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Zumba, durian and the Magsaysay Park in Davao

Magsaysay Park is a landmark site on Davao City’s waterfront.

This week we continue with our series on Philippine plazas and parks with a return to Mindanao. We previously featured plazas in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and General Santos. For this and next Saturday we visit Davao City, home of the current President of the Philippines.

I’ve been to Davao a number of times, the first time in 1999, to attend its famous Kadayawan Festival. Each visit since, I’ve noted the rapid urban growth of the city.  It is now the anchor of a huge metropolitan agglomeration called Metro Davao that includes Digos, Tagum, Panabo, Samal, Carmen and Santa Cruz.

Metro Davao is huge, about eight times the size of Metro Manila. It has a waterfront like Manila and a resort island like Metro Cebu. Both Metro Davao’s waterside and the island of Samal have yet to get anywhere near their full potential, though plans are afoot for ambitious projects in both areas.

That said, Davao does have plazas and parks in much better proportion to its urban population compared to that of Metro Manila or Metro Cebu. We look at the first park that caught my attention because of the 25-meter tall landmark that is a memorial to President Ramon Magsaysay.

Magsaysay Park sits off its eponymous avenue at the edge of the city’s Chinatown. It is a green oasis fronting the water between Davao and Samal, right beside the Santa Ana Wharf. The three-hectare site appears to be reclaimed land, probably for a port area project in the late 1950s. Similar projects were being planned or constructed in Manila and Cebu in the ‘50s to the ‘70s.

When Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash in 1957, the whole nation mourned. Many memorials to the beloved president were built afterwards. Davao’s local chapter of the Philippine Veterans Legion raised funds for its own memorial. It was finished in July of 1960. The local government of Davao has managed the three-hectare site from that point on.

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The central core of the park is the memorial to President Ramon Magsaysay. It was designed in a style typical of the late 1950s, influenced by a “sputnik” futurist bent. The memorial consists of a trylon, a tapering obelisk on a tripod containing a life-size statue of President Magsaysay below the apex.

The memorial’s obelisk is reminiscent of the ill-fated addition to the Rizal Monument designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan Nakpil about the same time. Nakpil’s tower was of steel but the Magsaysay memorial is in reinforced concrete. The steel extension to the Rizal monument was removed shortly after completion after public outcry. The Magsaysay monument’s design did not compromise any existing memorial so it has endured. I can find no attribution for the design of the memorial.

The memorial stands in a large rotunda elevated from the rest of the park.





Fronting the memorial is a 1,000-sq. meter paved area ending in another rotunda, which used to be a skating rink (when the sport was popular). The paved area is popular among locals for morning Zumba class.

In the upper eastern corner of the park is an open amphitheater similar to the one at Rizal Park. A five-meter wide esplanade links this amphitheater to the other end of the park. The esplanade apparently ran much longer, to the edge of the site, or about 250-meters, but half of it seems to have been appropriated for several government offices related to tourism.

In front of these offices is a large children’s playground, a restaurant, parking area and a site for fruit kiosks, famous for durian, that line the outside of the western perimeter of the part. The park also hosts a small open-air chapel dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Pilar beside the esplanade. In one corner of the park is an Abueva sculture, a relief called the Pamathalaan Marker, “a symbol of the Mindanaoans commitment to Pamathalaan or God-centered Governance.”

The park is defined on its north side by the historic Sta. Ana Wharf, where Japanese migrant workers first landed in 1903. The Japanese helped develop the abaca industry in the region. The wharf has been expanded and improved several times since. There is a standing proposal for an even bigger expansion and extension for the facility, which involves the construction of mixed-use waterside development.

South of the park is a large informal settlement district that reaches down to the mouth of the Davao River. There appear to be some projects planned for urban redevelopment, relocation of informals and improvements under a PPP arrangement, but this will take a decade or so to come to fruition.

In the meanwhile Magsaysay Park is well used by the public and is a tourism draw. I would rate the park a 6.5 out of 10. The monument and the park facilities could use a makeover. While on my visit I had to use the public comfort rooms, which were less than comfortable. There is a good nursery on site but the general landscape of the park is a tad messy and worn out. The playground has also seen better days and the fruit kiosks could be better integrated with the park.

Finally, the esplanade, or sea wall as the locals call it, is a lost opportunity. This could be extended and improved with the relocation of those government offices. This is a problem nationwide with local or national governments erecting structures on parkland or plazas, which by definition should be green or open.

Overall, Magsaysay Park is still worth a visit if you’re a lover of Durian, a fan of Magsaysay, mid-century memorials, or Zumba early in the morning. Next week we look at Davao’s central civic space and the much larger People’s Park.

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