Thursday, August 16, 2007


N.B. I am posting a journal entry I wrote on August 13, 2003 in Chicago, a little before I left for Baltimore, MD.

The great “Windy city,” the seat of two of the world’s tallest buildings, the famed city by the Lake of Michigan, immortalized in verse by Carl Sandburg, has some connections with what Manila once upon a time was known for – the place by the historical Pasig river, the place to be seen in for anyone who was somebody in times past. Those were glorious days for Manila, as Chicago once had, for the two cities which shared a common reality of being originally built to fit the contours of a river, were both planned by the same great city planner by the name of Burnham, the same name from whom the once famous park in Baguio takes its name.

Escolta in Manila, the other wide avenues leading to it, and the once beautiful bridges crossing the Pasig were reminiscent of the road and bridges that line and cross the meandering route of the Chicago river,

Alas, the great windy city has left Manila huffing and puffing for dear life, unable and unwilling perhaps to run alongside its great Burnham counterpart, after the latter steadily kept up decades of planned and disciplined development which have catapulted Chicago to the level of a world-class city that it is now, and has been for many, many years.

The first time I saw Chicago was 19 years ago. I got back to it seven times more since I first set foot to it in the autumn of 1984. Already great by then by any standard, I thought it paled in comparison to Tokyo in a number of aspects, including the fact that, then, old, big and decrepit looking cars still plied the expansive roads and expressways that crisscross the huge city. The elevated railway system, obviously the forerunner of the more modern, more quiet and more efficient light rail system, known simply by Chicagoans as the L, perched as it was on ugly steel pylons, already then, struck me as making such a racket when it passes, making enough noise for it to be featured in that great American play “12 Angry Men.” Right inside the so-called “loop,” that set of blocks in the heart of downtown Chicago where the L makes a tortuous and rackety path, encompasses what used to be, and still is, the posh financial district of the city, where Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church once stood, proudly, albeit forlornly, dwarfed as it was for decades by high rises that date back to the 19th century and early 20th century. Old St. Mary’s along with the Paulist fathers who took pastoral care of the very fluid parish community, recently bowed down to the march of progress. They moved farther down south of the romantic and beautiful Michigan avenue, thus effectively moving away from the loop. De Paul University has recently acquired the land and building. It is almost sure that the old structure, ugly now by modern standards will soon pave the way for a more modern edifice worthy of the neighborhood.

Chicago now has gone light years ahead of Manila. Faithful to the far-ranging vision of its planner, Burnham, the city has kept up the ante of a city with political will and a sense of healthy pride to put its best foot forward all the time. State street, that divides downtown between east and west, now is all lined with a median that is abloom with flowers all through the year except winter. The wide sidewalks on both sides of the main thoroughfares belong to who ought to have them in the first place – the pedestrians. This summer, as in every summer, hordes of walking tourists and city dwellers saunter about in peace, knowing that the sidewalk belongs only to them and to one else. Seeing-eye dogs, who guide the blind, are just the only welcome competitor, most of the time, belonging to my favorite breed, Labrador retrievers, who seem to enjoy working for their beloved master, guiding them through the maze of streets and people and bistros and dogs of other breeds.

The sight of it all made me pine for the city I used to look forward going to – Manila by the bay…Manila by the river, more specifically that place where Berg’s department store was, Escolta. It was then a city that had enough self-esteem to bring out the best in its inhabitants and visitors alike. Streets were clean. People, as a matter of principle, did not spit out onto the pavement continuously. It was the place to enjoy simple but tasty fare in any of the clean eateries that dot Avenida and Carriedo nearby. The river was not polluted as it is now. And yes, the sidewalk belonged to the lowly, but respectable pedestrian. Manila was a glorious walking city by choice, or need, where everyone and anyone could enjoy a piece of whatever it was that the big city could offer.

Chicago has gone from good to better in these 19 years! A big cosmopolitan city, one sees and hears various colors and tongues from every corner of the world. It was a surprise for me to note that Hispanics now openly speak Spanish everywhere. Asians chatter and gesticulate in the language they grew up with. Even police officers, once the guarded turf of tall and true-blooded Caucasians, now include in their ranks considerably shorter and less fair complexioned members,

For all this, Chicago did not lose its political will to grow and glow!

Enjoying a city such as Chicago does have its downside… I am reminded of its exact antithesis back home. Chicago represents what Manila could have been, could still be, but is very clearly not so. It is heartening to note, however, that the present administration, obviously endowed with the same worthy dream, vision, and a lot of healthy self-love and self-respect, tries its best to lift the “ever loyal city” of Manila from the doldrums of neglect and disorder.

The battle is a gargantuan one of galactic proportions. The greatest battle, needless to say, resides in the hearts and minds of the teeming millions who now reluctantly think and speak of Manila as their home.

This pilgrim learner, part of whom seems to belong and part of whom seems not to belong, is even more challenged and encouraged to go back home where I really belong, there to be part of a growing number of individuals who now take up the cudgels to help make the city worth its name. The ongoing circus at the Senate, the most likely circus that will take place in Congress, sooner or later, the endless vicious cycle of coups and self-serving ambitions that go under the guise of unalloyed love for God, country and people, all these funny crimes whom nobody pays for in the long run … nothing of all these can discourage or disparage the well-meaning army of visionaries and dreamers who, like Burnham, still go on dreaming and working – and pay very steep prices for their dreams.

Chicago! Chicago! That is what people here shout out with pride. Manila! Manila! This is what, we, too, cry out in hope!