Life Inside the Walls

shit(Author’s note: This is an old post that’s been floating around in my ‘drafts’ folder for a couple months, which, for lack of anything better to do this evening, I decided to finally finish up. It was originally written in early May this year.)

SOMETIME this year, if all goes well, the first major projects of an ambitious, multiyear plan to give Intramuros an extensive makeover will get underway, with the long-term objective of turning the old walled city into a proper upscale tourist and commercial district.

From the perspective of broad developmental policy the proposed gentrification of Intramuros – because that is what the plan is, even though the word and its negative connotations are carefully avoided – is for the most part a positive initiative. The district is an important part of the Philippines’ history, and is a valuable tourism resource; it also contains some of the last property open for commercial development in densely-packed Manila.

That progress, however, will come at a price. After being virtually obliterated by American bombs and artillery fire during the Battle of Manila in 1945, Intramuros was rebuilt, but in fits and starts; the result is an urban environment and character that is probably unique – a working mix of heritage and decay.

back to nature

wireThat gives Intramuros a distinctly transient, living-in-the-ruins kind of feel and makes for a fascinating neighborhood culture, one that seems almost certain to be lost if or when the grand designs for Intramuros are ever realized.

The transient nature of Intramuros is reflected in its population. The permanent population divided among Intramuros’ five barangays is only about 5,000; the daytime population of workers at government agencies and private offices, students of the four universities within the walls, seamen from the nearby port, and visitors may be as high as 10 times as many.

The majority, all but perhaps a few hundred of Intramuros’ permanent residents, are the vendors, the pedicab and calesa drivers, the canteen operators, the street sweepers, and parking attendants that hustle a living out of Intramuros’ workers, students, and visitors every day. Most live in ramshackle ‘informal housing’ tucked away in otherwise neglected property lots; perhaps as many as three or four hundred are homeless.

hivebeaterioThey are, by conventional standards, apparently poor. Living in a scratch-built, hive-like tenement or on a street corner on the hand-to-mouth proceeds of proletarian jobs is not an ideal existence, and there is, to be sure, a certain frustration that permeates the environment.

shithay buhayIntramuros, however, seems to be one place where the resourcefulness of the poor pays off especially well. Pedicab drivers can earn well over P1,000 per day, and many street vendors can count on routinely earning significantly more than minimum wage. There are relatively few squatters, and most of those were formerly homeless people who simply made their encampments semi-permanent; most residents are legitimate renters, the haphazard construction of their dwellings notwithstanding. That is not to suggest that life is easy for Intramuros’ underclass, or that everyone benefits, but on the whole it seems that the faint glimmer of hope may be just a tiny bit brighter here than in other parts of the metropolis – a difference, perhaps, between ordinary despair and crushing hopelessness.

loloTherein lies the paradox of urban renewal as it applies to Intramuros. The vision behind the reconstruction of the district leads to something the city never was. Throughout its history, Old Manila was always a gritty, crowded port town and colonial capital; yes, it had its numerous churches, and universities, and semi-monumental government buildings, but as a center of political and commercial life in the Spanish era, it attracted the downtrodden, the petty criminals, and the opportunists of both the honest and dishonest sort. There has always been a healthy proportion of seediness in Intramuros; what the district is today is, in effect, the result of letting 500 years of history in a working town run its course without applying too much in the way of comprehensive planning to it.

we deliverApplying the comprehensive planning now – with the entirely reasonable objectives of maximizing a valuable tourism resource, attracting new businesses and residents, and improving the overall economy and standard of living in the district – means applying a certain degree of artifice: If the grand design is ever realized, Intramuros will be a nice place, but it won’t be an authentic one. From a tourism perspective, at least, it is not a problem unique to Intramuros or the vision of the leaders driving the changes; authenticity is almost always contrived – think of it as the difference between putting on a little make-up and a nice blouse to greet visitors, rather than answering the door wearing eyebags and the t-shirt you slept in.

window on the world

And it’s probably not a problem that can actually be solved, not when “maintaining authenticity” means consigning a certain part of the population to permanent poverty, or low-return labor, or otherwise less-than-dignified living conditions.

When it’s gone, the disappearance of the “real” Intramuros will undoubtedly result in a net positive for most everyone concerned. But there will still be something lost, and even if that is ultimately for the better, it’s still worth remembering.

All photographs © 2015 by the author, who spends the better part of six days a week working in Intramuros, and has never gotten over being fascinated by it.