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Lungsod Iskwater: A peek at society’s underbelly

(Article published in the Mar 16,2011 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

For use this year as jump-off material for Lenten meditations that is not in the genre of the usual spiritual reading, I strongly recommend Lungsod Iskwater, a very moving presentation of the evolution of informality as a dominant pattern in Philippine cities.

Lungsod Iskwater is to be launched at 5:30 pm at The Atrium, Podium on 12 ADB Avenue, Ortigas Center, Mandaluyong City this March 17 by the Luis A. Yulo Foundation for Sustainable Development, Inc.

Despite its expensive-looking appearance--durable hard cover, thick and glossy pages and overleaf, high-quality printing—, Lungsod Iskwater is not is not a coffee table book; its message is more stimulating than the blackest of coffee ever to be served to a passing guest and its place is atop the study desk, at the center, to be easily read and reread, rather than beneath the glass top of a seldom used small table at the corner of the living room dusted every now and then by some housekeeper who is entirely clueless about the weighty book’s contents. 

Its purpose, says Ma. Antonia Yulo Loyzaga, a worthy daughter of the worthy father whose name the sponsoring foundation bears, is “to provide an in-depth analysis of the relationship between built form and open space within selected informal settlements in Metropolitan Manila and correlates specific cultural, socio-economic, political, and environmental factors.”  Putting that in English, the book is an attempt to demonstrate the extent in which cultural, social, economic, political and environmental factors impact the way the squatters in selected sites in Metro Manila built their homes and lived the way they did.


Proceeding from that premise of some such impact and delivering on that lofty promise are scholarly texts from Paulo Alcazaren, Luis Ferrer, and Benvenuto Icamina.  And demonstrating once more the allegedly Chinese saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, seamlessly dovetailing with the textual dissertation are excellent photos, most of them never before published, taken by Neal Oshima.

A handy time line, starting from the years 1100-1500 all the way down to 2005, provides a quick-reference resource for temporally situating the significant historical developments, dealt with in the initial chapters, which shaped the way squatters lived and built their homes.

The waterways were clearly dominant in shaping the architecture of the squatter area during the early days of informality.  “Informality” is the term used in polite society to mean outside of the formality of being legal and, when used in human settlements, refers to what in my boyhood days was simply called “squatting.”   And a squatter, based on my shaky etymology, initially used to refer to a stubborn sheep that, despite its reputation for stupidity, had the good sense, as it was unwilling to be sheared, to simply sit on the ground with all its legs folded and thereby making it most difficult to move or herd him.

In any case, the earliest squatters were in the swampy land of Binondo, Tondo, Quiapo, Parian, Dilao, Ermita and Malate where lived the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos who found work in but were excluded from the Walled City. Intramuros itself was laid out following the Laws of the Indies, with its grid of streets and plaza that has the church, the offices of the government, the houses of the elite, and other symbols of power.  To meet the growing demands of the formal city within, other squatter settlements formed along the Pasig River which provided easy access to gated Manila and the affluence therein.

Water is responsible for two older of the five major types of informal settlements in most Philippine cities, (1) the tabing-ilog, by the river; and (2) the tabing dagat, by the sea.  The three other types, which are of more recent vintage, are the (a) tabing riles, by the train tracks; (b) barangay basura, by the garbage dump; and (c) “gillage, around the residential “villages” which are exclusive enclaves of the upper middle class and the rich.  Each type has its distinctive characteristics as well as features shared with the rest.

From the exposition of the roots and growth of the housing problem, Lungsod Iskwater  turns its attention to government’s efforts over time in addressing it, from the establishment of offices mandated to take stabs at the growing dragon by Manuel L. Quezon during the Commonwealth, to the tenement housing projects of Diosdado Macapagal, then to the Bliss (“Bagong Lipunan Sites and Services) programs under Ferdinand Marcos’ Ministry of Human Settlements, headed by his wife, Imelda.

Through these periods, informal urban life demonstrates how human existence is approximated with the minimum of technology, materials, and space. Some surprising observations: inside spaces are multi-functional, well-ordered and clean; vegetation abound, which though without grand trees, nevertheless include woody vines, papayas, guavas, and other fruit trees, shielding the residents from the harshness of the sun and providing some measure of sustenance; fiestas are celebrated; communal worship is conducted; some settlers own refrigerators, fans, and other electric appliances, and even radios and television sets which appear to be the informal settler’s principal windows to the world. 

Other important and heart-rending subjects are covered by Lunsod Iskwater to which I intend to return from time to time.  Suffices it for me to close, for now, with what I am not certain whether artfully crafted or sheer coincidence: both the first and last photos have segments of the railroad tracks, indicating neither where the steel rails started nor where they will lead.  Very much like our present problem of informal settlements, coming from an uncertain and dim past and going to an unsure and lazy future.