A plaza and a traveling fountain
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2016 - 9:00am

Last week we took a look at the first plaza in Manila for this continuing series on key urban spaces and parks in the country. Before we venture to the provinces again, we will look at two more key plazas of the capital, the Plaza Sta. Cruz and its immediate neighbor, Plaza Lacson (the original Plaza Goiti). We will visit the larger of the two this week and continue next week for the second in the tandem.

The Santa Cruz district is one of the oldest and an original arrabales (borough) of Manila. Sta. Cruz and Binondo formed the immediate north bank of the Pasig River, opposite the walls of Intramuros. This was the area that Chinese immigrants settled in from the 17th century onwards as they were moved out from the walled city.

The Jesuits were in charge of the district until they themselves were shipped out of the country in the late 18th century. They set up a school and a church east of one of the many esteros (creeks) of the city. The church, originally of wood and stone, was built in 1619. The Jesuits housed the famed image of Our Lady of Pilar here a few decades later. The Lady became the patroness of the community.

A temblor destroyed the church in 1867. It was reconstructed shortly after. The church was rebuilt in Baroque revival style and served to anchor a central space that became a hub from the late 19th century till the war.

Two plazas sandwich this church. The smaller of the two is Plaza Goiti, which we look at next week. The larger one is the one-hectare Sta. Cruz Plaza. The space serves as terminus of five streets that connect it with Chinatown on the west and the area known as “downtown” to older Manilans.

The plaza was an open space with no memorials or focal points on it until the end of the 20th century. It was cobbled in granite until the 1960s when the city thought to pave it with concrete as a sign of progress.





Sta. Cruz Plaza was a central space for the city from the 1920s onwards. It was connected to the rest of the city by the tranvia system. The trams were horse-drawn in the late Spanish era. The Meralco took over in the American period and replaced them with electric trams. The tram rails criss-crossed the two plazas.

In the late Thirties, when cars became more affordable, the plaza turned into a parking lot for most of the day. Cars also occupied the plaza on weekends because of the popularity of cinemas. The Tivoli and Cine Oro faced the church. In between and spread around the plaza were restaurants and banks. Shifting architectural styles saw Art Deco structures crop up in the 1930s. Most of these buildings were a few stories in height and made of timber with a few, like the cinemas, of reinforced concrete in the years before the war.

The Liberation of Manila was brutal for residents and the structures of Sta. Cruz. Most of the district was leveled with only the taller concrete structures standing heavily damaged. Reconstruction after the war saw the banks and the cinemas re-built. The church was also re-built in concrete. The post-war façade brought back the original Baroque flavor. The plaza itself became more packed with cars as traffic became worse in the whole of Manila.

The district deteriorated from the late 1960s onwards as businesses and well-heeled residents moved to Makati and other suburban enclaves. One last spurt of growth resulted in taller buildings of up to twelve stories (the limit set by building codes then) but most developers shifted outwards for new opportunities.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw the plaza and its buildings stagnate as central Manila turned into a university enclave. Only educational institutions, with their low-disposable income population, stayed in put, while other businesses moved to new hunting grounds.

Inconsistent attempts at urban re-vivification never gained momentum over the last three decades. A decade ago, the plaza received a touch of elegance in a new-old fountain. The Carriedo fountain was built in memory of the philanthropist Francisco Carriedo y Perredo who bequeathed funds for the establishment of the first water system for Manila.

The fountain, completed in 1884, was originally set in Plaza Rotonda at the edge of San Miguel district.  In the1970s, as that part of Manila was undergoing improvements, the fountain was transferred to the MWSS compound in Balara, Quezon City. Manila eventually wanted it back. Unfortunately the original site was now overwhelmed by fly-overs, so the Sta. Cruz Plaza was the best alternative.

Despite the fountain’s presence, the plaza still functions mainly for vehicular circulation and parking. The plaza’s expanse of concrete and lack of trees make it unbearable in the sun. I would rate this plaza a four because of this, as well as the deteriorating condition of the six or seven notable buildings, in different styles, all of which are over half a century old.

Sta. Cruz Plaza could be improved. Much of the vehicular traffic could be contained and parking more effectively reconfigured if the space inside the church compound could be brought into play. The plaza could further be improved if this space is considered along with its partner plaza at the back of the church. Next week we will look at Plaza Lacson (Goiti), its history, present condition, and a proposal to improve both plazas by recovering space for pedestrians.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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