Urban renewal
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 5, 2013 - 12:00am

Two weeks ago I drove at dusk past Manila’s Baywalk. The sun was still a few minutes away from vanishing from view. It hung over the mountains of Bataan, large, looking yellow from the fiery colors of twilight.

It was the best time to watch the sunset in Manila Bay. On a clear day it’s a breathtaking sight, and the promenade along Roxas Boulevard is the best place in Metro Manila to watch the sun go down.

In many countries, such spots are popular gathering places for locals and foreign visitors alike. Certain places have added come-ons for tourists. On Marina Beach facing the Bay of Bengal in Chennai, India, horse rides are among the attractions, along with colorful miniature Hindu shrines built on the sand by locals.

On the beach in Karachi, Pakistan, facing the Arabian Sea, camels with ornate harness are an added attraction. Camels can be cranky, but they’re great for tourist souvenir photos. The beach teems with people even at night.

When I drove past Manila’s Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard, there were many Filipinos watching the sunset, although a number of them looked like they were simply reserving their sleeping benches for the night. From the US embassy to the Manila Yacht Club I counted one Caucasian woman strolling, a black man, and about a dozen men who looked South Asian who were posing for photos with the sunset as backdrop.

How to lure more visitors to watch “the world’s most famous sunset” (as described by a top property developer) and revitalize tourism in Manila should be on the to-do list of the city’s new mayor, former President Joseph Estrada.

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Erap’s election victory validates his street-smart advice: ang napipikon, talo. Rough translation: the one who loses his cool, loses.

He appears to have learned some lessons from his shortened presidency. Apart from identifying who his true friends are from the “weather-weather lang” type, Erap has ditched public statements lifted from B-movie scripts, such as embarking on “the greatest performance of my life.”

The greatest performance, a reference to his presidency, bombed at the box office. This time, while still borrowing imagery from show biz, Erap isn’t unduly raising public expectations. He’s no Superman and the problems in Manila are enormous, he said as he assumed his less exalted elective post.

And yet, being a former president, more is expected of Erap than his predecessors. Among the expectations is that he will do for decaying Manila what he did for San Juan, his real home base, which is now a prosperous city. 

He has always said that he wants his name vindicated after being convicted of plunder. The pardon, which he owes – whether he likes it or not – to his successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, may have fully restored his political rights (the idea, we were told, of GMA political strategist and former interior chief Ronnie Puno), but it was an affirmation of guilt. It was seen mainly as political accommodation by an unpopular president, who could be convicted of the same offense.

Erap’s vindication will take more than election to a local office; he must show that Manila voters did not misplace their trust on an ex-convict.

After being the center of national affairs for centuries, the city of Manila now suffers the worst from urban blight in all of Metro Manila.

People are watching with interest how Erap, whose campaign slogan is that he is for the poor or para sa mahirap, will deal with Manila’s slums, which inspired comparisons with Dante’s Gates of Hell in the latest Dan Brown novel.

Urban renewal can start at easier spots with fewer slums such as Ermita and Malate, once the top tourist destinations in the capital, as well as Binondo and Intramuros.

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Several crumbling buildings in Binondo and within the Walled City deserve to be saved. Their Spanish-era architecture must be properly preserved, since so few survived the shelling of the city near the end of World War II by American and Japanese forces.

Erap can cut red tape, make doing business in the city easier, and lure back the cafés, dining places and art houses that briefly turned the seedy areas of Ermita and Malate into trendy neighborhoods a few years ago.

Then there’s Baywalk. In Miami’s South Beach, made popular by a special diet, urban renewal was jump-started by Italian haute couture designer Gianni Versace, who turned a bayfront mansion in a decaying neighborhood into his atelier. By the time he was murdered in July 1997, Versace had inspired an art deco renaissance in Miami, and South Beach had become a trendy center of fashion and the arts.

The sunset in South Beach, it must be said, is also impressive. What sets off a sunset – and draws hordes of visitors – is the environment from where it is seen.

In Manila, the sunset viewed from the Roxas Boulevard promenade is iconic of a tropical paradise, with coconut trees swaying in the breeze, with children playing or lovers, holding hands or their heads together, silhouetted against the setting sun.

This idyllic scene is on Philippine postcards. Visitors may be disappointed if they go to Baywalk at dusk and see garbage lapping at the shore or littering the promenade, with some of the lights busted. Critics call the lamps garish and refer to them as Sputnik lights, but well-lighted areas tend to discourage criminal activity.

All these tasks are now on Erap’s shoulders. He has enjoyed an abundance of blessings, and he may want to remember another common admonition: those to whom much is given, much is also expected.


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