Landscape and identity

When our parents are gone, and our friends and kin have moved on to distant parts, there is often little delight to be derived from returning to the place of our childhood.  The landscape alienates us.  Nothing in it seems to fix memory.  Our past life vanishes like a mirage. The monuments, markets, streets and squares from which we hoped to read the diary of our youth are nowhere to be found.

“All our landscapes, from the city park to the mountain hike, are imprinted with our tenacious, inescapable obsessions,” writes the historian Simon Schama.  He speaks of England and of Europe, where remembering is itself an obsession.  You can come back to such places after years of absence and not feel disoriented.  In 1997, exactly 25 years after I had left it, I went back to Manchester, England on a sentimental visit to my old university.  The city had grown immensely. A gentrified cosmopolitanism had replaced the sooty shabbiness that had been Manchester’s badge of honor since the Industrial Revolution.  But the old buildings, parks and quaint streets that formed part of my world as a graduate student had not been touched; they remained exactly where my mental map had fixed them.  I visited the small house in which my wife and I had lived as a young couple, and I felt instantly soothed.

One can only marvel at the effort that other nations put into the business of modernizing a city while keeping its legacy intact. On a visit to Dresden, a city in East Germany reduced to rubble by World War II, I remember being awestruck by the meticulous way in which the facades of old buildings were being restored. The buildings were being re-engineered inside to take on new functions.  It dawned on me that the first thing the East Germans did when money began to pour in after the reunification was to rebuild the landscape of their memory.

This is not just a European obsession however.  We find this too in many parts of Asia where nations regard landscape as an integral component of their identity.  In Singapore, which is predominantly Chinese, the authorities continue to promote the restoration of the colorful homes of Tamil immigrants alongside the preservation of British colonial buildings.  In neighboring Malaysia, the majestic shell of an old colonial railway station in downtown Kuala Lumpur metamorphosed into a bustling central market in a fine demonstration of adaptive re-use.  One finds this too in Hong Kong as well as in Shanghai, where the value placed on national autonomy does not collide with the preservation of a heritage that may include colonial structures.

In the Philippines, the restoration work in Intramuros during the time of Marcos should have signaled a comprehensive and methodical preservation of the country’s heritage.  But this came to an abrupt halt

when our political and economic woes became our central preoccupation.  It is as if it suddenly became futile to attempt any recovery of self-esteem in the face of so much poverty and instability.

Today we prefer to forget the past than to draw any strength from it. We allow the old city to rot while we build new emporiums in its outskirts.  The core of the city is turned over to those that cannot find a place in the new fashionable urban centers, i.e., to slum-dwellers, migrant populations, and seedy joints.  The resulting decay becomes the very excuse to clear out the old to give way to some politician’s unreflected idea of urban renewal.  One finds this for example in places like Escolta and Rizal Avenue.

One finds it in fact all over old Manila.  It was to protect what remains of the city’s familiar landscape that conservationists opposed the tearing down of the former Jai-alai building along Taft Avenue.  But the Mayor of Manila, Lito Atienza, would not listen to them; he had plans for that precious site and proceeded to tear down a landmark that he thought had passed on with time.  Now the mayor is bent on building the City College of Manila on the very site of Mehan Garden.

This once-elegant place used to be continuous with the Metropolitan Theater, Plaza Lawton and the entire Intramuros complex.  The garden vanished from neglect and became a parking area for jeepneys and impounded vehicles.

The other day, in celebration of World Environment Day, a number of artists and environmentalists gathered together at the nearby Arroceros Forest Park for a morning of songs and speeches, and art and ritual, in an effort to dissuade City Hall from completely erasing Mehan Garden from Manila’s map.  It is unfortunate that Mayor

Atienza was not there.  When he looks at the Mehan Garden and the Metropolitan Theater, all he sees is a vacant lot and a run-down structure.  He does not of course see the old Parian where the city’s Chinese residents used to be quartered.  He cannot see the landscape that only memory can reconstitute for us as heritage. Many of our problems as a nation, including the worst ecological ones, arise from such memory loss.

If we had not forgotten the way our ancestors revered mountains and rivers as homes of the gods and as sources of life, we would not treat Mount Makiling and the Pasig River the way we do today.  If we had kept even traces of the norms of sharing that marked our ancestors’ way of life from pre-colonial times, we would not permit so many of our people today to live in degrading poverty.  If we took our monuments seriously, and cared to recall the greatness they symbolize, self-respect would keep us from living the way we do today.  As an act of homage to a heritage of greatness, we would not stop trying to become a better nation.


Comments to <>