Footsteps into the Past

By Buddy Gomez

Posted at Dec 31 2014 07:20 PM | Updated as of Jan 01 2015 03:20 AM

April in the summer of 2014, I took some thousand steps in a three-hour walking tour of the old familiar haunts of my boyhood and youth in the Manila vicinity where Sampaloc, San Miguel and Quiapo converge. I had longed to do this. I had just turned 79. My last visit to the Philippines gave me the opportunity to sentimentally venture into my past.

It was about 9:30 a.m. on a weekday, the weather was comfortably balmy, somewhat humid but not hot although sunny, when I got off the taxi in the plaza fronting the twin churches of Sampaloc: the parish of Nuestra Senora de Loreto and the V.O.T. Franciscan church. VOT stands for Venerable Orden Tercera. These folks have been around since the late 1500s.

This is where Bustillos street (now Figueras) ends coming from Legarda and where M. Earnshaw begins. Mayor Lacson used to live there. Laterally northwards is Calle Sulucan (this goes out to Lepanto which is now Sergio Loyola) where the Sumulongs (Don Juan Sumulong, g.grandpa of Pres. PNoy) had a family compound since before WW II. On the left side of the Loreto church was the extension of Calle San Anton, which led to NU--National University founded by the Jhocson family. That corner was the grocery store owned by the Jopson family of the revered anti-Martial Law activist and hero, Edgar (Edjop.)

It was in this twin churchyards fronting the plaza where hundreds of families ran to for safety and succor--‘alsa balutan’-style and stayed overnight in the open air, during the liberation of Manila in February 1945 when the neighborhoods of Legarda, Alejandro VI, Gastambide, San Anton and the “interior” (two-storey rental tenement housing) in the callejones--Main St. and Guidote--were all burning. At the time, we lived in #67 Alejandro VI (sexto, as it was called) which was spared. Across the street and back were all ablaze. The solitary and very tall Mabolo tree behind our house burned. The churches and the areas behind them (Manrique, Castanos where G. Tuason starts) subsequently burned down, too, within a matter of days. It is in this same plaza where months later, I learned to ride the bicycle. I was 10.

The plaza is now thickly populated with makeshift vendor sheds hawking street food and a miscellany of daily use/household consumer goods. The space was also a tightly packed parking lot for tricycles and jeepneys vying for fares. I crossed the plaza and walked on the right side of VOT along calle Manrique and turned left on Castanos. I recall having seen Carol Varga, a local movie vixen of the late 40s, stooping by her second-storey window one afternoon, still in her nighties, with her boobs hanging out!)

For someone who had not seen the neighborhood in decades, the deterioration was simply unpleasant. I walked slightly to the left where G. Tuason commences and curves towards Balic-balic. There stood our old house--a two-storey timber structure which was constructed in 1946, to which we transferred, just before the onset of my teens. This used to be #151 G. Tuason with a lot area of just about 115 square meters. The second floor with 4 bedrooms was for our family. The ground level was divided into three sections with folding front doors, ‘accesoria’ style. The first section had the staircase and served as our garage while the other two combined as a residential unit leased to one family.


I beheld the epitome of Manila’s abject descent into urban ugliness and congestion, full of grime and gloom. This neighborhood had irreversibly made its indelible contribution towards making Manila the world’s #1 most densely populated city with almost double the density than that of Calcutta!

That house, then occupied by just two families, was now subdivided into three units in the ground floor, each with a cubicle of a sari-sari store in the front, with a small opening for the relocated stairs leading to the second floor, now divided into three family dwelling units. The rest of the houses in the neighborhood, crying for slum clearance and rehousing, are not any less so abused. Speak of population exploding!

I retraced my steps back to Manrique turning left passing Lardizabal and Lavanderos streets, now seeming narrower what with building extensions eating up sidewalk space and with laundry drying up from the upper floor windows and the street itself a parking lot. Turning right on Legarda, I crossed Bustillos, (there was a public market and two cinemas--Moderno and Prince) and proceeded to the next street, M. de los Santos (once, Alejandro VI), home to the University of Manila (UM) where I was Grade 1 in 1941. I saw the old site of our pre-war house, now a row of decaying townhouses an area occupied by four to five homes. From the sidewalk fronting San Anton, I peeped into my Grade 1 classroom through the same unaltered ground floor window, in the old main UM edifice. We lived just a block away. I roamed San Anton, Reten, Tortuosa, Gastambide (a few steps away was Lepanto and P. Campa—original spot of R. M. Manlapat, the tailors, across from whose shop was the pre-war Japanese school used as House of Representatives when the Commonwealth returned) and back to Legarda. Passing Gastambide, I turned right on Recto which was still Azcarraga in my mind.

There was the Laperal Apartments. It was the tallest and biggest residential structure north of the Pasig. The site is now shut, geared for redevelopment. Yonder, the University of the East (formerly Philippine College of Commerce and Business Administration--PCCBA), which was La Yebana Cigar and Cigarette Factory, pre-war. The property had a gate opening to the backstreet, Gastambide which was renamed F. Dalupan after UE’s founder. Before it became the PCCBA campus, it was AFWESPAC HQ (Armed Forces of the Western Pacific Headquarters) the Gastambide side of which housed the open-sided laundry and bath houses of the US Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WACS) separated from the street only by a heavy wire chain link fence and burlap. There were torn portions and peepholes for gawking naughty children.

Moving on along Recto, just before Lepanto street, there is a small private passage way which surprisingly is still known as ‘Pasaje de Buencamino.’ In the mid-1930s, #2 in the row of ‘accessorias’ was rented by my grandmother. At the time, we lived in Calbayog, Samar where mother was a public school teacher, father was “presidente municipal” or town mayor. They came to Manila for my birth and #2 Pasaje de Buencamino was my first home after the hospital, before returning to Samar.

I crossed Recto at the corner of Lepanto to where the United Church of Manila still stands. From there, I could see the old site of Selecta Milk and Carbungco’s (catering and restaurant) across the Protestant church. Retracing my steps, I headed for Legarda again. I passed the old Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals compound which used to have a huge front yard, now built over with just a driveway to the SPCA-occupied portion. Then comes the front of San Sebastian College. This was an open field that reached all the way back to the front of San Sebastian church. I turned right on Legarda, where across the street still stood the old Ortigas Mansion, utilized by the Senate in 1945-46 and now for the longest time, still remains the Samson Institute of Technology. I turned right to Plaza del Carmen where San Sebastian Church and its twin spires stood, passing by Santa Rita College. I moseyed around the spot where once stood the stately mansion of Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo facing the Plaza, at the opening of what used to be Calle Tanduay, now Nepomuceno. Still there were the old Tanduay Fire Station and the National Teachers’ College.


On both sides of Tanduay, after crossing Arlegui, the sidewalks have been landgrabbed by squatters! On a side street, entry from Tanduay is Calle Balmes. Here stood St. Joseph Hospital where I was born. As recent as the mid-90s, the hospital was still operating. Now, it is a forlorn aboveground warren of squatters--two storeys, the entire length of Balmes. This sorrowful conversion is of recent vintage. Sometime late in the 90s, the Carrascoso family-owned hospital ceased operations, closed it down and sold the landsite. And politics-abetted squatters lorded the place over. All these under the very nose of a consenting and conniving City Hall--and at the very doorsteps of Malacanang!

At many spots along this nostalgic sojourn, I engaged folks in small talk, asking questions and sharing apt recollections. There are indeed many, many more memories, sentiments with relevant commentaries that could fill a book but for want of allotted space for our blog, this recollection is thus abbreviated.

Anyway, I doubled back to Legarda, again, turned right to San Rafael where after the estero bridge, the rear of Centro Escolar has been opened and is populated by a myriad of store sheds retailing dental services and spare parts, (sir, gusto niyo ng pustiso!) in obvious support of its College of Dentistry. Then comes Mapa High School and the La Consolacion College where I repeated Grade I when schools reopened in June of 1942. Across the gate still stood the Estella residence, home of my first childhood crush, my classmate Asuncion, she with the long black black hair and Spanish eyes!

From San Rafael, I turned left on Arlegui and left on Mendiola. Holy Mamaw! Holy Ghost College--now the Holy Spirit, Centro Escolar and of course, good old San Beda--my Alma Mater! And the bridge, venue of protests where at its foot facing Recto is the statue of the late Chino Roces, an anti-martial law icon and my former boss when I worked for DZMT/Manila Times. A boisterous demo was in progress. What the belly-aching was all about I could not discern. It was way past noon. I hailed a taxi to bring me back to my sister’s place in Taguig. I had with me poignant memories of a past reminisced in the harsh and painful reality of today’s Manila.

(If the reader is up to it and can spare the time, please have fun and let your fingertips linger over your googled street map of Manila. Happy New Year, Peace, Joy, Health and Happiness to All!)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.