Today, downtown is not singular but plural. If one wants to go shopping, or see a movie, or eat out, one may go to Cubao,Ortigas, Greenhills, Makati or any where in the metro.
But there was a time when the day of downtown refers only to single destination. Depending on the period in our history, the title “downtown” shifted from Binondo to Sta. Cruz to Quiapo until Manila has outgrown its delta and moved further up river.
The Insular Government was a briefer term for what was more formally known as “the Government of the United States in the Philippine Islands.”
In June 1901, the Americans drafted a new charter for Manila, making official what had long been unstated: that the City of Manila was not Intramuros alone but also all its arrabales.
According to historian John Foreman, “Manila was formerly the capital of the Provincia de Manila, as well as of the Philippines. Since the American occupation, the city and suburbs form a kind of federal zone; what was once Manila Province is now Rizal Province, and with it is incorporated that territory formerly designated Morong District.”
The new city charter proclaimed that Manila was composed of eleven districts, or wards –presumably Tondo, Binondo, Santa Cruz, Sampaloc, San Miguel, Pandacan, Santa Ana, Paco, Malate, Ermita and Intramuros.
Plaza Calderon dela Barca
In the mid-19th century, downtown Manila would be Plaza Calderon dela Barca and Calle Rosario. Binondo was our true commercial capital and the richest pueblo in the Philippines. It was a bustling metropolis with nine bridges, busy wharves and canals, large stone buildings and a magnificent church.
At the foot of Calle Rosario (today is Quintin Paredes Street) just off the Puente de España (replaced by what is now Jones Bridge), were the Glory Days by the Muelles. Calle Rosario was where the emporia and banking establishments and from this street radiated the arteries of trade that fed Philippine production.
The street opened up in the Plaza Calderon, where stood the hotels, fondas, theaters, offices as well as great cavern of a church with its gilt baroque altars.
From this plaza one crossed the Canal dela Reina through the San Fernando Bridge into the residential district of San Nicholas.
This was the “downtown” in the 1850s.
Binondo and its moneyed Calle Rosario was yet the business hub of the city –and in fact of the nation –but during the American era the bustle of business would gradually shift to Sta. Cruz. From the 1900s on, money and power passed from Binondo to Sta. Cruz.
The biggest event in that arrabal’s modern history was the opening of Avenida Rizal, which was formed by merging two streets, Dulumbayan and Salcedo.
The building of Santa Cruz Bridge and the coming of the trolley cars definitely established the city’s center in the area bounded by Avenida Rizal, Plaza Goiti, the Escolta and Plaza Santa Cruz –an area that became known as “downtown.”
Plaza Goiti was the center of the city’s transportation network –the tranvias. The Escolta was carriage trade. Plaza Sta. Cruz was entertainment like bars and vaudeville. Avenida Rizal was Main Street where the bazaars, movies, hotels, offices, restaurants and banks thrived.
In Sta. Cruz sprouted the first night clubs –Tom’s, Ronda, the Trocadero. The Americans met at Silver Dollar Saloon on Plaza Santa Cruz and Clake’s on Escolta. East and West regarded each other from separate tables at Plaza Lunch and Tom’s Dixie’s Kitchen on Plaza Goiti.
The straitlaced gentry and businessmen gathered to gossip or share the latest news before it broke on the porticos of Monte de Piedad on Plaza Goiti.
This was the “downtown” during the American era.
Viernes sa Quiapo
Since the immediate prewar days, “downtown” has meant Plaza Miranda and all the streets leading to it. Streets described by old folks to be so dreamy and quiet.
Calle Carriedo, for instance was once an all shady tree and bookshop. Dim and dusty librerias that was as old and as polite as their gentlemen keepers. The alleys off the church were equally tranquil domain of jewelers, sculptors, goldsmiths, and silversmiths, and the sellers of pianos and music sheets.
El Refugio, famous for its lengua and sorbete was an old landmark near the corner of Carriedo and Evangelista.
The transformation of Quiapo from gentle arrabal to rugged downtown began in the 1920s, when the Friday devotions to its Nazareno intensified to a city wide cult, especially among the masses. In the wake of the Friday crowds came multiple-businesses to jazz-up the city’s new hub.
Viernes sa Quiapo thus became the Day of Downtown, when its tills registered the biggest takes of the week and its traffic jams were the biggest. One result would be the construction of the Quezon Boulevard and Quezon Bridge (which replaced the old Puente Colgante). Another result was the rule that a movie must open on a Friday.
Greatest result of all was Plaza Miranda as the crossroads of the nation, the forum of the land. A fact recognized by President Ramon Magsaysay in the famous question, “Can we defend this at Plaza Miranda?”
This was the “downtown” until the 1960s.
Information sources: Nick Joaquin’s Almanac for Manileños and Manila, My Manila