Reversing decay
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 23, 2019 - 12:00am

Before the holidays are over, take time to visit the city of Manila at night.

The start of the revival of the city where I grew up is one of the best things that happened in the year about to pass.

Liwasang Bonifacio in front of the Central Post Office is all aglow. The Christmas lights and dancing multicolored fountain are so attractive people now take selfies in the park. I was born and bred in the city, and it’s the first time that I’ve ever seen the park looking so picture-pretty.

Before this, snatchers grabbed earrings and necklaces from passengers in jeepneys that crawled along in traffic jams in the area. One of our senior editors was injured in a mugging near what used to be a dark and filthy park.

Intramuros looks equally Instagrammable in this season of joy. Schools, restaurants and other establishments are all lit up, joining the churches in the area in this visual celebration of the birth of Christ.

You can see what lamps and even a few well-placed colored lights can do to make even a drab office building attractive. Look at the Commission on Elections main office at night, with its entrance facing the lovely park in front of the brightly lit Manila Cathedral.

Foreign visitors and locals alike are now walking around Intramuros at night, taking photos, riding the Segway and resting at the Plaza de Santa Isabel, said to be haunted. Even the ghosts, if they are there, would like their newly spruced up home.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat is rightly proud, and happy over the cooperation her department is getting to make the Walled City more enticing to tourists.

*      *      *

While other cities also look delightful this Yuletide, Manila is noteworthy because people thought the city was the most hopelessly blighted in the country. Who knew it could look like a tourist destination?

Intramuros is starting to look like the Old Town in Cartagena, Colombia. The Old Town also has a walled fortification so similar to Intramuros, and no wonder – it was also built by the Spaniards at around the same period to keep away British and French raiders.

The difference is that the Colombians managed to preserve much of the old structures including the original cobbled pavement. The tourism industry in that country is also more developed than ours, with Cartagena’s Old Town among the top attractions. Even sidewalk vendors are organized, with colorful native costumes assigned for particular types of products. The horse-drawn carriages for tourists also look much better than our karitelas – with both horses and carriages similar to those in Manhattan’s Central Park. Sculptures of Colombian artist Fernando Botero dot the enclave, which also features several museums.

Colombia’s Old Town was packed with tourists all the way past midnight when I visited – and it was all lit up even if it wasn’t Christmas. All the hotels hewed to the traditional architecture, highlighting the country’s distinctive native art and culture.

Understandably, real estate prices in the Old Town are among the most expensive in that country. I was told that aside from Colombia’s world-famous literary giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the late “King of Cocaine” Pablo Escobar (like Botero a native of Medellin) had a mansion in the Old Town.

There is no more space in Intramuros for such sprawling tropical villas. But there are still many possibilities for improvement in our very own Old Town.

*      *      *

Intramuros isn’t the only part of the city of Manila that’s looking enchanting this Christmas. The entire stretch of Roxas Boulevard is also lit up, with no more garish lamps. Near the boulevard I saw people taking photos at night in front of the Christmas tree and mini garden at the Ermita Shrine across a park near the US embassy. The University of Santo Tomas campus is another Instagrammable spot with its curtains of lights.

Apart from the Christmas lights, Mayor Isko Moreno has managed to sustain his road and sidewalk clearing operations even at the height of vending season this month.

As of yesterday, C.M. Recto in the Divisoria area remained free of vendors and parked vehicles. Vehicles could still drive through the narrow streets of Quiapo and Sta. Cruz districts where even pedestrians used to have a hard time walking and avoiding the vendors. Quiapo Church and Plaza Miranda are both looking good amid the crowds.

During daytime, the new selfie destination is Jones Bridge with its lamps that reportedly recreate the original fixtures during the Spanish era. I think there are way too many lamps, it shouldn’t be overdone. Still, having people taking selfies on the bridge is a big improvement.

Even the Quezon Boulevard underpass is looking much better, with paintings of nature in green. Mayor Isko’s campaign against graffiti vandals deserves support. Cleaning up graffiti is a burden on taxpayers.

Both Mayor Isko and Public Works Secretary Mark Villar are eyeing the improvement of the Pasig riverside, through the construction of a promenade starting from the westernmost ferry station behind the Bureau of Immigration.

The ferry service was relaunched recently by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. I’ve tried the service and it was a surprisingly enjoyable ride – something you might also want to consider trying this holiday season.

Many years ago I left the city of Manila to escape urban blight. The decay got worse and seemed irreversible.

It’s amazing what political will and public cooperation can do to reverse the decay.

CHRISTMAS LIWASANG BONIFACIO
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