order. The church itself, an important landmark, was completed in 1854. Trade increased shortly thereafter and many handsome buildings rose around the plaza. The most elegant of these commercial establishments was the La Insular Tobacco and Cigarette factory, a filigreed construction of stone and cast iron.
|"La Vida Es Sueno"|
The plaza was named after Pedro Calderon de la Barca, a noted Spanish playwright of the 17th century, the golden age of Spanish literature. He was prolific, writing over a hundred comedies and 70 "autos" (not cars but religious plays) among other literary contributions which included discourses into art.
Most famous of his works is La Vida es Sueno (Life is a Dream), which deals with the themes of free will and predestination. His work influenced other writers like Goethe and Wagner. He may have been a favorite read of the Governor General at the time or of the Dominicans that the plaza was named after him. (A smaller plaza nearby was named after Cervantes of the Don Quixote fame).
Binondo thrived even more going into the American period as business boomed and the city grew. The city’s initial spurt was in fact northward. Increased train traffic and numerous suburban residential developments filled the corridor northward. Calles Rosario, Juan Luna and Avenida Rizal served as spines for daily movements of people and goods. Plaza Calderon de la Barca was a busy node as were most of the major plazas in old Manila. The pulse of the city and the nation could be felt in these urban nodes.
|The Plaza Plummets|
Much of Binondo was damaged in the war but the plazas and some key buildings survived. Binondo Church was restored with new murals on its ceilings. The church was also where San Lorenzo Ruiz served as a sacristan. He also worked as a clerk in the parish office before he went off to Japan (even then we were exporting Filipinos) on missionary work. He was canonized in 1989. The plaza was renamed after him shortly thereafter.
By the 1980s, the plaza was already on the decline. Though there was a period of recovery after the war, the 1960s saw an exodus of businesses to the newer districts of Makati and Cubao. Binondo was getting more crowded and traffic was unbearable. The old plazas like Plaza Cervantes and Goiti were cleared of almost all landscapes to make way for cars and jeepneys. Plazas became parking spaces and pedestrians lost any access to open space and greenery.
Since Plaza Calderon de la Barca was large, it became the repository of displaced monuments. The obelisk of Tomas Pinpin, originally erected in 1911 at Plaza Cervantes, was moved there in 1970. A circular deck structure was erected with offices underneath. Another marker was put up in 1995 to commemorate the Fil-Chinese guerillas killed in the war. By the 1990s, with the Lorenzo Ruiz statue, the plaza looked like a crowded parking lot for monuments and markers.
|Recovering Plazas And Civic Pride|
A local bank stepped in to fix and maintain the plaza. The sign still stands, which acknowledges the bank for having reconstructed and maintaining Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz for the people of Manila. The trouble is that today, the sign itself is rusting away and the park and plaza are run-down and in a sorry state of neglect. It is probably waiting for the next elections, photo opportunity or transfer of obelisk.
Much can be done with a cleanup and proper landscape architectural redesign. The lower branches of mature trees could be trimmed to expose the most important elements of the plaza. The original fountains should be revived and lit at night. Tomas Pinpin’s obelisk could be returned to its original site (Plaza Cervantes is not as busy anymore). The Fil-Chinese marker or San Lorenzo Ruiz could take a place of prominence in the middle of the plaza/park on top of the circular deck, which could serve as its base.
Open spaces are starting to make a comeback in cities. Examples of cooperation between city governments and NGOs have resulted in projects like Plaza Lawton. Lawton is a small step that could lead to more sustained recovery of heritage.
Elegant urban design and a rejuvenated civic pride can only be achieved if citizens take a stake in how their surroundings look and are maintained. We have more plazas and open spaces like Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz that need to be saved. It need not take a miracle from heaven – just enough will and common sense from earthbound mortals like us.
And oh yes, I did find that reported "Statue of Liberty" I was looking for. But I’ll leave that for next week’s article.
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"The Society Auction," will take place at Le Souffle, Fort Bonifacio, this Saturday, April 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The country’s top artists, including Anita Magsaysay Ho, Napoleon Abueva, Solomon Saprid, Ramon Orlina, Bencab and Sanso, among others, have donated works to be auctioned. There will also be antique prints and photographs. Tessa Prieto Valdez and John Silva will emcee. Tickets are at P1000 each, which includes cocktails and one raffle ticket. Call 521-22-39 for reservations.
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