Walk along Escolta Street in Binondo, Manila and your eyes are certain to land upon rows of tarpaulin that proclaim: “Welcome to Escolta! Manila’s Queen of Streets!” A survey around the area is a must to confirm the validity of this claim.
This is what is revealed: vendors selling lansones and pomelo outside of Santa Cruz Church; a man carting down mounds of buko in front of Calvo Building, where one can grab a meal from Tropical Hut. Across from this stands the art deco Capitol theater and the sight of several small businesses whose names are printed brightly on tarpaulin across the first floor of the building. A stray dog sleeps in front of the Panpisco building whose windows display artworks produced through art collaboration efforts. There is a museum in the First United Building where quotes written in calligraphy litter its halls. Outside the building there is litter on the streets.
One might come to the conclusion that Manila must have a funny sense of royalty with all of the bustling 21st century activities overwhelming the area in juxtaposition to the traditional and lavish connotations of the word. But in Escolta, there is a wealth of Philippine visual culture that has lived through several eras of our history. By further recognizing this wealth there is hope for her to be restored to her former glory.
There is not a lot by way of historical documents regarding Escolta other than its role as a commercial district, so what is left is the material history along the street. It is here that we are met with an amalgamation of past and present visual cultures. As Miguel Bernad, a Filipino Jesuit, once wrote: “History must be seen against the landscape.” Back in the 19th century, Escolta was known as the premier commercial district in the country where one could purchase luxury goods in private residences. Now, while it no longer completely exhibits that grandeur due to an increasingly modernizing society and a late consciousness regarding the revival of its heritage, we are left with traces of the old Escolta that reveals itself through the architecture of several of its buildings.
One of these is Capitol Theater, an art deco themed building which was designed by National Artist Juan Nakpil. Its purpose as a theater has long been abandoned because of the development of more modern cinemas, but what keeps the building alive today are two frequented establishments: a restaurant and bar called Resto Bar, and the Escolta Barber Shop. Another example of a building with nationalist and historical ties is the First United Building—built during 1928 and designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, the son of renowned 19th century Filipino painter Juan Luna. Filling the space within its halls are a museum dedicated to the history and heritage of Escolta, and the 98B COLLABoratory studio which houses artists from varying disciplines. 98B also runs the Future and Saturday market in the ground floor of the building that draws in crowds who fancy vintage or indigenous products.
Other architectural styles may be seen in the area’s buildings, including the Neo-Classical style of the Regina Building (also designed by Luna de San Pedro), and the Beaux-Arts style of the El Hogar Filipino and Calvo buildings. Within these skyscrapers today, a few amongst them being some of the earliest in the country, are offices and franchised establishments. What is imminent in Escolta today is the coexistence of old and new materials, especially architecture heavily influenced by the American occupation.
However, the hints of old Escolta seem to be forgotten. Augusto Villalon, in Lugar: essays on Philippine heritage and architecture, writes, “We have a marked preference for the new. We struggle uncomfortably with the old, dismissing it as irrelevant to our lives.” Most of the grime-coated and neglected heritage buildings in Escolta look more like ghosts of what they once were.
There is no denying that Escolta is still alive and busy today, but the appreciation of its past identity is in need of a resurrection. One of the obstacles in the plight of heritage preservation in Escolta are those who would rather forego the historical architectural abundant in the area in favor of more modern aesthetics. Yet what Escolta has proven is that in spite of the current state of the buildings, institutions and businesses of all sorts still get by on the daily. People will always find ways to move and to live within a space, but the loss of historical heritage is irreplaceable. Villalon presents the option of generating heritage zones which allow “a totally contemporary lifestyle to take place in the same urban and architectural envelope that was built by earlier generations. In most cases, old buildings can be made equally as comfortable and functional as those built last week.”
Yet, in the eyes of Julio Junongbayan, Escolta has yet to see brighter days. Junongbayan is an AB History graduate from Ateneo de Manila University who dedicated his undergraduate thesis to identifying the “Golden Age” of Escolta, which occurred between 1920 to 1939. He says that back in 2009, when he was in the midst of writing his thesis, Escolta was not as lively as it is today, what with all the conservation and cultural revival efforts in the area. He is optimistic. “This means there is a conscious move now to preserve a cultural heritage that everybody forgot. This means that finally, space and virtual culture is taking shape and getting attention that it deserves. Escolta used to be the center hub for business and leisure, imagine if the various movements become successful in reviving the street?”
Junongbayan adds, “This country is rich in history waiting to be unearthed―left and right, from one long street to an old dilapidated building to another―there should be a conscious effort to have these preserved or restored. History has to come alive in this country and this can only be done by restoring and preserving key structures.”
This is vision is realizable through the collective and continuous efforts to preserve the appearance and architecture of the area by both public and private institutions. In 2010, the National Cultural Heritage Act (Republic Act No. 10066) was implemented; it seeks to preserve and protect cultural heritage and historical buildings that are over 50 years old. Like-minded groups have been formed as well such as the Heritage Conservation Society and the Heritage Conservation Society Youth which are non-stock and non-profit organizations that seek to uphold the Philippine Constitution in the realm of cultural and heritage preservation to strengthen our notions of national identity. In the local community of Escolta, the Escolta Commercial Association Inc., a response from the private sector to the Mayor of the city of Manila and former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s call to preserve the street, publishes newsletters which that inform its readers of the steps it has taken for heritage preservation as well as activities that celebrate the street’s history.
The ubiquitous tarpaulins of Escolta, aside from establishing the area’s claim to be Manila’s Queen of Streets, also presents a challenge for all those who walk upon Escolta’s pavements: Rescue, Revive, Relive. It is certainly about time.
Feature by Corinne Garcia
Photos by Nikki Dolfo