Last weekend, I decided to try a new bridge offering rapid transit from Bacood, Manila, into Kalentong, Mandaluyong. The bridge is supposed to be an alternative to the congested V. Mapa area.
You see signs right after coming out of the Paco-Pandacan bridge into the motels area, with signs enticing and directing you to the bridge. The drive across the bridge was indeed rapid and I had visions of getting to my destination within a few minutes.
Alas, the end of the bridge takes you into one of the most congested segments of Kalentong (or is it New Panaderos?), with jeepneys intent on blocking you from getting off. When you finally get off the bridge, it’s another long struggle with people and vehicles before you get into a slightly more civilized Shaw Boulevard.
The rather unpleasant drive across Paco-Pandacan and then Bacood-Mandaluyong got me into a bit of nostalgia for the older bridges of Manila. There was a time when Manila’s bridges represented progress and modernity, gleaming and towering, as well as the might of our colonial rulers. I have memories of these bridges, its histories providing materials for quiz shows and parlor games.
3 grand bridges
There were the three grandest bridges, built parallel across the Pasig, each taking you into a different world. Going from Manila’s City Hall, past the once-grand, art-nouveau Metropolitan Theater, you get into Quezon Bridge which takes you into the Quiapo area and, farther on, into the university belt (Far Eastern University, University of the East, University of Santo Tomas, and others). Its first name was Punta Colgante, which literally means “a hanging bridge,” the original structure built in 1852, the first of its kind in southeast Asia. It was later renamed Puente de Claveria, after a Spanish governor-general, and then replaced in the 1930s, during the American colonial period, by a steel-arched Quezon bridge.
The middle bridge I knew only as “Sta. Cruz Bridge” because it led into Plaza Goiti, the Sta. Cruz church, Escolta and Rizal Avenue, which in my childhood still had some fine shops (for example, Oceanic Commercial, known for its imports from France). Rizal Avenue was running down but was still decent, as long as you didn’t cross Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto).
The bridge my family took most often was Jones Bridge, which led you into Chinatown or the Binondo area. Driving across Jones meant we were going into the “lai kwe,” the inner streets of Chinatown with promises of cheap but sumptuous food, goldsmiths and jewelers, school supplies, mysterious Chinese drugstores with an occasional doctor taking someone’s pulses (in Chinese medicine we have 12 pulses) and doing acupuncture.
Jones Bridge, it turns out, was first built as Puente Grande; the name tells you it must have awed people initially. It was later renamed Puente de España. Again under the Americans, the bridge was rebuilt in 1916, in a neoclassical design. Old photographs suggest it was probably the most artistic of the three bridges. But it was destroyed by the Japanese, and the rebuilt postwar version is quite plain.
The three bridges were only part of a grander, historic Manila, represented by the Manila Central Post Office near the foot of Jones Bridge. In front of the Post Office was Plaza Lawton, which was a favorite starting point for many of the Left’s political rallies in the late 1960s, into the First Quarter Storm of 1970 and, later, during martial law. (Plaza Miranda, in front of Quiapo Church, was more for mainstream political parties’ miting de avance during elections.) The National Press Club was closer to Jones Bridge; it was not just a watering hole for journalists but also an incubator for a growing nationalism among media people.
Besides the three bridges, there was Ayala Bridge, not in Makati but in Manila, connecting San Miguel and Arroceros. This was built in 1872 by Jacobo Zobel de Ayala, and replaced by a steel structure in 1908. A persistent urban myth about Ayala Bridge was that it was designed by Eiffel—yes, the same person who built the Parisian structure. Other urban myths say he built Punta Colgante (Quezon Bridge).
The middle of Ayala Bridge leads to a small islet and an orphanage, the Hospicio de San Jose, founded in 1778. The structure today is obviously not the original, and I do not know if it still has its famous revolving cradle that discreetly allowed infants to be dropped off to the care of the nuns.
This area was the original “university belt,” mainly with two state colleges: Philippine Normal University and Technological University of the Philippines. There are also some private universities now in the vicinity.
Still another bridge, not quite as grand but still impressive, was Nagtahan, now renamed Mabini, Bridge and connecting Sampalok and Pandacan. I could not find the date for Nagtahan’s construction.
Finally, there is Del Pan, now renamed Roxas, Bridge, which connects Tondo and North Harbor to the rest of Manila. Again, I could not find the date for its construction.
Under the bridge
Sadly, bridges and flyovers no longer mean progress and development. Instead, they seem to represent squalor “nakatira sa ilalim ng tulay” (living under a bridge) and the worst of poverty. But it isn’t just under the bridge where you find poverty. The bridges are now often surrounded by depressing and depressed communities.
One of the worst is the Paco-Pandacan, which used to have hundreds of families living by the railway. The families have been relocated but there are still shanties there, and around Christmas the bridge is lined with Badjao beggars. On polluted nights, the dark night and the fog come together to make them look like ghosts, mostly women carrying young infants to try to get you to give alms, or food.
Even the grand old bridges have deteriorated, the structures as well as their environs. And a trip across the bridges no longer leave you captivated. The Pasig River, which once had a thriving riverine transport system with ferry points close to the bridges, has come close to dying a number of times. There are signs that the river is coming to life again, but the bridges do not seem to be part of a grander scheme or urban renewal.
In fact, driving across the bridges now seems fraught with risks. Every January city officials warn about MacArthur and Quezon Bridges having structural problems and possibly not being able to withstand the many devotees that come out for the Nazarene.
The two bridges lead to churches, where the most desperate of appeals for divine intercession are made. But there are times, too, stuck in gridlock on the bridge, with or without rain, I hope against hope that we will not need a miracle to get through.
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