Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Published by Manila Today

Epifanio delos Santos Avenue or EDSA is no ordinary road. It’s the site of two (or is it three) People Power uprisings; and it remains the principal and most important highway in Metro Manila (apologies to C-5 and Commonwealth Avenue). The growth centers of the country’s premier urban hub are all accessible via EDSA. Nearly anyone who has something to do in the capital, whether a tourist or terrorist, cannot fail to pass or travel along EDSA.

Yet our top survival tip to visiting friends and relatives from abroad is for them to avoid EDSA like a plague. Avoid it at all cost or pass at your own peril. It reflects the state of EDSA today: a busy road converted into a semi-parking lot because of traffic gridlock. The notorious carmageddon is proof of uneven development and bureaucratic inefficiency but some callous politicians had the gall to describe it as a sign of progress.

Who enjoys spending three to four hours to travel more than 10 kilometers of EDSA every day, anyway? No one. Not the few bikers risking their lives as they evade MMDA barriers in sidewalks or the dark fumes of colorum vehicles. Not even the bus drivers desperate to earn the money they will remit to their company bosses.

Because of traffic, EDSA has become another word for hardship. A surreal death march on wheels during rush hours. It seems there’s no other way to experience EDSA today other than to endure its apocalyptic lanes. It’s a unique equalizer: everybody suffers. Rich or poor are punished every time they get near that road. Of course, the working, alienated poor end up sacrificing more but the idle rich also lose their precious time and sanity in EDSA.

Alas, things were a little less awful in the past.

There was a time when EDSA represented something hopeful and even inspiring about our society. Mention the word EDSA and politicians will cower in fear. When people demanded change, it was in EDSA where great political events took place. Today, even pedestrians are barred from walking on EDSA. Nakamamatay daw. It is the MMDA and police that already dominate EDSA, the people’s highway.

A long, long time ago, EDSA was also a symbol of a changing but vibrant metropolis. It facilitated the spread of the urban beyond the old and congested Manila. It offered to give space to those who dreamed of a better life in the city.

This was wishful thinking on the part of our well-meaning urban planners. Because how can EDSA spur urban renewal when development in the neocolonial state was lopsided? Further, there was no master plan to balance the progress of cities and the countryside.

Still, the unfinished nation-building process was evident in EDSA. For example, EDSA Makati was the citadel of the elite. But in EDSA Mandaluyong, it was the home of a small industrial and commercial center. Meanwhile, EDSA Cubao was an entertainment complex. The rest of EDSA were open spaces, government centers, housing resettlement sites, and public markets. EDSA was anything but an exclusive playground of the haciendero rich and the nouveau riche. EDSA was both periphery and center of a modernizing Third World metropolis.

A generation ago, travelling by bus in EDSA was quite fast but passengers were still be able to see snippets of Metro life such as the walled enclaves of Forbes and Dasmariñas, the factories in Mandaluyong, the Ortigas lands, Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo, Cubao, the green spaces of Quezon City, the housing center and people’s park market in North Avenue, and the Balintawak north diversion road.

After 1986, several of EDSA’s open spaces became business centers and shopping malls. Pockets of urban poor communities were demolished. The North Triangle residential area was rezoned into a commercial center. Curiously, but not surprisingly, Forbes Park and other walled subdivisions remained residential villages despite the quick transformation of Makati into the country’s main financial center.

After the construction of MRT in 1999, bigger malls were developed. EDSA became too small for Henry Sy, which probably led him to support the extension of EDSA in Manila Bay. The Ayala Makati skyline was challenged by the booming development in Ortigas and Fort Bonifacio.

As the economy became more service-oriented in the past decade, which meant deploying more workers abroad or forcing them to accept the graveyard shift, EDSA underwent a new real estate facelift. Factories and decrepit government buildings were demolished to give way to high-rise condominiums. A new business center is rising in Quezon City. Call center offices are spreading. Public markets are threatened with eviction in favor of mixed-use buildings owned by presidential campaign donors.

The ubiquitous symbol of EDSA’s transformation is the high-risk but expensive giant billboards plastered in front and atop buildings along the highway. Colorful and bright ads that seduce the working class to buy products they don’t need in life. Gone are the hand painted movie billboards of Cubao; big tarps are in.

An MRT ride along EDSA is not only unpleasant and dehumanizing; it’s also boring. From one station to another, all MRT passengers will see are the same spectacles of dirt, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and false indicators of progress such as the mall, the condominium, and the call center complex.

The uniformity is excruciating to witness because it is being done at the expense of the poor. EDSA’s reterritorialization is presided by the rich which explains the fanatic and frenetic campaign to displace the poor from their homes, workplaces, and even on sidewalks.

Soon, people might totally fail to remember the proletarian legacy of EDSA. That it once provided shelter and hope to various sectors and classes in society. That it was a space where people from all walks of life gathered, mingled, and transacted business or politics. That it can be inclusive. That EDSA has a radical, subversive potential.

That Forbes Park in the south was atrociously elitist but at least it was balanced by the San Rogue community in the north. That megamall in Mandaluyong is enormous but it’s merely a modern counterpart of the bagsakan markets of Balintawak.

If EDSA’s corporate-led transformation will continue, people might readily accept the narrative that only the rich and properties classes have the right to dictate the future of this valuable stretch of road. That the poor have no choice but to vacate their so-called ‘eyesore’ homes and allow the corporate redevelopment of cities along EDSA. That a residential place can be rezoned into a commercial hub but not Forbes and Dasmariñas. That the state has to surrender its authority to neoliberal capitalists over what happens in EDSA except to regulate the traffic on the road. That the people are powerless to reclaim EDSA and change the paradigm of urban development.

But EDSA, our EDSA, is no ordinary road. It was and it should be reappropriated into a space where people impose their politics and collective will in order to reshape society.

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