Monday, June 23, 2014

Reviving the Queen of Streets

The Roman Santos Building. Photo by Popin Obien

Calle Escolta is  a street steeped in history.  Established in 1591, it served as the bridge between the more commercial sites of Santa Cruz and Binondo to the Spanish settlement known as Intramuros. During the American colonial period, Escolta was Manila's downtown: the site of prime commercial establishments. It boasted of structures designed by the nation's finest architects, the first drug stores and buildings with elevators and central airconditioning. It was so alta, only girls who knew how to speak Spanish were allowed to work in its high end department stores. 

Escolta Street Corner. Photo by Popin Obien.

In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch identifies five elements a city must have: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Escolta used to be all of those. Used to have all of those. However, as the city's center migrated elsewhere, the Escolta neighborhood was forgotten. Property values fell. Through the decades, the formerly majestic buildings slowly became decrepit and antiquated and thus suffered from low rents, high turnover, cost squeeze and the businesses lost its purchasing power.  The loss of business lead to the erosion of place, which in turn effaced the power of what once was the Queen of Streets. Escolta lost its glamour as urban decay crept in. Escolta was dying. Escolta is dead. 

Is it possible to revive a dying district?  The legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs insists that to bring a place to life requires the inclusion of all its inhabitants. "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody," she writes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Only because, and only when they are created by everybody." Reviving Escolta should then be a cause where everyone with a stake in it participates-- business owners, academics, heritage conservationists, scholars, the youth, urban dwellers. There must be encouragement from the government. 

Part of what makes reviving Escolta as a commercial hub difficult stems from the implementation of a law, Republic Act 10066, which restricts the use of heritage property and freezes land value. Not much can be done--not by property and business owners--because there are no financial benefits from owning heritage property. 

Photo by Popin Obien. 

This is where the Escolta Commercial Association Inc. comes in. It is a group of business men, property owners, along with its allies of individual and professional partner organizations, whose purpose is to revive the glory of Manila's Queen of Streets. They plan not just to revive Escolta as the country's premier business district, but also to uplift the neighborhood through modern and sustainable programs and activities. These include encouraging the relocation of business process outsourcing companies to the area, supporting tourism activities, art communities, and heritage conservation. 

Nearly two decades since its establishment in 1993, ECAI has started to see the fruits of its efforts. In 2010, the Juan Luna E-Services Building was declared the first renewal and redevelopment of a heritage structure in Binondo. Since then, ECAI, together with the City of Manila, the Philippine National Police, Barangay 291 and various other professional, academic and heritage organizations, has formed a core group that continues its search for a renewal and redevelopment plan that they can implement and realize well into the future. 

Photo by Popin Obien

Reviving Escolta is not an easy task. It requires grand plans and brilliant visions. Perhaps it is only apt to take inspiration from Daniel Burnham, the architect who designed the 1905 plan that would have made Manila a city on par with the greatest cities in the world. "Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized.   Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing,  asserting itself with ever-growing insistency." 

By enlisting everyone with a stake in it, ECAI and its allies of individual and professional partner organizations hopes to once more have everyone bow down to the majesty of its Queen of Streets. 

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