Space/Place/Sacredness

Originally posted on 5 May 2011 here.

Last week’s grisly events at Laperal Compound prompt me to riff on something near and dear, but is rarely spoken of by fellow Manileños: our relationship to space and place. Not a fan of violence (or the criminal elements taking refuge in such slums), but if someone’d raze my community to the ground and dismantle the boards of my home, then I’d certainly feel like hurling molotovs and shitbombs too. In the midst of the protests, one Laperal Compund leader even said that they’d rather die where they stand than relocate to far-flung Calauan or Montalban, where death is a greater, if slower, certainty: no electricity, water, access to health services, schools. In such conditions, she said, “unti-unti kaming pinapatay ng pamahalaan: magiging libingan na namin ang lupang pagtitirikan namin ([they] are being killed slowly by the state: the land [they’re] cast to will be [their] graves)”. [1]

But what differentiates us middle-class folk from informal settlers anyway? Not much, really. Just the luck of being born into the socioeconomic means of legally owning/renting a home–with its accordant veil of delusion, thinking that our shoebox condominiums and gated subdivisions are somehow better, safer, healthier places. But we’re just as disconnected.

In a megapolis filled with almost twenty million people, there are no decent services save those that can be uncheaply bought. No free spaces to play and work, either. Unless you count this city’s numerous malls, all specially designed and air-conditioned for maximum consumption. People wanting to sit and work or play together–me and my friends, for example–would have to gather in cafes and restaurants we can barely afford, just to be able to have a temporary tiny space to do and be. Nothing is walkable. One necessarily goes by car or train, or other more rickety but cheaper forms of transportation where cutpurses await. (And they do, as I last experienced the previous month.) So unless you live in Serendra, there is no space for the flaneur in this city–and as my friend Marella says about her less-than-savory subcity Valenzuela, you can’t jog in this place, much less stroll. You run.

Thus despite once being the most affluent city in Southeast Asia, Manila has less to do with New York and Paris and London’s speed and modern urbanity, and more to do with thefavelas and the banlieues. No humane and urbane flaneur can survive in this color and smog, its cheerful brokenness. This is the place of the debrouilleur–people versed in the art of making do. In fact, we almost always make do, with much creativity and resilience.[3] But I also do believe that making do is often a surface manifestation of letting be, and the latter is a predominantly unconscious choice. And unconsciousness often leads to separation.

It becomes an interestingly painful form of unconsciousness for the middle class, as I’ve experienced in my biography. Didn’t get to know or play with any of our neighbors as a child, as had to go to school in another part of the megapolis which was at least an hour by car away. The first time I actually got to experience any sense of oneness and community with a place and its people was when I began to live and work at the University of the Philippines, being able to walk to and from classes, teaching and learning in the shade of the ring of trees around the Academic Oval, that solitary patch of green amidst so much concrete. Unfortunately, UP is an encapsulated community that lasts maybe four or five or six years if you’re lucky, and once you’ve graduated (or resigned, in my case) then it’s back to the world of separation you go.

My academic self would put it down to the Philippine archipelagic consciousness: island physical-cultural geography leading to man-as-island-ness of collectives. An separation (un)consciousness that we see in the lay of our cities, the unhealthiness of our transportation systems, the arches that delineate one fiefdom from another (“You are now leaving Barangay X, Welcome to Barangay Y”), the walls that barely separate the swanky from the slums. [2] Our City and its subcities reflect so much separation: separation from ourselves, separation from each other. Rootlessness, not knowing what the Filipino is and not having the space and place to find out what we’re supposed to be. Given all these, you don’t have to be a member of the NPA to long for agrarian reform or understand the pain of the indigenous peoples’ struggle for their ancestral domains, or the question of the Bangsamoro or the Cordilleran homelands. Islands upon islands of separate identities. (But isn’t water meant to connect?)

Visiting Stockholm this month was an eye-opener. It isn’t well-known in this part of the world that Sweden’s capital is an archipelago itself, a city of tiny islands connected by bridge upon bridge. What struck me most about it, though, was its absolute porosity of space, which leads to a certain porosity of power. It’s small and compact enough that one can walk from a public square and then suddenly be at the foot of the Prime Minister’s residence, then pass through the two halls of Parliament (say hello to the friendly footsoldier!) before hitting the shops of Queen’s street. There were no towering walls or edifices, as far as I could see in twenty-four hours of walking. And that makes me wonder how a child growing up in a place such as that would begin to see the world, as opposed to a child of the Laperal Compound, or a child whose primary engagements with reality is through Facebook or Willing Willie or a PS3 or the window of his mother’s car.

We know that seeds cannot grow without being first planted in the earth (hydroponics be darned), and so my dreams are steadily growing to be about rich, deep soil. Some of these dreams reflect images I’ve seen in more affluent countries: the biodynamic farms and flowforms of Ytterjarna, Unternehmen Mitte’s free economic space, the cultural sanctum of Forum Drei. Then my dreams turn inward, into the Philippines, into the older spaces of Mindanao and Palawan and into places that have yet to be built.

Having been able to travel outside Manila has been another absolute gift. The Philippines is more or less visually homogenous: beaches and mountains notwithstanding, inland travel oft involves long stretches of brown and/or green, marred in places by hastily-constructed pueblos in unfinished concrete. However, it’s been outside colonial Manila where economic power is not as huge a prerequisite to accessing space: hence Sagada, some less-commercial nooks and crannies in Bukidnon, Davao, Bacolod. Perhaps the pain of the developing world, visually and relationally at least, is in our half-baked quasi-modern, trying-to-be-Western tendencies, not quite here nor there, which is less of an experience outside Manila. And so on my part there’s always a bit of depression upon entering the City after a long jaunt, knowing that one needs to go back to the default fragmented state. But I also do believe that pain is tied to one’s gift, and so I know that my fate is equally tied to this City and its shadows, and its great potential for light.

The first step, though, is to attempt to reconcile Manila’s many contradictions: crushing poverty and Three-Day Sales; living close to rich farmland but having nothing in the shops but pricey plastic-wrapped pretend food, with kids sniffing glue in the eaves; the Pasig River and its tributaries choked with trash; the people living on its banks throwing slop out of the window and wondering why they have the runs; Ondoy washing us all out to sea.

None of these fragments will become whole again until we connect our lives and our actions to our communities and this Place. People have begun to speak of the task of holding spaces, hosting spaces for communities and the New–and I’m beginning to feel it too. In a way, Placemaking is becoming a new generation’s religion–and by religion I hearken back to its original meaning of re-ligiere, of bringing together that which has been severed. [4]

Thus, the religious goals of my generation are many:

  • the connection of true politics and collective participation;
  • the advocacy of education that isn’t just a mechanism for producing more call center agents, but allows people to bring forth their true gifts;
  • jobs that allow you to further explore these gifts and offer it to the collective while earning a living wage;
  • a vibrant cultural life and parks that don’t tell you to keep off the grass;
  • real food;
  • thrumming communities in all seven thousand one hundred seven islands, dancing into one large interwoven collective that respects the beauty of each individual identity.

And so, in the name of health and dignity and love, I ask,

How do we bring back the sacred into the city? How do we bring back the sacred into ourselves?

Ideas and suggestions welcome.

[1]  http://www.facebook.com/notes/courage-mpmu/please-repost-mga-residente-ng-laperal-kinundena-ang-marahas-na-demolisyon/111632042254824

[2] Image of separating welcome/goodbye arches in local government units, via Louise Far.

[3] Concept of the debrouilleur encountered in Rosello, Mireille. “French bidonvilles around 1960s Paris: Urbanism and individual initiatives”. The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and experiencing the modern metropolis. Ed. Neil Leach. London: Routledge, 2002.

[4] Thanks to Kiara Nagel for that in-depth conversation on Placemaking. And for being herself, in general.

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