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From cemetery to park
Paco Park is managed and maintained by the National Parks Development Committee.

From cemetery to park

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2016 - 12:00am

This undas weekend we take a different turn in our continuing series on Philippine plazas and parks. We visit two distinctive spaces in the round that are located a few kilometers from each other in old Manila. The most interesting thing about these two spaces is not their geometry, but the fact that they both started life as cemeteries.

Paco Park and Remedios Circle were both places for the dead. Today, hordes of the living do not flock to these two spaces on Nov. 1 and 2 as they do with cemeteries and memorial parks. This is because the remains of those interred there lave been relocated from these locations over a century ago.

Paco Park is the more popular space of the two since it is bigger and because it’s a popular venue for weddings, concerts and events for the last 50 years. The site was designed as a cemetery for Manila’s elite. Nicolas Ruiz designed it in 1807 as a cemetery with a circular geometry.

A few decades later the cemetery was enlarged to fit victims of cholera epidemic. It also became “non-exclusive” for anyone who could pay the P20 fee for three years, renewable. The expansion covered almost half a hectare and was built by a Chinese contractor.

 

The facility functioned as a cemetery for just over a century. Towards the end of its functional life it received the remains of Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora in 1872, as well as Dr. Jose Rizal’s remains in 1896. The American colonial government shut down the cemetery in 1912 for reasons probably tied to general sanitation and hygiene. The remains of the Filipino martyrs were exhumed and transferred to the Luneta.

Paco cemetery fell to disrepair and the walls had started crumbling when the place was revived in the 1950s by Manila civic and garden clubs as a venue for horticultural shows. It became a popular spot except for problems with seasonal flooding and lack of lighting and security.

In the mid-1960s the cemetery was adopted by the National Parks Development Committee and turned into a park and event venue. Landscape Architect and National Artist Ildefonso P. Santos designed the park to address the problems of flooding by raising its central core. He provided modern amenities, lighting, toilets and a central piazza.

The narrative in “Parks for a Nation: The Rizal Park and 50 Years of the National Parks Development Committee” states that in 1980, the German cultural attaché, Cristophe Jessen, suggested that the venue would be perfect for concerts. Paco Park Presents is now in its 27th year on TV.

 Paco Park continues to draw crowds on weekends and hundreds have tied the knot in its picturesque inner sanctum. NPDC director Elizabeth Espino informs us that the park is undergoing repair and its walls are being strengthened where it has shown some structural weakening. It should be good for another century’s use as a public park says the ebullient Parks director.

In the next district sits another round space, Remedios Circle. Like Paco Park, it started life as the cemetery to the Malate Church. Old maps of Manila from the turn of the century indicate it as the church’s cemetery surrounded mostly by open fields.

Paco Park and the Remedios cemetery were embedded in the master plan for Manila prepared by Daniel Burnham in 1905. Remedios, and eventually Paco cemeteries, were decommissioned in the second decade of the American colonial era as large cemeteries were established north (near La Loma) and south (San Pedro de Makati) of the city.

Remedios cemetery was exhumed of all remains. The streets there and in Ermita were named after the volunteer regimens from the United States (Virginia, Florida, Arkansas, etc.). Residents used the names but pronounced them the Spanish way.

The site was reportedly donated to the city government of Manila after the Second World War. Civic groups like the local Rotary chapter sought to introduce improvements to turn the circle into a plaza with a fountain. In the 1980s restaurateur Larry Cruz established Café Adriatico at one corner of the site. This lead to the transformation of Remedios Circle and eventually the adjoining Nakpil street into a Bohemian district known for its nightlife, restaurants and LGBT-friendly events.

Remedios Circle lost favor with the hip crowd from the late 1990s onwards as new districts emerged in Makati, Bonifacio Global City, and Quezon City. The host district of Malate has also changed in the last two decades as more and more high-rise condominiums change the cityscape. Pockets of informal settlers and blighted blocks balance the race skyward as the twin districts of Malate and Ermita struggle with inadequate infrastructure, the lack of urban planning and questionable governance.

These two round spaces of Manila are filled with history and project a spatial specificity that help give the old capital its distinctive character and sense of place. For centuries Filipinos have honored their dead on the first two days of November, a tradition now carried out more often in large sprawling memorial parks at the fringes of urban areas. Old cemeteries, however, still remain in many towns and cities and it would be wise to conserve these as sites of heritage or, like Paco and Remedios, adaptively re-use them as places for the living.

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

 

OLD MANILA
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