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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

entry arrow4:11 AM | What We Could Have Become

What we have in Dumaguete is so much potential for greatness. What is utterly lacking is vision -- the ability to think beyond the boundaries of a small city, to dream big things for ourselves, while still being able to preserve a way of life that does most of us here great service: Dumaguete's charm, for one thing ... its quaintness, its intimacy of place.

But a small place does not necessarily have to be a "small" place, if you get the drift. Dumaguete can become so much, yes, but it is still bogged down in the very Filipino disease which the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin used to call a "heritage of smallness."

In that incisive essay (a favorite literary text for many collegiate Philippine literature classes), Joaquin wrote that Filipinos -- but, for our purposes, specifically Dumaguetenos -- "think small." Our ways consist of insignificant gestures, our perspective is narrow, our dreams are self-defeating in their utter lack of grand ambition. Which may be why we are trapped in the tyranny of having an isang kahig, isang tuka life.

Joaquin wrote:

This is a country, perhaps the only one in the world, where people buy and sell one stick of cigarette, half a head of garlic, a dab of pomade, part of the contents of a can or bottle, one single egg, one single banana... So much effort by so many for so little. Like all those children risking neck and limb in the traffic to sell one stick of cigarette at a time. Or those grown-up men hunting the sidewalks all day to sell a puppy or a lantern or a pair of socks. The amount of effort they spend seems out of all proportion to the returns...

The Filipino who travels abroad gets to thinking that his is the hardest working country in the world. By six or seven in the morning we are already up on our way to work, shops and markets are open; the wheels of industry are already agrind. Abroad, especially in the West, if you go out at seven in the morning you're in a dead-town. Everybody's still in bed; everything's still closed up. Activity doesn't begin till nine or ten -- and ceases promptly at five p.m. By six, the business sections are dead towns again. The entire cities go to sleep on weekends. They have a shorter working day, a shorter working week. Yet they pile up more mileage than we who work all day and all week.

Is the disparity to our disparagement?

We work more but make less. Why? Because we act on such a pygmy scale. Abroad they would think you mad if you went in a store and tried to buy just one stick of cigarette. They don’t operate on the scale. The difference is greater than between having and not having; the difference is in the way of thinking. They are accustomed to thinking dynamically. We have the habit, whatever our individual resources, of thinking poor, of thinking petty.

I want to illustrate.

I remember the battle for the old Dumaguete City Master Plan, which was hatched by the previous administration (and promptly trashed by the new mayor when he came to office -- more for political reasons than for the plan's lack of merit). The Plan was drafted into a firm blueprint by acclaimed (and now retired) U.S.-based architect Manuel Almagro (he who helped restore the Statue of Liberty for its Bicentennial in the 1980s). It called for a massive re-imagination of the city. I used to ask the previous mayor, in my previous capacity as editor-in-chief of NegrosNews, what his business model was for the city. "All thriving cities have a business model," I told him. He smiled and said, "A University Town model, of course." And proceeded to unveil what he meant.

Part of the Plan called for strict implementation of zoning guidelines (still non-existent, or at least inconsistent in our present context), and for even distribution of the traffic of people, of commerce, and of institutions, from the downtown area to outlying areas. "It's wrong to have half the city still be in the boondocks," he said. "Still basically agricultural when it shouldn't be. All that empty land going to waste..."

The Plan was an ambitious blueprint for the future of the city. Without doubt it entailed sacrifices and battles -- clearly a headache in the short run, but sound in the long run. A small part of its complex revisioning was to create a paseo in place of what is now Perdices Street -- our city's Main Street, the commercial artery that services everybody. The paseo in the Plan called for a beautiful brick walk traversing the street with benches and trees, and a clock-tower at both ends -- which meant siphoning Perdices Street off its traffic of snarling vehicles ... and which also meant that for anyone to shop in the center of town, one had to walk to both ends of the strip to finally get a ride.

"A shopping promenade!" I exclaimed. I had seen such complexes in my travels abroad. The best one for me was in Kichijoji, in Japan, and I was happy that Dumaguete could hatch such a plan equivalent to its finally entering the modern world.

Of course, that notion made so many people -- especially those in the political opposition -- cry foul. They said things like, "What? Me walk along Perdices Street? What if I have bags full of groceries after shopping in Lee Super Plaza? I have to walk all that way before I can get a pedicab?" And so on and so forth -- all comments stinging, particularly now, with such ignorance and lack of foresight.

Later on, I realized that perhaps it was virtually impossible for these people to see the beauty of the design. If they were well-traveled (which they were clearly not -- perfectly explaining their extremely insular philosophy), they would have understood that such cosmopolitan design is increasingly the one being adopted by so many of the world's best cities. Manila, under Mayor Lito Atienza, is doing that right now, with some modifications -- and in the process reviving old and long-abandoned commercial centers like Tomas Morato. This is so in Tokyo, in Singapore, in Shanghai, in many of Europe's best commercial centers, and in many American cities as well. There is now an increasing trend to "mall-ify" city neighborhoods -- to create promenades out of traffic-choked streets, to trend-ify the facades of shops, to make people relax in the middle of a stressful urban landscape.

This was the wave of the future. Almost in our grasp. Killed by stupid politics.

So today, the plan for the Lo-oc Marina and Boardwalk is no more, among other disappointments.

Perdices Street still remains ugly Perdices Street -- with all the requisite nightmares of unplanned urbanity. The fact that traffic through the street now goes one-way has, in fact, paradoxically made it a nightmarish version of the Master Plan's paseo: most people going the opposite way still has to walk the street's entire length before they can actually get a ride home. I live in Tubod, for example. To get a ride from downtown, I still have to walk -- grocery bags and all -- to the corner of Silliman Avenue to flag any available cab. In fact, to make sure I can actually get a cab, I walk all the way to Openas. That's walking halfway, to get to the destination.

Those people who cried and brayed and hawwed, have no vision whatsoever. And many of them are still in the City Council. Many of them we have elected to office again and again. We can rest assure we will forever remain mediocre.

Our tragedy springs from the fact that despite so much potential, and despite the singular visions of quite a few individuals, we maintain to rest in our sense of vapid complacency, of not having any initiative.

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