White sand and other deceptions of visibility

Sep. 30, 2020

Caught on camera wearing a red bathing suit, one woman who attended the public viewing of the dolomite sand-covered portion of Manila Bay stunned netizens for her “confidence.”

Expecting the bay becoming worthy for swimming, she could might as well be called optimistic as the rest of the people there who seemed to have forgotten the necessary health protocols (or the existence of the pandemic altogether) just to line up for a glimpse of the ‘enhanced’ shore.

Given how the pandemic has limited our sense of space for months, it is not the sand that had people flocking to Manila Bay, but rather the long-missed view of breadth of the sky, of the horizon. Despite its faint stench, Manila Bay has always been one of the few reflective, breathable (no sarcasm intended) spaces in Manila for bikers, joggers, and Manileños. These spaces, however, are becoming scarcer as cities get designed not much for the genuine benefit of the people.

Most of us do feel we need time out for a bench, just like in the movies, where we can have meaningful conversations, eat our baon, or simply to rest after a days of going around the polluted metro. But most of us may have failed to find one such place, thanks to hostile architecture.

Public spaces seemed to be designed in a way where people could not use them or stay in them for a longer period. Hostile architecture is responsible for slanted benches, spiked platforms, and other designs that make people uncomfortable. They are warnings that are both subtle and blunt: You are not welcome here.

There was a time when even former Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada took pride in the then-newly installed waiting sheds with slanted benches around the city, brazenly admitting that they were designed to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them, a statement we didn’t expect a mayor who is aware of what rampant homelessness would do.

Anthropologist and geographer David Harvey wrote in “The Right of the City” (2008) how cities have merely become spaces for surplus products and for people who can afford them. Gentrification, or the violent process of transforming places into spaces exclusive for those who have purchasing power, is responsible for the rampant cases of development aggression, land-grabbing, and indigenous peoples and urban poor displacement.

One does not need a bench; she just needs to be able to buy a cup of coffee so she could sit on a sofa, with bonus jazz music and airconditioning. Neither does she need a livelihood; she needs a new underpass.

Getting rid of mostly Mindanaoan vendors in the process, the renovation of the Lagusnilad Underpass is another feather in the hat of incumbent Manila Mayor Isko Moreno whose current projects primarily focus on clearing and beautification of the city, including the installation of the controversial dolomite sand.

Just why are public officials so obsessed with superficial beautification than, say, making spaces more inclusive?

The Marcoses can be a good point of comparison (if not the template itself) of what can be said as an edifice-centered leadership employed by contemporary public officials like Moreno and even Duterte. Unlike sustainable programs and systems, infrastructures are readily visible, whether or not they benefit most people. They are a gigantic reminder: I am a sign of progress, I am here to stay. That’s what the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), the Manila Film Center, and all other infrastructures built under Marcos have ever been about. Never mind the piled-up debt, the intentionally hidden view of the urban poor, the workers entombed where the infamous scaffolding collapsed.

Duterte’s SEA Games cauldron is no different. Openly identifying with Marcos, Duterte and his cohorts heavily bank on the spectacle economy (i.e. the tourism industry) hence the much flaunted Build Build Build projects that oftentimes just deodorize the socio-economic problems that need more than band-aid solutions.

In case the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) missed it, covering the shore of Manila Bay with dolomite sand does not in any way contribute to solving the problem of water pollution in the area. They have to go after the biggest polluters—the multinational corporations that produce and supply plastic and other kinds of pollutants around the market in the first place.

How come these culprits are so big yet so invisible just like the problems they cause? The last thing we want is to miss seeing them at all because they have successfully hidden behind edifices their politician-accomplices have built for their benefit.

In a popular park in the city of Valenzuela, twenty individuals were arrested for holding a peaceful protest on the anniversary of Martial Law. “This is a peaceful city,” one social media comment reads, probably coming from the fact that Valenzuela People’s Park has always been about zumba, concerts, a giant Christmas tree except for this rare if not the first instance of political demonstration. Just like the subtlety of hostile architecture, public pacification as an effect of how public spaces like parks are culturally designed have been so conditioned in people’s minds that they find it difficult to make connections between space and free expression.

Looking away and refusing to see this aren’t the best ways to defeat these deceptions of visibility. If these keep on happening, the streets would likely become all that’s left for people to occupy and begin dismantling the facades, reclaiming the rest of our public spaces. (davaotoday.com)

Roma Estrada has taught for ten years in different high schools and universities. She also writes for Gantala Press, Ibong Adorno, and Concerned Artists of the Philippines. Currently maintaining a column for Davao Today, she also co-edited LILA, a poetry anthology by women, and Kult, a collection of capsule critiques. Her other works can be read in the anthologies Umaalma, Kumikibo (Gantala Press, 2018) and Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines, forthcoming from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press. Reach her at romaamor01@gmail.com.

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