Friday, May 12, 2006


It just couldn't go on any longer I guess. The Malate of yore is gone. And I'm not talking about the Malate of the American Period, mind you. That Malate - the quiet residential enclave of Art Deco apartment buildings and low rise chalet style houses, has been dead since General Douglas MacArthur blasted away most of it in February 1945. I'm actually talking about the second more commercialized incarnate of Malate. The one that started out the 1980's and 1990's when some of the surviving old houses were converted into trendy shops and four star restaurants filled with an upscale, artsy crowd. It's that one that's gone. Just take a walk around the neighborhood and the de-gentrification will be more than apparent. The formerly chic yet bohemian ambiance pioneered by Penguin Cafe*, Cosa Nostra Restaurant*, Guernica's*, Cafe Adriatico*, The Library* and Blue Cafe has been overwhelmed by the overbearing aura of Karaoke Bars, dingy noodle joints, and low-end comedy clubs.

And although classy establishments like Matina, Fidel, Mama, Cafe Caribana, Acquario and Raj shuttered up more than a few years years ago - casualties of the Erap impeachment/Abu Sayyaf fueled economic/tourism downturn - there were still many survivors left. And despite the less prosperous atmosphere, upper middle class aspirations were still kept alive in the district. But now that People's Palace, Firma, Portico (above), and Bravo's (below) have also thrown in their hat, the era of genteel street level establishments is finally over - save for lone wolves Sala and Lolo Dads. Downward mobility is now on a roll, it's going full steam, and there ain't no turning back. But just how did Malate manage to find itself in this current state? And is it necessarily a bad thing?

Perhaps it just couldn't compete with Makati. Back in the mid 90's, Greenbelt was just a low rise shopping arcade and Rockwell an abandoned industrial zone. Malate was literally the only place to go and it monopolized the nightlife scene for all of that decade. But now, with the rise of Greenbelt, Metrowalk, Rockwell Power Plant, and Eastwood City, there are more choices when one wishes to combine street life, outdoor greenery, and a cafe style ambience in their evening's activities. And since the middle class (and upper middle class for that matter) hasn't increased in Manila, each of these places are really fighting for a smaller piece of the SAME proverbial pie.

Or maybe it could be something deeper like the lack of political will? If Manila City Hall looked at Malate holistically and concentrated on the pedestrian infrastructure of the MH del Pilar and A Mabini (the main arteries of the Malate tourist district), things might not have turned out this way. Perhaps better parking, cleaner sidewalks, heritage architecture preservation, and strict NOISE POLLUTION regulation could have kept the higher spending crowd coming. I guess that in their mad rush (and successful one if I might add) to add life to the neighborhood, little details regarding sustainabilty were overlooked. Sure the neighborhood may be more alive than it's ever been before, but noise pollution levels, air pollution levels, vagrancy and litter are at an all time high as well. Not only are higher end customers staying away, but long time renters/residents/tax payers and five-star hotel guests now shun the area to rent, sleep and dine in quieter, less congested Makati or Pasig. And at the rate the plant boxes/sidewalks are being ripped apart, and the noise levels rising due to the ever-increasing number of live bands/concerts on the Baywalk, it won't be long till even the low spending juvenile crowd stays away from this recipe for disastrous overdevelopment as well. And don't get me wrong either. It's not an elitist standpoint from whence I gaze. There is nothing at all wrong with having cheaper, less sophisticated establishments around. But if it reaches a point when that becomes the ONLY kind of establishment present, then the district becomes monotonous. It becomes stagnant. It becomes a form of ghetto if you will.

But ever the relentless optimist, I have faith that the City Hall of Manila MIGHT one day get their act together and repair the frayed urban fabric of this historic quarter. After all, if they can upgrade the sidewalk pavement in areas that are of low pedestrian density such as Quirino Avenue (above) - and finally refurbish the historically neglected Remedios Circle (below - hmmm) - then why can't they eventually solve the sidewalk, drainage, noise, litter, and congestion problems of Adriatico, Remedios, Nakpil, Orosa, MH del Pilar, San Andres, et al..? I just hope it doesn't take too long for them to realize what's going on though. Time is of the element when it comes to stopping the hemorrhaging of this once graceful district.

Grimy, smelly scenes like the one below (taken beside Malate Pensionne) do the district's tourist and nightlife industry no favors in any way. Furthermore, the unbearably loud bands currently on show outdoors at the Baywalk are repellant to all those who are not part of their audience. Imagine, it's the rights of thirty beer-drinking patrons given priority over the the hundreds who rent the apartments and pay for the hotel rooms around them. Misguided priorities and neglected issues like the aforementioned are simply inexcusable if the City Hall of Manila wants this district to compete with their uptown counterparts.

But then again, perhaps this is really the way things are meant to be around here. This current situation could be the natural order of things. Sometimes things go up, sometimes things go down, and this decline is an unavoidable part of this city's evolution. Perhaps Malate never really dies, perhaps it only changes. And if so, I wonder what the next chapter in Malate's history has in store - or if it even will a happy ending.

Closing Thought: I have this theory that through the centuries, we Filipinos have cultivated a slash-and-burn attitude towards our surroundings, specifically when it comes to real estate. We have no concept of history when it comes to our built/natural environment. The overexploitation of the Binondo area and Baguio being prime examples of how the Philippine government and society can take too much out of a good thing and bleed an asset out of all it's socio-cultural promise and potential. Could Malate be just another manifestation of this ideal? And could this be an attitude brought about by a society whose main architectural identity is rooted in the temporality and disposability of a bahay kubo? It makes one think. It really does.

*Highlighted restaurants mean that the places still exist.