Zooming in on Cebu

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - November 25, 2006 - 12:00am
Last week’s article brought a lot of feedback. Two of the several e-mails I received over the weekend reflect readers’ interest in how much cleaner and greener our cities were in the past. Nostalgia is sometimes a biased lens, through which we remember the past, but the pictures printed last week and ones that came with feedback this week prove that we did have wider, more spacious surroundings in our immediate past.
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The first e-mail is from MI, a Cebuano whose memories of old Cebu were triggered by the images printed last week.

"Thank you for your article ‘Zoom Zoom Cebu’ on Nov. 18, and the pictures of Cebu City scenes that accompanied it. The pictures stirred long-forgotten memories of my boyhood in Cebu City. I was born and grew up in the city during the late ‘20s, through the ‘30s and ‘40s.Those years were indeed memorable.

"Jones Avenue (which was Juan Luna St. when I was a boy) was not the ‘60s wide, cemented and fancy avenue shown in one of your pictures. It was a long, narrow asphalted road with promenades on both its sides with tall leafy and shady acacia trees. Every afternoon, in fair weather, a water truck from the fire department would run the length of the street sprinkling it with water. It was a clean and beautiful street.

"Jones Avenue began, I think, from the Fuente Osmena. It ran south with the Southern Islands Hospital (now renamed Vicente Sotto Hospital), passing the Cebu Provincial High School (now Abellana Hgh School), the City Intermediate School, crossing Del Rosario St. the railroad tracks, Sanciangco St. down to the corner of Colon St. on the right side.

"On the left side of Jones Avenue from the Fuente were bungalow-type residential houses. It crossed Arlington Pond St. going on to the Emerson Dormitory for girls, the Presbyterian Evangelical Church, the Snead Dormitory for boys, on to the mansion of Don Vicente Gullas, then residential houses for Constabulary officers, then the Cebu Constabulary Headquarters, the Cebu Normal School, the Cebu Normal Playgrond and a football field.

"Jones continued past P. Del Rosario St. after which it was lined with stores,  beauty shops and a typing vocational school. Then it continued past Sanciangco St. down to Colon St. where the Vision Theater stands, then owned and operated by Mr. John Gokongwei Sr., father of taipan John Gokongwei.

"We lived just across the Presbyterian Evangelical Church. My playmates and I were on the watch for weddings scheduled in that church. We made it a point to attend the wedding. No one drove us out of the church, even dressed as we were in soiled shorts and camisetas and wooden clogs. We waited for the wedding ceremony to end. The high point for us was when the groom kissed the bride on the lips. After which, on our way home, we’d tell each other how the groom took the bride in his arms and how the bride closed her eyes, just like in the movies.

"I finished elementary school through grade seven at the Cebu Normal School. High school for me was only up to the third year in the all-boys Colegio de San Carlos (now University of San Carlos) because World War II erupted in December 1941.

"Fuente Osmena became our venue for roller skating in our teens. What made skating fun and enduring was the presence of pretty girls from the nearby St. Theresa’s College along Redemptorist Road. Memories run wild in my mind. To tell them would make this letter lengthier than intended. Nostaglia makes me yearn for those years that were simple, peaceful and happy. I’m now 80 years young, a lawyer long retired, married with children and grandchildren. My boyhood memories keep me company. Again, thank you for giving time to Cebu City and sharing your pictures with us."

Well MI, I wish my memories of years past were as clear as yours. It is important for urban historians to document accounts such as yours. My research work is hampered by a dearth of resources – even the images you saw last week came to me by accident through a souvenir book published after the third Philippine Eucharistic Congress held in Cebu in 1965.
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The next e-mail I got was from my brother, Gene, who lives in Florida.
He did not send me an account of Cebu – though we both spent our summers in the ‘60s there (our folks would send us to my grandmother for a month in Cebu City, Argao or Sibonga – where my uncle priest was assigned).

What he forwarded was a photo file that seems to have been widely circulated over the Net. The pictures seem to have been taken by an American who was assigned here in the early ‘70s and some of the captions are wrong. They are reprinted here with the corrections and some context.

The early Seventies marked a shift from the old center of Manila to the new suburb of Makati. Most of the pictures were of the rising district. The move south was two decades in the making. Makati was a post-war phenomenon that started as a swampy piece of fringe land. It was developed with the vision of it becoming an alternative site to the old center and the planned new capital in Quezon City.

The old downtown had become dingy in the late ‘60s and Quezon City lost its initial steam as a new capital by then, too – saddled as it was with lack of funds to consolidate enough land for the institutions it was supposed to house. Makati was the only alternative with modern amenities, wide boulevards and posh residential neighborhoods around it. It also had alternative sites for light industries and even tracts of affordable housing at its periphery.

In 1970, the population of Metro Manila (or Greater Manila Area – GMA – as it was known then) was still only a bit past two million people. Today it is over five times that at 10 million-plus harassed (and still-billboard-threatened – via a disturbing DPWH ruling that has lifted the current ban) souls. The metropolis has obviously become denser, dirtier and definitely less delightful.

The same goes for second cities like Cebu and Davao. We have not learned to manage growth (physically and population-wise). Rational city plans are non-existent or otherwise abandoned to pressures from short-sighted real estate development or political agenda. Visual blight is ubiquitous and sound, noise and air pollution are still prevalent and plentiful despite supposed laws controlling them.

Thanks to both readers who sent the e-mails. Nostalgia does have a function. It is to compare relative states of places and people so as to gauge change or the lack of it, improvement or deterioration, evolution or regression. Pictures don’t lie. Our task is to find directions for positive change and to be able to – picture it first – then take a picture of it later as absolute proof.

The real test for our urban futures would be if, 30 years from now, I don’t find myself writing some handsome columnist at the Philippine Star to wax nostalgic about when Manila and Cebu of the early 21st century was cleaner, greener and friendlier than the 50-million population Megalopolitan-Southern Luzon of 2036.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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