Bacolod City, the Philippines
Early 1980s / January 16, 2011 / December 29 – 30, 2015 / November 1, 2016 / December 1 – 2, 2017
Never mind the world’s great ancient civilizations. The downtown of my home city had also risen and fallen. Downtown Bacolod of my childhood in the 70s was the place to be. Save for neighborhood markets that sold produce, the downtown was the center of capitalism and the Church. People worked and played, shopped and prayed downtown. Such was the time when mall culture had not taken over the Philippines yet.
By the time the 80s rolled in, downtown expansion was underway. It involved a 250-hectare reclamation project that thrust the original downtown farther inland. My brother and I, at times accompanied by Aunt Zenaida, spent many Saturday mornings jogging and skateboarding on its newly-paved roads. The entire place was empty but full of promise.
I was too young to remember pre-reclamation downtown, but it must have been much closer to the shore. After all, one of Bacolod’s oldest hotels – if not THE oldest – Sea Breeze Hotel was perhaps so named for its erstwhile seafront location. In the midst of changing times, it stubbornly retained its typical Brutalist architectural style of the 1960s and 1970s – a concrete structure, painted copper then, more sprawling than imposing.
The Echauz-owned hotel was Bacolod’s posh spot back in the day. In its halcyon years, its affluent clientele gazed out to sea from the balconies of their rooms and dined downstairs to the sound of the surf.
Not anymore. By 2015, it had fallen into disrepair for several years, eclipsed by newer and bigger hotels, and sprung back renovated and reinvented as a budget hotel. The once-prime ocean view, however, had been replaced by SM City’s parking lot.
I lived long enough to see the reclamation development (behind the hotel) touted as “the city of the future” become an ill-maintained project from the past. Trash littered and informal vendors choked the streets. Only SM made it relevant and, at least, cleaned within its property line.
Out of curiosity, initially, and my affinity to all things throwback, Sea Breeze became my accommodation of choice for consecutive years. The hotel’s dated use of space – so much of it left underutilized and empty – grew on me: the rooms and toilet, the lobby and the main staircase dominating it. Even smaller rooms were not cramped. But space for nothing also meant a dearth of typical hotel amenities. There were no restaurant, coffee shop, and what-not.
How quaint, too, that the receptionists, mostly nearing retirement age, still used a manual typewriter. Room reservation was an old school affair. Without a website, the hotel could be contacted only through mobile phone, mainly managed by front desk officer Ella who had worked there for years. Reservations were made through text.
A plaza away from the hotel stood San Sebastian Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in Negros. The 135-year-old church was never a landmark of my life, though. As a Baptist, I had never been inside the church until 2017. Only then did I learn about the pair of bells displayed beside the church. They preceded the cathedral by almost 20 years.
Most Catholic churches were first built with wood and later reconstructed with coral stone that would survive through the centuries. The bells – one from 1825 (small), the other from 1863 (big) – were most likely the oldest objects I had ever seen in this relatively young city.
Being billeted at the downtown allowed for some nocturnal promenades around the Bacolod Public Plaza, the heart of the old city. One night, my friend Melds and I noticed an old woman following us in front of the church. I inquired in Ilonggo what she was doing out at such a late hour; she explained she was the cathedral’s “guardian” (her word, not mine). I assured her I could not breach the iron gates, much less do harm to her beloved church. This seemed to placate her and allowed me a photo op.
The plaza, 170 years old in 2016, was the center of downtown, surrounded by shops and emporiums, the precursor of one-stop shopping malls. The largest one was Lopue’s, a multi-level unair-conditioned department store a block away. My yearly punishment for always wanting to skip school were the stuffy heat and discomfort Mom and I endured while buying school supplies.
A happier association was with State Theater, the city’s premier cinema in front of the plaza, that showed mainly Hollywood films a week after their release in Manila. Its accordion neon lights gave life to downtown nights.
My fondest memory was watching an outdoor concert by an a capella church choir with Mom at the plaza’s bandstand. Painted all-white and inscribed with the names of classical music composers, it was a prominent gazebo at the center. I was surprised to learn the bandstand preceded the plaza by 20 years as well. Bells and bandstand were the historical pieces of my hometown.
The white bandstand did leave a musical legacy in my life. The Danniebelle Hall lyrics I first heard emanating from it still echoed in my ears: Just ordinary people, God uses ordinary people, He chooses people just like me and you, Who are willing to do as He commands. The power in those words followed throughout the life of that little lad enjoying a Saturday afternoon with his mother in his hometown’s plaza. It was the closest to a religious experience I could get downtown.
But such memories happened in more innocent times. When I posted photos and a video – of me reenacting my sister’s ballet debut at the same bandstand – on Facebook, a cousin from Bacolod was alarmed and warned me of the dangers that lurked therein.
As the city expanded and built pocket developments in the suburbs, the downtown plaza had been largely left to assorted lowlifes. It epitomized the general downfall of the downtown. Cities had outgrown them; my little hometown was not an exception. The concept of a downtown had definitely become dated. Much like the song Downtown.