By Krizette Chu
There’s a lot riding on in Isko Moreno’s (Francisco Domagoso) new position as Manila’s city mayor. For years, the capital of the country has fallen short of expectation—its neighboring cities have grown by leaps and bounds, while the city has struggled with garbage collection, illegal vendors, disregard for heritage and legacy, and lack of infrastructure and technological modernization.
A Storied Past
For many conservationists and businessmen, for tourists and locals, Manila was the city to avoid if you could, a city that seemed, at least from the outside, to have no respect for its storied past and no vision for its future—a sad truth that reflected the realities of the city. It did not help that the differences between its chief executives saw Manila flail from one unrealized project to another, with mayors routinely discontinuing and even completely removing projects of their predecessors much to the detriment of the capital.
So suffice it to say—and the Internet agrees—that the arrival of this young, unconventional politician has reenergized the Manileños.
The clamor for change resulted in a landslide victory, 150,000 more votes than his closest rival, incumbent Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada. His is considered a David vs. Goliaths (note the plural) story—going against veteran politicians Alfredo Lim and Joseph Estrada, and beating them despite their well-established machineries.
But Isko, as he has been known since his showbusiness days when he blew on stage as a matinee idol on the teen variety show That’s Entertainment, has bigger challenges on the horizon.
Nothing if not pragmatic, thanks to his rough childhood that saw the mayor doing jobs like garbage collector and pedicab driver, Isko is through-and-through Batang Maynila and understands its problems, especially because he has lived through them.
“What is intolerable to me is hibernation, stagnation,” the mayor tells The Manila Bulletin. “I will try my hardest to move this city forward, even if I fail because failing is better than doing nothing at all. I believe in the principle of temperature—that anything above zero is positive.”
His projects are ambitious in scope—all pointing toward a reinvigoration of the districts of Manila that once gave the capital so much character. Many of his grand plans are still shrouded in secrecy—after all, he doesn’t want to jinx it, but please know he is already in talks with experts and volunteers—but he has let slip a few that are already in the blueprint.
First to get the Isko Moreno treatment will be the San Lorenzo plaza in Binondo, adjacent to the famed Binondo Church. He wants to put a spotlight on Chinatown, rightly so, he says, because the country’s Chinatown is the world’s oldest. “We’re going to fix the plaza to reflect the history and legacy of the oldest Chinatown in the world,” he says. “Bagong lumang Maynila (a new, old Manila). Bago pero luma (New but old). True, the other cities may have leapfrogged over us in terms of development, but we have something no other city in the metro has—a character drawn from our past. That’s the wealth of our city. And in our own little way, this administration will build on the city’s unique character. We are going to make Manila vibrant, different, but with respect to our heritage.”
Apart from Binondo being marketed as the oldest Chinatown, Isko plans to put Malate on the map as a Bohemian district, just like the Gothic quarters or the artist’s quarters in some European cities.
“Pedestrianization,” he says simply. “I want people to be able to leave their cars somewhere, walk around in the city of Manila safe. I want Malate to be vibrant again. I want people to explore the city. Manila being a walkable city is good for business. Pedestrianization generates more income for businesses, is safe and helps pedestrians be healthy, and will result to less demand for public transportation because more people will be able to walk around.”
This does not mean, however, that Isko is taking a hardliner approach against vendors. “In fact, it’s going to be the other way around. They will be allowed, but will follow the rules and policies that I am going to set for them. Ibig sabihin, itataas ko ang kalidad ng paghahanap-buhay sa kalye (I’m going to elevate the way of doing business on the streets,” he adds.
Window to the country
The expectations thrust on him are not unwarranted and baseless. After all, his was the only powerful voice that rose against the sale of Arroceros Park. “Of all the policies and programs that were done in the past, this is the only issue that had me raising my voice. Di ko matiis (I couldn’t tolerate it.) I will not sell Arroceros,” he said.
Manileños can also look forward to the continued redevelopment of Escolta, a historic street established in 1594, running parallel the beautiful Pasig River, and which used to be the country’s premier shopping and entertainment district.
Animal rights activists also have found an unlikely ally in the young Mayor, who plans to look for experts to help him make Manila Zoo a more “humane zoo.” He says, “We’re still going to have Manila Zoo, but I’d like for us to explore how to be more humane, for us to be able to introduce animals and nature in a highly urbanized city. If Singapore and Amsterdam can do it, we can too.”
He recognizes that, along with the new Philippines, he must keep up to present a better capital city. “It’s unfair for the entire country if Manila, the country’s window, is chaotic,” he says, adding that he cannot achieve the city’s turnaround by his lonesome. “Kababaang loob nakikisuyo ako sa inyong mamamayan, I cannot do this alone,” says Mayor Isko. “This is what I want everyone to have, what we call ‘the sense of belonging’ policy. We have to have a sense of ownership, we have to have our own identity as Filipinos. You throw garbage in our streets in Manila, you’re not helping present the entire country in a positive light. Kailangan ko ng partisipasyon ninyo.”