What’s in a name?
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - January 31, 2004 - 12:00am
One thing that sharply defines our modern urban lives is change. We live in a city – in fact, in a world – that mutates faster than Filipino politicians change parties. Recently, Metro Manilans woke up to the news that the historic Taft Avenue may change its name to Sen. Jose W. Diokno Avenue. Although the good senator lived a distinguished and public service-filled life, he may be honored in other ways that do not erode the already-decimated heritage of Manila.

Our urban heritage lies not only in buildings, churches, parks and plazas. Streets and street names are also part of the historic, multi-layered fabric of our city and metropolitan culture. Like artifacts, sites, edifices, the names of streets and places are additional links to our roots and, hence, our cultural identity.

Changing such familiar and famous names as Quiapo, Binondo, Sta. Cruz, Sta. Ana, Paco, Intramuros, Ermita or Malate is inconceivable, but in the past few decades, streets and plazas in the city seem to be fair game.

Thankfully, no one has dared to change the old street names in Intramuros, although the heritage of that site is suffering the indignity of revisionist history, as told in DOT’s current son et lumiere show. However, a lot of Quiapo, Sta. Cruz and Paco had gone through street name changes: Azcarraga to Claro M. Recto, San Sebastian to R. Hidalgo, etc.
Origins Of Street Names
The original street names in Ermita and Malate, subdivided in the early American colonial period, are also gone now – streets like Vermont, Florida and Dakota, which were named after the home states of the army volunteers who came over to fight in the Philippine/Spanish/American war. In fact, most of 20th-century Manila evolved in the American era and street names reflected this phase in our history.

The elegant Burnham plan for Manila was prepared in 1905 as the framework of a modern democratic capital. It provided for a strong central government complex (at the Luenta) from which emanated several radial avenues (called fluvia in ancient Roman city building tradition). The main artery north crossed the Pasig and was based on an older Spanish era road to Dulungbayan, the edge of 19th-century Manila. That artery was named Avenida Rizal. A seaside boulevard was proposed to link the city with Cavite and all points south – this was named Dewey after the admiral who defeated the Spanish armada in that little moro-moro over a century ago.

A parallel avenue to Dewey Boulevard was one of these "fluvia." Most of modern Paco, Ermita and Malate saw development in the early 20th century with the building of the University of the Philippines, the Philippine General Hospital, the Bureau of Science and several schools, along with well-ordered residential blocks.

All this construction was part of the effort of the American government to establish a modern city and jump start the country’s economy and political system. The man in charge of this initial spurt in civic building was William Howard Taft.
William Howard Taft: Tough Administrator
as sidelined first by a cabinet position under Theodore Roosevelt, then by a posting as governor-general of the islands, and finally by his election as the 20th president of the United States. He only became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the last decade of his life (he died in 1930).

Taft was a better administrator than a lawyer in spite of this aspiration. His posting as governor general of the Philippine Islands was historically important because he was tasked with establishing the first civil government after the Philippine-American war. (In some ways, he was what Paul Bremer is in Iraq today.)

Although resistance to American hegemony persisted till 1915, Taft set up programs for education, sanitation, civic building and (partial) democratic participation. He was seen as sympathetic to Filipinos (although he was not for immediate independence), in contrast to the previous stern and blunt military rule the country was under in the first three years of American rule.

Taft and his wife Nellie were the first to invite Filipinos to Malacañang socials and, eventually, were popularly received countrywide, bolstered to no small extent by his jovial nature (he was bemustached and had a Santa Claus-like build). Although his stay lasted only till 1904, Taft’s influence extended to 1912 or until he left the US presidency. Taft made sure his programs were pursued in the Philippines by his successor, the redoubtable William Cameron Forbes (they loved three-barreled names in those days).

Taft, indeed, was a key figure in our history and he did much for both the city’s and the country’s development – at least in the light of that phase of our history. The metropolis grew in that period – streets, plazas and parks were built and named after personages of that era. Taft Avenue got its name as Taft became president of the US and it was widened according to the Burnham plan. The name is over 90 years old. Millions have oriented their daily lives to the avenue as a tranvia route in the pre-war days, then as a jeepney route, and finally as an LRT route in the post-war period.
Landmark Figure
This landmark status as an avenue of history (both personal and social) is important for all cities and their citizens. We orient ourselves historically and physically to elements such as these and steer ourselves based on their permanence and cultural value.

The mass eradication of names and places is the hallmark of repressive regimes and insecure cultures. It is far more politically correct and socially mature to acknowledge the importance that each and every phase of our history has to the construction of our contemporary identities and our modern physical realities.

The physical reality of Metro Manila is not pretty but it never stops changing. The city never sleeps and huge new districts (like the reclaimed areas) are being developed. Residential and commercial districts are being carved out of former brownfields (old factory sites in Marikina and Mandaluyong). These parts of the city will generate new (widened or reconfigured but hopefully tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly) streets. They all should generate new parks and plazas (although few are built). All these will give opportunities for appropriate names that will honor the women and men in our more-recent history.

Changing street names was banned under a policy of the city government a few years ago. Such changes only confuse people and lead to unnecessary costs for everyone (countless stationary, maps, street signs, tourist brochures, directories, and calling cards have to be changed). It is bad enough that we are losing our built heritage (about a building a day). Changing street names will erase more of our ever-shortening communal memory, casting us adrift in an already direction-challenged society.

Senators and congressmen must look for better things to do. Although no amount of reminding will help them forget politics, at least they should leave historic street names well enough alone. Maybe all this renaming and over-legislating (we have countless bills) cover up actual accomplishments of the government. We can’t seem to improve our lives so we rename everything to ease the pain. If a scandal or disaster happens, we name a committee to find out what happened. If the police or military fail in their tasks, they are reorganized and reassigned. If government officials fail in a position, they are reassigned in newly-named or renamed offices and given newly-concocted positions (special consultant to the task force, to the blue-ribbon committee, to the office of the president/mayor/councilor perhaps?).

So, what’s in all this renaming? Well, there’s a name for it – a waste of time.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at citysensephilstar@hotmnail.com.

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