In the years prior to World War II, the City of Manila was the Dame of the Orient, and the most picturesque city in South East Asia. It had the charisma of old Spain in its quaint, high-end residential suburbs of Ermita and Malate, and the Romanesque architecture of modern America in its political, commercial and business districts, particularly along Taft Avenue and the Escolta.
The modern sea port at Manila Bay was the envy of other Asian cities. International civil aviation was then in its infancy, but Manila Bay was already in the map of the seaplanes of the pioneer airliners. Automobiles, buses, and a streetcar system provided transportation in the city.
Manila already had commercial arcades, elevators, and soda fountains when many countries in the Middle East still used barrels for bathtubs in their hotels.
The Manila Hotel was a destination for international celebrities. A nearby pensionne, the Luneta Hotel, was for those who preferred less pomp and pageantry.
Air-conditioned cinema houses showing the latest Hollywood films dotted Rizal Avenue in the downtown district of Santa Cruz. The Ideal and State theatres were favorites. Along the Escolta were the Lyric and the Capitol, which charged larger amounts for admission tickets. The Bellevue Theatre along Herran Street in Malate, an example of Arabian architectural style, specialized in second-run, double-feature film exhibitions.
Stage presentations and concerts were held at the elegant and awesome Metropolitan Theatre at Plaza Lawton (present-day Liwasang Bonifacio).
Family celebrations were almost always held at any of three Chinese restaurants along Tomas Pinpin Street in downtown Manila—Rice Bowl Restaurant, Panciteria Toho Antigua, and Panciteria San Jacinto.
The Jai-alai Building along Taft Avenue was the epitome of art deco architecture. Its Sky Room was for gourmets, while its Keg Room was home to social drinkers and alcoholics alike.
South of the city was the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, which consisted mainly of a coliseum and a stadium. International sports competitions were held here, including the predecessors of the Asian and South East Asian games. The legendary Babe Ruth played baseball there.
On a postwar note, the complex hosted the one and only Beatles concert held in the Philippines. That was in July 1966.
Unfortunately, almost all of these pre-war historic and iconic landmarks are no more.
Manila’s premiere pier and its streetcar system were destroyed during the war, and were never rebuilt. Many of the families who used to live in the Ermita and Malate districts have relocated elsewhere. The plush residential community has been overrun by restaurants, bars, and night spots. Manila Bay no longer hosts commercial aircraft.
The arcades and the law firms along the Escolta have also relocated. It is now a ghost of its old self—crowded, and dirty. It’s surrounding esteros which made it look like a Venician city in the past, are now filthy.
Gone, too, are the cinema houses. The Ideal and Lyric theatres were torn down in the 1980s to give way to department stores, while the Capitol, State and Bellevue theatres are abandoned buildings awaiting the wrecking crew.
Except for Panciteria Toho Antigua, the restaurants along Tomas Pinpin Street are no longer there.
The Jai-Alai building was demolished by the city government under Mayor Joselito Atienza. It’s demolition was supposed to give way to a hall of justice, but this never materialized. Today, a controversial high-rise building stands on the site.
Then President Joseph Estrada, who is now the mayor of the city, tried but failed to persuade Mayor Atienza not to demolish the Jai-Alai building.
In the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, the Manila Hotel and the Metropolitan Theatre fell into disrepair. Fortunately, then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos helped the Manila Hotel regain its status as a viable five-star hotel and, for a few years beginning in 1978, the renovated Metropolitan Theatre became a modern cultural destination complementing the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The Met fell into disrepair a second time around, but Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada acquired it for the city and promised to renovate it to its old glory.
Happily, the Luneta Hotel remained in private hands and was refurbished. Today, it stands proud in the Luneta area.
The bad news is that there are plans to demolish the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex to give way to a shopping mall. Excuses have been tendered by city officials and some “interested parties” to the effect that the complex is no longer safe or modern enough for training Filipino athletes.
If the complex is unsafe, the solution should be to retrofit it to make it safe, just like what structural engineers did to the old Ayala Bridge which spans the Pasig River. Demolishing the landmark and historic sports complex is an extreme measure, one clearly uncalled for.
The excuse that the sports complex is not modern enough is too flimsy to warrant its demolition. If the problem is its obsolete facilities, then all the sports complex needs is physical improvement and the infusion of modern training facilities for its athletes. Replacing the sports complex with a shopping mall hardly counts as an effort to modernize it.
It must be emphasized that the Filipino people, and not just the people of Manila, want to keep the historic Rizal Memorial Sports Complex intact for future generations of Filipinos to appreciate and to identify with. The people cannot afford to lose another important part of Philippine heritage to the altar of shopping mall commerce.
President Erap Estrada wanted to, but could not stop the demolition of the Jai-Alai building. That’s because only the city mayor of Manila can stop the demolition.
Now that Erap Estrada is the city mayor, he save the sports complex. Moreover, saving the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex as a heritage site is the best legacy Erap can leave to the Filipino people.