How artists, entrepreneurs are reviving Escolta

by Jon Carlos Rodriguez,

Posted at Mar 22 2014 10:54 AM | Updated as of Mar 25 2014 08:07 PM

MANILA, Philippines – What was once Manila's premiere business and shopping district, Escolta is now only a shell of its former self.

But several groups have launched projects in an attempt to bring back the lost glory of the once bustling neighborhood.

One of these projects is 98B Collaboratory's Saturday x Future Market, wherein entrepreneurs and local artists gather once a month to not only sell goods, but to interact with the community.

Marika Constantino, a co-director at 98B Collaboratory, said the Saturday market is both a venue for full-time artists to earn to help sustain their practice and a subtle response against consumerism and mass production.

“There’s no soul anymore when it comes to the things that we buy or the things that we are bombarded with. Everything is so commercial. So we thought, why not create a venue wherein the spirit of creating is still there and buyers are able to get to know the people who are creating these things,” she told

The items being sold at the market are a departure from what one would typically find in bazaars or shopping malls.

Aside from the usual flea market staples like collectibles, handmade art, secondhand clothes, crafts, and handmade jewelries, there are also rare finds—from "Johnny Depp-inspired" bracelets to expired film rolls to a hospital bed worth P5,000.

An "open call" for vendors is held weeks before the event, with independent artists and local brands that don’t have a venue for their wares more likely to get a spot.

Interested participants respond to the call by sending through email the list of items to be sold, price points, and photos.

“We were very clear when we started this that we wanted a process in place so that not just anyone can come and sell whatever,” she said. “We’re also very careful of ‘made in China’ and ‘made in Korea’ stuff because if you want that, there’s Divisoria and Quiapo and other bazaars na pwede naman ‘yun. We tell them politely that we don’t allow.”

One of the vendors at the market, multi-discipline creative group Polarities, has been part of the monthly event since June last year.

“The event is very interesting because it caters to different people, it invites different artists and craft makers. It is a very good platform for start-up artists to display their art or products,” said Polarities' Milo Buñao.

The group designs and sells, among other things, Filipino-themed graphic art prints on wood priced between P100-P300.

The one-day event has also been attractive to the vendors because of the low rent, which only costs P500 or P1,000, depending on the size of the space.

“Our capital per one day of bazaar is at least doubled. The profit also covers our expenses for the day of the event, including our food and transportation fare, so the return is really nice,” said Buñao.

The event has also favored online sellers wanting to make noise for their brands.

But not all who rent a 3x3-meter space at the market is looking to sell. One photographer, Edgar Allan Alberto, joined the event for his personal project “What are you looking for?”

Equipped with only his camera, a notebook, and a white cloth for background, Alberto urged shoppers to write down exactly what it is they’re looking for and to pose as if that something will be given to them after the photograph.

Alberto’s subjects did not have to pay anything.

Because of the open call system, Constantino said they’ve received also a lot of inquiries from food concessionaires.

But aside from one stall selling biscuits, sodas, and bottled water, food and beverage stands are off limits at the market.

“If we allow food to be sold here—aside from it being messy for us organizers—there are a few food stalls here in Escolta and we want to be able to promote them. We don’t want to be in competition with them,” she explained.

Why Escolta?

The first Saturday market organized by 98B Collaboratory was held at the garage of one of the group’s founders, Mark Salvatus, in Cubao.

When the group moved to the mezzanine of the First United Building along Escolta, they immediately saw the potential of a bare space at the building’s ground floor.

The building, designed by Juan Luna’s son Andres Luna de San Pedro, used to house Berg’s Department Store, one of Manila’s upscale department stores in the 1930s.

“We felt that there was some sort of synergy between the past and what we also are doing in the present. So we felt we can use the context of the space together with the program that we have,” said Constantino.

“It was very organic that it became part of our advocacy as a group, we felt that through art and creativity, we can do our small share in helping the street in terms of creating awareness for it again. Because we also say that in this short street, it’s less than a kilometer long, but you have the best examples of art deco architecture in the country. It has a lot of history and design, and we felt as creatives, we cannot let it wither and go to waste,” she added.

For the past couple of years, the collected efforts of 98B Collaborary, the Heritage Conservation Society, and the Escolta Commercial Association have been focused to resurrect the Escolta district.

One of the volunteers in the efforts, architect Dominic Galicia, said one of the key endeavors is the preparation of the declaration of the neighborhood as a historic business district by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).

“We want to keep Escolta in the public eye, and remind everyone of the importance—historically and culturally—of this neighborhood,” he said.

Another key project is the rise of the district’s first call center, which is expected to be launched within the year.

Galicia said the advocacy groups are closely working with the Manila city government in addressing issues such as security, cleanliness and maintaining the quality of the neighborhood.

As an architect, Galicia said what triggers his passion for the neighborhood is its architectural aesthetics, which he said cannot be found anywhere else in the country.

“I believe in the education of young architects in the importance of examples of quality architecture. And it’s here. All the top architects of the country up to the 1960s kind of left their mark here. There’s no other place in the country that I can see that has that kind of mixed time…I’d like this place to continue to inspire the younger generation of architects,” he said.

Some of the examples of these architectural wonders along Escolta St. are the Regina Building, the Calvo Building and the Capitol Theater, which was designed by national artist Juan Nakpil.

The theater has been abandoned and no longer open to the public.

Escolta's prestige may have been long gone, but the shared vision of Constantino, Galicia, and their groups give renewed hope to one of the country's oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods.