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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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Sunday, October 04, 2015

entry arrow7:48 AM | The Trust of Public Spaces

I was reading this fascinating article in The Atlantic Monthly where writer Selena Hoy muses over a cultural observation: that Japanese kids—often as young as six years old—are such a common sight on Japanese mass transit, and posits that “even in big cities like Tokyo, small children take the subway and run errands by themselves, [and the] reason has a lot to do with group dynamics.”

Hoy continues: “It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: Children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats. They wear knee socks, polished patent-leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as 6 or 7, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight. A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.”

I think this still bears some resemblance to small town life in the Philippines. I can still remember my own childhood in Dumaguete where I was sent to do various errands (mostly having to do with buying stuff from the local sari-sari store) by my parents and a whole barracks full of elder brothers—five of them, in fact. But I think it is a slowly disappearing part of family culture among Filipinos, with our increasing urbanization and the plethora of maids we have around to do our bidding.

I think of the bigger cities we have in the Philippines, something comparable to Tokyo, and I admit to a kind of unease. Because to be honest, I’ve always felt safer in Tokyo in a way I can never feel safe in Manila, for example. I’ve lived in Tokyo in my early 20s and this barest fact about life in that Japanese city has always been apparent to me. Even with the problem of language (and the fact that Tokyo is a megalopolis), I know I can go from point A to point B without too much trouble. In Manila, even when I take a taxi, my guard is up, waaaay up, it is quite stressful—and I can only conclude with this question: Will I ever feel safe navigating around my own country’s capital? The answer seems to be, given the realities. What’s up with that?

Hoy explains why the opposite seems to be the fact of life in Japan: “Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that [Japanese] children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.”

Perhaps that’s what’s lacking with Filipinos in the Philippines [and I make that as a clear distinction, because we’re totally different creatures abroad]: we don’t take responsibility for our shared public spaces. And there are many instances of this neglect.

We use our sidewalks as garbage bins. (There are no actual garbage bins, for one thing.) We don’t make it a point to keep to the right in public escalators, to give space for those who may be in a hurry. We barely line up for anything, preferring to cluster around and using palakasan as key to facilitate things. We leave the tables in the restaurants we frequent with remains of meals that resemble a sty. We snarl our traffic with devil-may-care driving selfishness. And we make excuses for these by justifying to ourselves that others are not following rules—so why should we?

There are even bigger instances of our misuse of public spaces. We build ugly infrastructure and buildings without any thought to whether the immediate community needs it. (That overpass near Silliman High School is a glaring example). Or whether it blends well with the environment. (That strange rectangular contraption cum billboard along the Rizal Boulevard near the tempurahan which is apparently meant to invite the framing of photos of passing tourists—as if it’s a perfectly good idea for anyone to want to do that). We also consistently elect public officials who sleepwalk over issues of the public good (like public transit).

And lastly, we treat our public parks and monuments like afterthoughts. We have been luckier in this respect in Dumaguete—but elsewhere, it has been a glaring problem. The artist Paulo Alcarazen once posted on Facebook a series of photos of the monument along Roxas Boulevard in Manila dedicated to our OFWs. Each photo in a set of three was taken within a few years of each other. Taken all at once, the series presents a sad study in devolution and heartbreak: the monument over time becomes surrounded by suspicious development, with the greenery that initially surrounded it over time becoming an ugly sea of concrete. And the statues comprising the monument themselves have become compromised. The original monument consisted of five figures in bronze—a mother, an elder daughter, a younger son, and their dog in a gesture of excited welcome to a returning OFW father. But over the years, some of the figures have totally disappeared (perhaps shanghaied by bakal boys), and what has remained of the monument now is just the figures of the mother and the daughter, both sans limbs.

There is a famous explication about public safety that is popularly called the “broken windows theory.” It is a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism as markers for crime and anti-social behavior. In that theory, a hypothetical community where the buildings have perpetually neglected broken windows is said to invite a rise in criminality and anti-social behavior in that community.

And we have so many “broken windows” in Dumaguete.

The trash on our streets.

The chaos of our traffic.

The devaluation of our public parks.

The uneven sidewalks running along our city streets.

And we keep complaining why our city is no longer the “city of gentle people” of yore? Why there are unsolved killings in our midst? Why our youths turn to drugs? Why there is a pervasive lack of public love for our local heritage?

Responsibility for public spaces and public safety. Everything connects.

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