The Divide in Our Cities

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This article has been updated to further clarify the labels on the images.— 24 June 2020, 12:32 P.M.

Architect and visual artist Isola Tong was researching green spaces in the country for an art project* when she came across a now widely-shared image from Google Earth. Half of the aerial view image shows Makati City — lusciously green, evenly-spaced houses, visible roads. On the other half, just across Osmeña Highway is another face of Makati and a portion of Pasay — the roofs of the houses so close to each other that “it melted into a monochrome of terra cotta brown.”

“[On one hand], we hear about the quarterly growth of the Philippine economy and the increase of the Gross Domestic Product per capita, per annum. But on the other hand, we hear about the problem of poverty and social inequality as a result of unequal wealth distribution, illiteracy, underfunded public education, and weak institutions,” Isola writes in an email.

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Aerial view of Makati and Pasay. The side on the left is a cluster of areas in Pasay but includes Barangays Bangkal, Palanan, San Isidro, and Magallanes Village, Makati near Quirino Highway. | Images from Google Earth

What she is talking about is the deeply questionable mismatch of real living conditions against the supposed energy of our economy that has been spoken of for many years. It also triggers a very important question: if the economy is so good, why can’t regular Filipinos feel it? Why do our streets look divided from above?

The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer

A 2018 survey by the Philippine Statistics Authority seems to verify the saying that goes “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” 54.7% of the income of all families in the country is mainly generated by the upper-third of the social pyramid. Meanwhile, only 13.6% goes to the lowest third. The lowest income generating families get only approximately Php 33,000.00 a year, while the richest families generate around Php 860,000.00. And these figures do not include stocks, investments, and inheritance.

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This means that while more than half of the total income of all families in the country is being shared by the top 30% of families, many are expected to sail through with an income that barely is enough for basic needs. The dichotomy between Makati and Pasay, then, is just one of the illustrations of this income inequality. You can also see it in places like Bonifacio Global City and its neighboring areas of Comembo, Pembo, East Rembo and Barangay Rizal: high rise buildings with wide green spaces contrasting the living conditions of its surroundings. This inequality is also visible in Eastwood where the cramped houses in Santolan look like a mockery to the residential condominium buildings just across the river.

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Bonifacio Global City, Fort Bonifacio Area, Makati (East Rembo, Barangay Rizal, Pembo, Comembo) as well as a portion of Pateros | Images from Google Earth

I proposed to Tong a common reason as to why areas near business districts look the way they do. In Brazil and New York, business districts have distinct characteristics: they have well-earning businesses at the center and packed neighborhoods in its periphery; business districts attract more talents from other regions; and these commercial nests relatively have better transportation systems.

This, however, has underlying trade-offs.

The “talents” urbanized cities attract are college-educated and well-affiliated workers who can speak the language of and maneuver through the corporate world. The talents that these cities deem less valuable are manual laborers, rank-and-file officers, and minimum wage earners who literally build the sidewalks, preserve our spaces from erosion, and serve as the foundation to companies. Rewards are given to the former, and scraps are given to the latter. Those who get the most rewards can live closer to more decent housing (better access to spacious rooms, green spaces, and wider roads). Meanwhile, those who earn less have to find room-sharing options or live just close enough, usually in areas outside the central districts, to maintain their proximity.

In short, business districts attract the upper-middle class and those at the top of income distribution because they are aware of the rewards that come with their “talents,” as their talents are held more valuable. On the other hand, these districts also attract those who are at the bottom for the same reason, more or less: that it offers rewards if you have a skill, although the rewards for this group are relatively less lucrative than those who are considered “superstars.”

Transportation is not an asset to these business districts either. Even if you live in a neighboring city (like Pasay to Makati), the commute is still a struggle — a weight that gets heavier and heavier as you get closer to rush hours.

“It attracts people simply because the companies who are hiring them set up businesses there. Have you experienced commuting to Pasay from Makati during the rush hour pre-Grab and Angkas era? The bus stops become a scene from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Sometimes you have to wait for hours just to get home. I’m lucky to have the privilege of waiting at Starbucks. Imagine those who earn less than,” Tong said.

Dignity — in salary, housing, and transportation — that is the element missing in these disproportionately unequal neighborhoods, and perhaps in the country as a whole. The root of which can be traced to the privatization of basic services such as electricity, water, housing, and public transport — that resulted not just to extreme cases of poverty but the mass exodus of the country’s workforce. In an economic system that highly gravitates privilege towards the rich, the gap has no other move but to widen. As favors are given to a few, favors are taken from many.

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Despite being in the same area, the aerial view shows how different these two sides of Culiat are. | Images from Google Earth

It can also be traced, according to Isola, to history.

“I think the historical basis for this system goes back to the Spanish conquest of the Philippines. I call this the ‘Muralla System.’ I took it from the name of the street around the periphery of Intramuros, within the walls of the old colonial Manila. Muralla means ‘wall’.

“This double meaning of Muralla as a ‘wall’ and as a ‘peripheral street in Intramuros’ is a perfect metaphor for how centers of power and wealth are barricaded by roads and expressways. In the 16th century, it was between the Spanish conquistadors and the Tagalogs. In the 21st century, it is between income classes.

“What I’m saying is our society, even after going through so much, never really changed fundamentally since Spanish colonization. It’s the same encomendero-indio relationshipーa non-inclusive, exclusionary, oppressive system which morphed into the current schizophrenia of oligarchs versus the masses.”

Makati City, a highly commercialized area, is still segregated the same way Tong described the Spanish-era social system. There is the Business District, the Old Town (known as Poblacion), and the Fort Bonifacio Area (which is where Comembo, Pembo, and Brgy. Rizal are located). While the barangays near the business district enjoy the perks due to its proximity to money and power, the Fort Bonifacio Area is, quite literally, cramped outside the urbanized Bonifacio Global City.

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Loyola Heights (Katipunan Area) and Malanday | Images from Google Earth

Hard as public officials may try to paint homogenized progress within and across cities, the maps that we captured tell a different story. Collective individual experiences of hardships and being pushed to the margins in poorer regions tell the stark difference of Filipino’s living conditions, especially in highly urbanized areas. And as much as striving for better conditions resides with the individuals, the government should be the primordial force to lead systemic reform, as they have the monopolistic control over people’s taxes and public assets.

When I asked Tong how we can solve this, she gave me a sobering answer. “Oh, dear. Let us stop using we. I have done enough labor to pay my taxes and make my bosses rich. I’m but a middle-class cultural worker and I have neither the power and influence to create sweeping changes. I think it is their responsibility to make things right. I’d gladly help if they employ me as an urban planner of Pasay…. I feel powerless but I just do whatever I can within my means.”

The systemic problem of inequality and social segregation requires systemic solutions as well. Increasing the minimum wage is one of them. There’s also reform on the taxes deducted from the working class and using these deductions to create infrastructures (roads, communications, transportation) that favor them. Improving the most basic assets such as education, healthcare, and retirement benefits, and ending residential segregation can help close the divide in our society.

Developers can keep erecting skyscrapers and condominium buildings. They can keep appropriating lands for villages and gated subdivisions. But until such time that every Filipino can live with the dignity that is now reserved only for those who can afford it, the problems we are facing will not go away. They will keep coming up over and over again and, even if you don’t see it in person when you walk out the street. It only takes a quick search to see how disturbing the reality is.

Isola Tong is an architect and visual artist with biogeography, technobiopolitics, architecture, and queer futirity at the center of her works. Her project ‘Forest of Agencies’ is currently displayed in Vinyl on Vinyl, Makati. It was during her research for ‘Forest of Agencies’ when she stumbled upon the aerial views that inspired this piece.

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