To Save a Stadium for the Middle Class, Manila Advocates Used Preservation as a Tool

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Purple Chrystyl Romero

The Rizal complex is unique in that it serves elite athletes and regular Manila residents who want a place to work out or see the sunset.

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This story is the fourth in a five-part series about displacement and the advocates who are battling it around the world.
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George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the legendary American baseball player, once displayed his killer batting and pitching skills in the Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium in Manila.

It was 1934. The stadium, nestled inside the 9.6-hectare Rizal Memorial Sports Complex (RSMC), stood as a proud witness to the “Sultan of Swat’s” gift as he sent the baseball flying far and high for a towering home run.

It wasn’t only Ruth’s athletic prowess which graced the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, however. Homegrown talents such as Lydia de Vega, touted as Asia’s fastest woman in the 1980s, and Felicisimo Ampon, who won the Wimbledon Plate Championship in 1948, also displayed their grit and talent in the sports facility.

But now, at 84 years old, the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex is hardly the grandiose, gritty sports arena that it used to be.

Once an exemplar of Art Deco architecture, it has grown decrepit, the sheen of its glorious past hardly evident in the threadbare structure. Home to an Olympic-sized pool, the Ninoy Aquino Stadium and other facilities, the historic structure is a sad testament to two of the country’s woes: the mismanagement of the national sports and athletic development program and a negligible appreciation of history and heritage.

It was thus marked as the latest candidate for demolition. One of the richest men in the Philippines, businessman Enrique Razon, wanted to buy the property in 2016, tear it down and build a mall and mixed-use property in its place.

Heritage conservationists want the sports complex to stay alive, however. The “blood, sweat and tears” of athletes are etched in its walls, they said. But aside from the indefatigable richness of its past, they also argued that if it is torn down, it will displace sports hopefuls from all walks of life today from having a nearby training area.

It’s a potential case of gentrification. Build a condominium and a mall and people from the middle class to the upper class will come in. But keep it open and Filipino athletes will have inexpensive space for training.

Athletes playing defense

“I’m signing because I’m an athlete and i know Manileño need RMSC and Filipino athlete [sic] need it,” this is what Hidilyn Diaz, a Filipina silver medalist at the 2016 Rio Janeiro Olympics said when she supported the 2017 petition against the demolition of Rizal Memorial Sports Complex.

Diaz was joined by another athlete – the taekwondo jin Ezra Balingit. “I am writing [in the] petition because I am an athlete. An athlete who believes that this is where we are molded! SAVE RIZAL MEMORIAL SPORTS COMPLEX.”

The said petition under Change.Org was launched by The Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) along with other stakeholders in 2017. The HCS has been at the forefront of saving heritage sites from becoming high-rise condominiums or the latest additions to the Philippines’ mall craze, which has run for 20 years and counting.

In this case, the HCS said if the sports complex were turned into a mall, it would uproot athletes who have been training there for years. The Philippine Sports Commission planned to move them instead to Clark, a city in the northern part of the Philippines which is a two-hour drive away from Manila.

“It’s something more about heritage…Where will our athletes practice?” Mark Evidente, current HCS president said.

It is not only the athletes, however, which will lose their training ground. Ordinary people who go there to exercise, run or swim will also lose a public space, the access to which does not make a dent on their pockets as opposed to other sports facilities run by private companies.

Gerry Polinta, a resident of Manila, captured this sentiment when he signed the petition, which eventually garnered 9,000 supporters.

“It’s just across the street where I live. This is the only open space that I can still view the Manila Bay sunset. This facility should be maintained and be open to the active public at a very affordable rate,” he said.

Indeed, the story of Rizal Sports Memorial Complex deviates from the usual narrative where the presence of the stadiums which creates a wall between the rich and the poor. This was the case in Atlanta in the United States, when the establishment of the Olympics stadium in 1995 resulted in the displacement of low-income, mostly black residents.

“There was intensification in the closure of public housing, homeless people were bussed out of the city, new anti-homelessness ordinances were created, and forced evictions and displacements followed the construction of Olympic infrastructure,” Seth Gustafson, a doctoral candidate from the University of Georgia wrote in his 2013 study “Displacement And The Racial State In Olympic Atlanta 1990-1996.”

A loss that propelled later victories

The proposed destruction of RSMC was a painful irony, because the sprawling structure survived the Second World War in 1945. It was reconstructed in 1954; but what bombs and bullets cannot destroy, critics say, misplaced modernization and profit seeking can.

After all, it’s not the only heritage site in Manila to be targeted for removal due to “development.” The 50-year-old Philippine National Bank office, the 77-year-old Meralco building and the 60-year-old Jai-alai building have all been demolished to give way to new structures.

But the Rizal Sports Memorial Compex, thankfully, is still alive today.

One of the forces that blocked the wrecking ball is a group of people with diverse backgrounds, who share the same passion of promoting the relevance of what has been dismissed as “old.”

“The HCS was a reaction or response to the Jai-alai issue,” Ivan Henares, its former president said.

The assistant professor at the Asian Institute of Tourism in the University of the Philippines was referring to the demolition of the Jai Alai building in 2000. Built in 1940, it was designed by Welton Becket, the same brains behind the Los Angeles International Airport. In its heyday, the Jai Alai building was considered the best Art deco building in Asia.

In 2000, then Manila Mayor Lito Atienza ordered it to be demolished, so a Hall of Justice could be constructed on its site.

HCS was joined in their opposition by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Historical Institute (NHI), which argued that the Jai Alai building is a marker of history. Do not tear it down, they said, but repurpose it. But Atienza, who studied architecture in college, would hear nothing of it. The conservative Catholic said the Jai Alai building – originally built for the “merry festival” Basque game – is a symbol of gambling and sin.

Thus in 2000, the Jai Alai building was demolished. The Hall of Justice that was supposed to stand in its place? It was never built.

“HCS started as a confrontational group,” Henares recalled. “Despite the group, Atienza came with a wrecking ball.”

Losing the Jai Alai building, however, gave birth to the fight for the passage of a law which will protect other heritage sites from being destroyed or removed upon the behest of local government officials.

HCS – then composed by architects, travel enthusiasts, professors and artists – lobbied the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass what is now known as Republic Act No. 10066 or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009. The law requires that before any 50-year-old building can be renovated or demolished, a permit must first be secured from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Heritage: Ally or antidote to gentrification?

While HCS lauds this victory, it’s a triumph that not everyone understands.

While saving the Rizal Sports Memorial Complex was lauded by athletes and residents from Manila, conserving a heritage site also raises concerns. The most common criticism thrown against the conservation of heritage buildings is that it’s a concern only for the elite, and that it can actually contribute to gentrification. If you preserve heritage sites, it can raise the value of properties, attract businesses, increase the cost of living. Thus instead of making them a source of pride among the people, they can actually become a source of division and displacement.

The late geographer Neil Smith said heritage preservation “has thrived on popular appeals to the ‘national interest’ and to a common cultural heritage, but the social bifurcation of who benefits and who pays belies these claims.”

This is a real threat, especially amid the increased demand for urban space. Take Quiapo as an example. Quiapo, another part of Manila, holds the unique identity of embracing two kinds of heritage, as pointed out by economics professor Victor Venida.

Quiapo, he wrote in his paper “Conflicts over Heritage: The Case of Quiapo” has one of the most elaborate arrays of old houses, the kind which show wealth and class. Through the years, however, it has turned into a bustling commercial center for the informal sector. Quiapo is the place to go if you want to buy the necessary (appliances, household items) and the weird (potions for love, sex toys).

With its distinct character showcasing two eras or generations of Manila, it’s the ideal site for heritage preservation. “Quiapo is an excellent model for heritage revitalization as it is the center of Manila, the main gateway of the Philippines,” Venida said.

Since Quiapo sits on a strategic location, however, it also is thus a good candidate for real property development and the establishment of commercial buildings – the elements for land speculation.

“Thus, while the revitalization of Quiapo presents opportunities for tourism and consumption-related activities and is home for many of its current inhabitants, land speculation is a real threat,” Venida pointed out.

“The stories we tell”

Heritage preservation is also seen as an obstruction to job generation, a view that goes along with the perception that it is only a concern for the elite. Why block businesses from turning heritage sites into job-generating spaces? Yes, they are deemed historical, but condominiums, malls, fast food restaurants – these can bring jobs.

The HCS is aware of this criticism, and sees it as quite myopic. “It’s a false choice between preserving that and getting jobs,” Evidente said. HCS believes that heritage sites have the capacity to contribute to economic development. “People have very real economic needs, but sometimes, the economic opportunity is right there in a cultural site,” Henares said. “It just needs capital, entrepreneurship.”

The group has seen this work in other areas where they have chapters – in provinces, in particular.
Vigan in the northern province of Ilocos Sur is an example. The heritage conservation of the Spanish colonial town saw the protection of 233 historic buildings in 17.25 hectares. It has become a prime tourist attraction, helping the formerly second-class municipality turn into a first-class one.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization later declared Vigan a world heritage site in 2012, citing as “the most intact example in Asia of a planned Spanish colonial town.”

“They only saw it before as an old house, but now communities have started to value heritage,” Henares said. “It’s not an abstract concept or elitist concept anymore.”

Dominic Galicia, an architect and former president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, said that there is a way of integrating economic growth with heritage preservation. There need not be a dichotomy, as this will not entail gentrification.

“More precise than ‘gentrify’ would be ‘vivify,'” he said. “To give life to. To revive. This comes in the form of businesses and services that create jobs, many of which can be filled by people from poor communities.”

Evidente also said that the working class and their stories are actually part and parcel of heritage. The narrative of the heritage sites is not confined to that of being the domain of the moneyed – it is also about the struggle and triumphs of the poor Filipinos. There’s no need to sugarcoat history and heritage.

“It is also not just about the elite, but also about the poor who works their back off to build the country,” he said.

“It depends on the stories you tell,” he explained. “Some structures are preserved because they were the homes of the elite of the country. But for us to come to terms with our own history, we should also tell stories of workers living in virtual slavery. We have to tell the whole story.”

For future generations

It is this inclusive framework which helped HCS save the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. HCS underscored the fact that it is not only where the sports legends competed and won – it is where anyone can play.

“A step beyond the issue of heritage is linked to other issues – the national sports program – where will our athletes practice, the community. People around didn’t know it’s open to the public,” Henares said. “It really is a public facility – very few people know they could go in.” They also linked it to the story of the Philippines’ fight for freedom. “There’s the political history, of course, Rizal memorial has that – it was used as a barracks in the World war II.”

By expanding the role and the importance of Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, it became easier for HCS to gather supporters. This plus technical and political lobbying helped them save it. But it was not an easy fight.

In 2013, the HSC asked the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to declare the Rizal Sports Memorial Complex as a historical landmark. Their request was denied. They tried again in 2017, as the NHCP has just changed leadership.

“‘We will put a marker on it,’ that’s what they said,” Evidente said. “We were very disappointed. A marker only wants to say that something important happened here as opposed to having a positive declaration which says it is inherently important to our culture and history.”

As Manila’s local leadership gave the demolition of the sports complex the green light, the HSC ramped up its efforts and tried another track. They went to the National Museum. The National Museum, however, wanted to get the nod of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), which oversees the management of the sports complex.

The members of the HSC were able to get Monsour del Rosario, a former Olympian-turned lawmaker, to rally for their cause so that the PSC would listen. In the end, an alignment of events gave the Rizal Sports Complex its second life.

Amid the pressure from HSC and their allies, the PSC and the local government unit (Manila owns the property) also have a lingering squabble over the value of the sports complex. The fact that they could not agree on it – plus the mounting opposition from heritage conservationists – pushed PSC to throw in the towel.

PSC said that upon talks with the National Museum and the NHCP, they decided to just rehabilitate the Rizal Sports Memorial Complex.

It was a big victory for HSC. Their key takeaway? “Build alliances with other people in and of good faith. Remember it’s not about you or me, but it’s about what heritage we can save for future generations.”

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