From a distance, I am watching how you are restoring Manila’s historical contours, deftly melding the past with the present, to assure a brighter future for the city of our birth (we are both Manila-born). Behind the City Hall, the Bonifacio monument with the decalogue inscribed on its back wall is no longer a furtive dwelling of the homeless. Now that the Jones bridge is reminiscent of those in European cities, it has become a source of pride, attracting bevies of tourists, throngs of selfie-takers, sentimental folk.
You have refurbished an underpass to serve as a didactic corridor of the city’s history. The monument of Simon de Anda has come to life with colored jets of water and lights. I saw pictures of workers sprucing up the peripatetic Carriedo fountain with delicate layers of paint, reminding us that water is an essential element in the life of the city. You are patronizing local coffee and reviving that pleasant Manileno habit of sipping a cup, leisurely, with friends.
Sadly, I have not been to Manila for more than 7 months now due to the quarantines induced by the COVID 19 pandemic, I miss the varied shades of Manila Bay, its refreshing breeze. Although I have lived in other places outside the Manila of my birth (my ancestral homes burnt to ashes during the Battle for Manila,) fortuitously, my link with the city has not been severed. My years in elementary school were spent on San Marcelino street (St. Theresa’s College) and Pennsylvania, now Leon Guinto (Maryknoll Grade School). After college, my first job was at the National Museum when it was still on Padre Faura. As a working wife, I had an office at the Weekly Graphic on Railroad street at the Port Area. Then, I returned to the National Museum as Director and many years later, I worked in Manila again at the Department of Tourism. Recently, I have curated two outstanding painting exhibitions at the National Art Gallery of the National Museum. As you know, I was an executive assistant of the late Mayor Alfredo S. Lim while you were the Vice- Mayor, his anointed successor. I remember you once invited me to the vice mayor’s wing of the city hall which you had restored, after a sojourn to Washington, DC, uncovering precious architectural details that had been mindlessly plastered over by past repairs.
After my years in government service (the last being 2013), I have revived my affiliation with the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) and focused on the conservation of heritage building on the Escolta and environs. As you know, there are iconic buildings on that street which were designed by the eminent architect Andres Luna de San Pedro, the only son of Juan Luna. Unfortunately, the Crystal Arcade, his masterpiece, was damaged beyond redemption during the war, unlike his two other outstanding edifices, the Perez-Samanillo (now First United) and Regina. To heritage advocates, these two buildings, unassailable examples of Art Deco, are like gigantic sentinels guarding the entrance of Escolta from Plaza Goiti.
As you know, Manila is included in the world’s list of Art Nouveau and Art Deco precisely because of its buildings in these eclectic styles, located on thoroughfares and in cemeteries, yet ignored and unappreciated. The HCS conducts regular tours and one of our members compiled all the incredible examples of Manila’s Art Deco and Nouveau in a coffee table book. However, these treasures are endangered and without mincing words, only you, Mayor Isko, can come to their rescue.
Allow me to share the lament of the current owners of Andres Luna’s building, the Perez-Samanillo, now First United: “A heritage structure is very difficult to keep and maintain. One has to deal with leaks, fitting old elements of a building, in order to respect the integrity of the structure and at the same time allowing people to enjoy the edifice, as a way of teaching them about the history of Manila and of the building itself. For the love of heritage, we are foregoing more income: why keep a 4 to 5 story structure on prime real estate as opposed to just destroying it and building a more lucrative 20 to 30-story one?” For the love of Manila’s heritage architecture and history!
Dear Mayor, don’t you think a declared heritage structure that has a boutique museum, houses Filipino artists, and hosts tourist-driven activities should be granted a tax break, even if it also rents out space for commercial purposes (coffee shops, offices) ? In my humble opinion, the owners should get at least a rebate in either real estate taxes, business and special education fund taxes. The Manila city assessor mentioned “dominant use” and invoked local ordinances and he is correct. However, we in the HCS believe that heritage building owners should be given special consideration, so they will be encouraged to preserve these declared cultural properties and landmarks, for the ultimate benefit of Manila, the ex-Pearl of the Orient, which might completely lose its fabled charm.
As chief executive of the capital, as the savior of the once endangered Arroceros Forest Park, I hope you hear this plea, honorable mayor. Thank you for your kind attention.