Old Manila’s New Heart

It’s a familiar story in urban centers everywhere, from New York to Hong Kong, Beijing to Berlin — a long, neighborhood-defining percolation spanning decades, sometimes centuries; then comes the boom that births the iconic architecture of the time and that will forever mark its golden age; a gradual decline follows as residents decamp to newer, more modern developments; and then years of stagnation and decay set in, turning a once-storied district into a dimly lit eyesore. The grand structures once celebrated in their day stand hollow and grimy, the paint peeling off the walls, parapets and spandrels.

Then, one day, a creative spark triggers an all-out renaissance of renewed public interest, redirecting foot traffic down its familiar streets and restoring the buzz in the air and the shine to shop windows fogged up by age and neglect. In Binondo, Manila, the main thoroughfare of Escolta Street and its surrounding alleys have followed a similar trajectory.

As main streets go, Escolta is a short one: It’s less than a kilometer long, and a stroll down five blocks — from the bottom of Jones Bridge to the Santa Cruz Church — takes you from one end to another in a matter of minutes. But few other places in the Philippines hold as much history as Escolta, which dates back to 1594.

Binondo, located on the banks of the Pasig River, was then a settlement populated mostly by migrants from Fujian, China — merchants who could trade within the fortified walls of Intramuros by day but were kept outside the exclusive domain of Spanish colonists by night. Fueled largely by the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, the riverside community of Binondo — the world’s oldest Chinatown— prospered. By the late 1800s, Escolta had become a cosmopolitan strip; a prestigious commercial address that was home to the country’s largest banks as well as the most sophisticated boutiques stocking luxury goods from Europe.

Things pretty much peaked during the American occupation when Escolta became the epicenter of fashion and commercial innovation. It was a street of firsts — the country’s first ice cream parlor (Clarke’s), the first enclosed shopping mall (Crystal Arcade), the first elevator (at the Burke Building) and the first traffic light (at Plaza Lacson, formerly Plaza de Goiti). Imagine the montage of changes through the decades: of hand-painted signs on theaters, boutiques and pharmacies transforming into neon signs; of vehicular traffic morphing from horse-drawn carriages and trams to Model T Fords and later hulking Packards from Detroit; of sidewalks filling up with men dressed in all-white duck linen Norfolk jackets and trousers. It was, by all accounts, the center of Manila’s universe.

Escolta Street in 1957. Photo courtesy of Lou Gopal

The decline began after World War II. Although much of Binondo was spared during the carpet bombings of the city, and Escolta pretty much bounced back quickly from near ruin, it wasn’t too long before new developments elsewhere in the metropolis began drawing companies away from the old quarter. The downward spiral continued well into the ’70s and ’80s until, finally, Escolta became mostly a place for nostalgia.

Enter The Artists

One of Escolta’s enduring Art Deco gems, the First United Building (FUB) was originally built in 1928, designed by architect Andres Luna de San Pedro, Juan Luna’s son. Today, you’ll find a maker market on the ground floor, housed in an industrial-chic space of exposed pipes and bare concrete. There is also a two-year-old barbershop called Folk 1006 that could have been a location set on Mad Men, if Don Draper had pitched to one of the big American offshore conglomerates in the city and dipped out for a cut and shave. Look up to the ceiling, and you’ll find sculptor Leeroy New’s alien life form installations in repurposed plastic.

An art installation by Leeroy New

Deeper into the space, The Den is a café that serves third-wave coffee from beans sourced around the Philippines. When artist Gabriel Villegas opened the café in 2016 with a few other investors, The Den became the default hangout of a growing number of artists and creative entrepreneurs finding a home for themselves and for their art in one of Manila’s oldest and most storied neighborhoods. Now called The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture, the café is presently run by Gabriel and his partner (and fellow artist) Derek Tumala. Its new name reflects the unofficial work that Gabriel and Derek — and perhaps every creative in Escolta — have inadvertently taken on.

Gabriel Villegas at The Den

Gabriel is a founding member of 98B COLLABoratory, a collective of artists and creatives looking to stage art events beyond the traditional galleries. Established in 2012, the group moved to Escolta later that same year where they were offered a home at the First United by building owners Robert and Lorraine Sylianteng. Although there are older groups that have long been advocating for the revitalization of the neighborhood — such as Escolta Commercial Association Inc and the Heritage Conservation Society – Youth (now known as the Escolta Volunteer Arm) — it is the efforts of 98B, anchored in the FUB, that seem to have resonated with a young, artsy, social media-savvy crowd.

“The area became our natural playground for our projects,” says artist and curator Marika Constantino, also a 98B founding member. For her part, Marika set up the First United Building Community Museum, a helpful and informative start to any walking tour of the neighborhood. Among the permanent exhibitions is a timeline that tracks the life of the historic structure along with its surrounding areas. At six storeys, the Perez-Samanillo Building, as it was then called, was the tallest building in the country the year it was completed. Decades later, in 1951, businessman Sy Lian Teng, who had sailed from China to Manila in 1918, purchased the building from the Perez-Samanillo family. Over the course of its history, the FUB housed some of the most interesting commercial residents of Escolta, from Berg’s department store, to the offices of legendary actor Dolphy. It was the Syliantengs’ daughter, Nikki, a New York-based designer, who alerted the couple to the success of Brooklyn’s neighborhood revival projects — which in turn inspired Robert and Lorraine to work with 98B.

Marika Constantino at the FUB Community Museum

While the group first concentrated on the contemporary art practice, says Marika, “Through our events, activities and projects we were able to initiate a different approach in creating awareness for the historic street. Since we were also trying to mobilize particular communities — creative, geographic, action-oriented — we also became entrenched in conceptualizing other means to draw people in the locale.” None of them, she adds, had any formal training in architecture or heritage conservation, and yet, in the course of organizing community-building activities, they had become culture workers and community advocates themselves.

The collective has organized a number of projects designed to attract other creative types to the area. HUB: Make Lab is an incubator for artisans and creative startups, as well as artists needing exhibition space. The Saturday X Future Market is a weekend bazaar of antiques and unique, handcrafted items, while the Escolta Block Party is a street festival of music, art and food. The intention was always to draw a younger crowd who could make new memories in the neighborhood and therefore feel invested in its upkeep. So far, these efforts have proven successful.

Fred’s Revolución, a popular Escolta watering hole

“All of our art-related projects and programming are our contribution to renewing interest in Escolta,” says Gabriel. “For us, that was important and also a way of giving back to the neighborhood that welcomed us, by mounting all our projects and programs with the neighborhood and Escolta as the backdrop.”

#EverydayEscolta

“Back then in 2012, it was about how to get attention back into the neighborhood and activating or finding new uses for the buildings in Escolta which were not fully occupied and utilized,” explains Gabriel. “Today, it is about how the renewed interest affects the neighborhood and what we value in the community.” The new attention directed to Escolta means that there are “new and different challenges moving forward,” he adds.

Among these challenges are those brought about by redevelopment and gentrification, which threatens to displace the small-business owners, creative entrepreneurs, artists and street vendors who reinvigorated the neighborhood in the first place. Although the most recognizable buildings of Escolta — among them the Burke Building, Regina Building and the Calvo Building, along with the FUB — are still intact, developers have been buying up land and demolishing other old buildings. All the buzz around Escolta has “made it attractive for current building owners to sell”, as Gabriel puts it.

Regina Building

But razing built heritage to the ground and displacing the folks that give the street soul is bound to alter Escolta’s character and threaten what has become a cultural asset. And so the campaign to engage the community continues. In 2017, Derek Tumala through HUB: Make Lab conceptualized a photo project called #EverydayEscolta, featuring the products and clothes of the makers and brands of HUB in portraits of neighbors, tricycle drivers, business owners, shopkeepers, workers, vendors and other neighborhood fixtures.

More recently, Brian Gabriel Corella, who owns the Folk 1006 barbershop, introduced HUB: Make Lab to Vintage Cars Philippines, a group of automotive enthusiasts with an affinity for classic models. The display of vintage cars along Escolta in May this year, just in time for the Pista ng Pamana heritage feast organized as part of the National Heritage Month celebrations, led to a regular Sunday display of automotive antiques, a weekend affair that’s proving to be quite the attraction.

Vintage cars parked on a weekend

The campaign to preserve Escolta’s built heritage seems to have found fresh wind to power its sails. Since taking office in June this year, Manila’s new mayor, Isko Moreno Domagoso, has vowed to reinvigorate the city. “We will save, we will preserve, we will protect things that remind us of our past,” the mayor has been quoted as saying. That’s promising, though heritage conservationists need to wait to see if his more recent pronouncement — granting 15-year tax exemptions for businesses who can help the mayor “change the skyline of Escolta” — will threaten old buildings.

Grand Cafe 1919 on Juan Luna St, off the end of Escolta

And while significant government backing is important (and overdue), support from a wider community is crucial. “Not many tourists realize this, but by choosing to visit our corner of Manila or any other place in the world where there are initiatives similar to ours, you’re not just learning about that place’s history, story and culture,” says Gabriel. “You’re also supporting our dreams of where we want to bring our neighborhood, community and our future as well.”

Written by

Tara Sering

Photographed by

Jilson Tiu

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