Bring back Old Manila, cry the youth


Jai Alai, the building young people do not remember

I do not remember the Jai Alai. I have never marveled at the flame trees that once lined the paseo to Luneta. Not once have I walked through Escolta in all its glory, when it exuded glamour comparable to stylish European boulevards.

When my college history professor told us that Manila was once the Paris of Asia, I could not believe my ears.

And can you really blame me? Not when Manila today is a quagmire of traffic, belched smog and reeking garbage. Not when the buildings of Escolta look down upon you like haggard beggars, their walls smeared with grime, ghosts of their former elegance. Not when the Jai Alai is nowhere to be found, having been demolished in 2000 by then Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, only to be replaced by an empty lot.

You tell us that Manila was once beautiful. Where is evidence of that?

Hunt for the old city

ESCOLTA in 1942

After that history class, I scoured Philippine history books and the web for a glimmer of that golden past. To my surprise, there was so much material.

Bloggers have posted archival photos of buildings as they once were, when they were the pride of a nation in full swing before the destruction of World War II.

Carlos Celdran and Ivan Henares offer tours of Manila, taking oblivious urban explorers to jaunts that open their eyes to the heritage peeking under the layers of smog and grime.

It is there, despite the disappointing surface of a city gone to the dogs. Beneath the cities of our daily lives is a beautiful city of Art Deco buildings, old Spanish churches, tree-lined boulevards and parks. A city aching to burst forth and show us what we’ve been missing all these years.

I’ve searched far and wide for this city, only to find it staring at me in the face. We still have some buildings left. Despite all our efforts, we have failed to erase this city of our dreams. We still have the Malate Church and San Sebastian Church; the Old Meralco building built by Juan Arellano in the ’30s with relief sculptures by the Italian artist Francesco Monti; the Nielson Tower in Makati built before World War II as part of the country’s first international commercial airport; and many more.

These buildings stand on our university campuses, beside LRT stations, in front of malls or on streets we pass on our way to work. They are everywhere yet we do not see them.

Seeing Manila

OLD building in present-day Manila

The first step to bringing back Old Manila is to see Old Manila. Don’t only pass by these buildings, but look at them. Really look at them and imagine them if they had been cleaned and restored. Imagine them in their prime.

I spent two weeks in Europe for an internship and in between work, I would wander the streets of Amsterdam and Paris. What I saw there astounded me.

Buildings that date as far back as the 14th century have been restored and continue to be in use today. A building that might’ve witnessed the Black Plague currently houses a McDonald’s. A 17th-century chapel has been transformed into a classy bar. Though there is an oak bar full of hard drinks by the front, one can see the organ by the high ceiling which had once played mass songs. Old townhouses still boast residents. A gothic church houses a gallery. Bookstores, restaurants and boutiques front old buildings.

Bring it back

Why can’t we have that in our cities? Why must Old Manila remain old, a mere memory, a fleeting moment gone forever when we can bring it back? The war is no longer an excuse.

Manila was only the second most destroyed city during World War II. Warsaw was the first and its residents have now fully restored their built heritage.

With enough awareness, political will, financial investments and involvement from all sectors, can’t we bring back our city as well?

It will take time and effort, but that is a small price to pay for national identity and pride.

YOUNG city explorers discovering Manila one snapshot at a time

A couple of college friends and I repeatedly visit Quiapo, Binondo and Escolta hoping to get a glimpse of the city we had been robbed of. We bring our cameras and some money to go on a Chinese food binge in Binondo. We wander the streets hungrily and greedily take photos of the still beautiful buildings there, desperate for a taste of the past.

There is so much beauty in our built heritage.

My dream is to see Manila restored, transformed into a walkable city where the streets are organized in a way that restricts car flow only to certain areas so that people can eat al fresco without air pollution getting in the way of a pleasant lunch.

I want to see my kids sitting under a bench beside a tree-lined walkway getting ready to buy milk tea from the Old Meralco building, now an elegant home to stylish cafés.

I want a Manila flocked by tourists eager to see the Paris of Asia. Only to us, it won’t be just another Paris. It will be Manila. Our Manila.


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Disclaimer: The comments uploaded on this site do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of management and owner of We reserve the right to exclude comments that we deem to be inconsistent with our editorial standards.

  • Zet Pena

    Bring back Metro-Manila Governor Imelda Marcos. Why not?

  • Pedro

    HWAG NAMAN PONG MAGAGALIT SAKIN, Nagsasabi lang po ako ng totoo, ibang iba na po ang Maynila today !. . . Manila now is notoriously known for  beggars sleeping on sidewalks, undisciplined jeepney drivers causing heavy traffic by transforming whole streets as jeepney terminals, . . . . fake diplomas and  fake  transcript of records easily  available for a fee at the Recto university,. . .illegal vendors , . and yes , dilapidated  buildings and most of all. . . ruthless holdup men who will kill people at the price of a cell phone and kotong cops waiting in ambush positions. . . Nakakalungkot. . . but that is a reality of Manila now. . .

    • aris alfaro

      …yan ang pinaka magandang pag de-describe ng maynila ngayon. lahat tayo ay nais maibalik yung glory of the old days ng maynila. pero malabo na yun e. korek yung isang nag comment: nawala na ang soul ng maynila. 

  • c5cjr

    that’s what happen kung sila Lim & atienza lang ang pinagpipilian mayor !!!!

  • mnlmad

    Lets admit it. Manila is a truly UGLY city.

  • Mananandata69

    U are dreaming an impossible dream. It  takes a politician with enough courage and wisdom to bring Manila back to its glory. And that politician has yet to be born. siguro kung si imelda marcos pa maging mayor, pero siempre marami mag re react na naman.

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