Notes on a Growing City, Part 1: Dumaguete on the Verges of Growing

On 13 July 2021, the Philippine Statistics Authority released the results of the new census. For Dumaguete City, it tallied a new population figure of 134,103 as of May 2021, roughly a 2% increase from the old census of 2015, when Dumaguete registered a figure of 131,377 people.

I’m not an economist, so I won’t even dare go into deep interpretive mode about the nuances of population growth in connection to the economy — but even the most casual observer of these trends would know that the index of growth [whether of an increase or decrease] in the population of a place bodes something significant to the economic status of that place, and in a sense also measures the attraction of that place to potential economic migrants and investors. Simply put, one goes where the money goes.

Mall developers and business franchises, for example, take note of specific population markers before they decide to open branches in a new locality. When Robinsonsplace Dumaguete opened on 9 November 2009 — twelve years ago — it significantly meant that Dumaguete was now big enough to sustain such an all-encompassing business enterprise as a mall.

At least, this is how numbers talk.

But I’m sure these businesses do not really take into account the cultural readiness of a place and the specific mindset of its people when they decide to go ahead and stake their claim on new territory. Sometimes businesses fall flat on their faces because of this.

Take note, for instance, the local hospitality industry. Business people in Dumaguete know there is a dire need for new hotels and new restaurants in our fast-growing city, which has been catering to a significant increase of tourists and business people coming to town for conventions and what-not. There is also a native population with a comfortable middle class that has money to spare and boredom to dissipate. You would think that any new restaurant and any new hotel would have a surefire entry into the city, given these factors. But not always.

I remember two recent restaurants who tried to make their mark in Dumaguete — and ultimately failed: there was Tree Hive Food Hub along Veterans Avenue and there was Chapters Café along Calle Sta. Catalina, both of which opened their doors in 2017. Their respective structures were gimmicky and Instagrammable — one was a multi-story space built like a tree house, and the other was a wonderland of books — and they were designed in such a way that was sure to entice customers. And when they first opened, they sure did attract hordes of people.

But ultimate success in Dumaguete is measured in terms of the long game that is governed by local idiosyncrasies, and locals invariably rejected both. Tree Hive Food Hub and Chapters Café just did not jibe with the Dumaguete mentality and notorious pickiness — both had bad food wrapped in shiny gimmick the proprietors must have thought could hoodwink the locals, a no-no for the Dumagueteño, and the gimmicks themselves [which made good Instagram posts] were so shallow, the picky Dumagueteño could easily see right through them. (We are so picky that I remember one Manila-based music producer once claiming that if you find success in Dumaguete, you’re sure to find success elsewhere in the Philippines.) We may be “gentle” and all that — but we are secretly vicious in selectively embracing anything that tries to join our community fabric.

Personally, as a native born Dumagueteño, I knew both those places were doomed from the very start. You would think that as a writer, I’d take to the book gimmick of Chapters Café like a charmed customer, and think it a worthwhile addition to a place that likes to think of itself as a “city of literature.” Nope, I found the food excruciatingly bad, like Frankenstein pieces put together to resemble a dish, and the whole book thing was extremely tacky. The book titles they selected to adorn their space were so much of the bargain bin variety any bookworm would immediately know this café was just using books for decorative purpose, and nothing else.

They failed.

Why am I going on about this when what I really want to talk about in this space is the reclamation issue in Dumaguete, which has consumed much of the city’s attention of late — even extending as far as national and international coverage in media?

Because I want to contextualize what “growth and development” means for Dumaguete — which is not always what and how our businessmen, and apparently also our politicians, understand it. For the businessman, growth and development means profit. For the politician, it means political will and legacy. (Some people would also say it means under-the-table kickbacks for these people.) For most of the locals, however, growth and development means a measured step forward with all good things considered, always with due diligence and not just a matter of money or political force.

And above all, it means not changing the fragile fabric that makes Dumaguete “Dumaguete.”

The city is still small enough for most of its population to know there is a certain thing that makes something “Dumaguete” — and when that something feels false, we are only too ready to reject it. Often we do this in a subtly done exercise of plainly ignoring this “langyaw” of a thing, with the hopes that our inattention will make this langyaw go away — but when push comes to shove, we can be vehement in our opposition. This is what is happening now.

I started this essay with the new figures in our 2021 census because I thought it was uncanny that the reclamation issue — which first came to light in July 7 — would burst forth in roughly the same time frame. The thing to take from this coincidence is that Dumaguete is indeed growing, and with growth comes new and often uncomfortable reckonings with regards our infrastructures, our changing economic models, and crucially, our way of looking at ourselves.

We are growing: Does the city’s basic services — water, food, waste disposal, transportation, etc. — reflect that growth with its requisite new demands?

We are growing: Does the city still think of itself as fast urbanizing place with new economic considerations? (Which can be hard when nostalgia for the “rural” Dumaguete of yore is still very much entrenched in our idea of place.)

We are growing: How does the city see itself now? Are we still a “University Town?” Are we still the “City of Gentle People”? Are we still the “Cultural Center of the South”? All of these are precious identities for most locals. In what way does a new branding like “Smart City” change our prior expectations and our old identities? Will it be for the good, or for the better?

The thing is, Dumaguete has an interesting history of public works projects affecting the local identity and the local economy, going as far back as the Spanish colonial period. For the longest time — throughout most of the Spanish period, in fact — we were the ultimate backwater country and so economically depressed. We were right smack in the middle of two towering economic centers in the Visayas — Cebu to the east, across Tañon Strait, and Iloilo (and Bacolod) to the west, across the Cuernos de Negros and Mount Kanlaon. Dumaguete was negligible and economically unimportant — and what’s more, adding to that economic depression was the fact that we lacked the infrastructure to participate in the trade flourishing all over the Visayas.

Historian T. Valentino Sitoy once wrote in Kabilin:

“Except for the sugar plantations of the elites in Bais and Tanjay, the provincial economy had long suffered from numbing lethargy since the Spanish regime. In 1904, the industries of Negros Oriental were ‘next to nothing,‘ said Governor Demetrio Larena. The few that existed were small home industries for local consumption, such as the weaving of textiles, fish nets, mats, hats, baskets, and sacks (bayong) for sugar packing. There was some cigar- and cigarette-rolling. But the pillow- and mattress-making, which in Spanish times was a ‘great industry’ exporting 100,000 to 200,000 pillows annually, had now atrophied for lack of demand. The only hopeful new industry was carpentry, for most of the carpenters in the province had been employed in the construction of the first buildings of Silliman Institute, particularly what is now Silliman Hall.”

Sitoy continues: “Moreover, business in Negros Oriental in 1904 was in the hands of foreigners, with 78 stores owned by the Chinese, two by Americans, and two by Spaniards, while only about six little more than sari-sari stores were owned by Filipinos. The Chinese dealt with all sorts of merchandise, including groceries and canned goods, dry goods and textiles, wines and liquors, drugs, medicines, perfumery, etc., and nearly monopolized the buying of local agricultural products, such as copra, corn, sugar, tobacco, abaca hemp, kapok, etc. The American or Spanish stores sold only groceries, beverages, and stationery.”

Sometimes, political shenanigans especially by those in powerful positions have led to the economic stagnation of Negros Oriental. When the plan was laid in 1890 to separate the island of Negros into two provinces so that the ignored eastern side would have more chance at political autonomy and economic vitality — the government in Bacolod divided it not according to proper geographical consideration, but according to what pieces of the economic pie would be more favorable to those in power. They took the Cuernos de Negros as the demarcating line for most of the length of the island — and then, right at the point of Mount Kanlaon, suddenly shifted the demarcating line towards the east, leaving the vast agricultural fields (and haciendas) of San Carlos, Calatrava, Toboso, Escalante, and Sagay still in the hands of the Occidental side when they are clearly in the Oriental side (and Cebuano-speaking to boot). What we inherited in the Oriental side was a rocky landscape with some excellent spaces for agriculture in Bais, Tanjay, Siaton, Bayawan, Sta. Catalina, Canlaon, and Vallehermoso — nothing compared to the bounty of the Occidental side.

What about Dumaguete? While being the most populous town in the eastern side of Negros — which made it readily the capital of the new province — it also has the smallest land area in the whole of Oriental. It does not boast the same agricultural stronghold of places like Bayawan, Siaton, Canlaon, Bais, and Tanjay — but Dumaguete’s saving grace was unique, and it came with the Americans. With Silliman Institute founded in the town in 1901, Dumaguete surged forward as a cosmopolitan-minded locality, its treasures being its educated people and its carefully cultivated arts and culture scene, which gave way to a city that knew how to transform itself into a genteel place that was economically vibrant not because of agriculture and industry, but because of its people.

This is Dumaguete.

Still, you can only do so much with “people.” The local economy was so bad throughout three centuries of Spanish rule, and even straight on into the early years of the 20th century with the Americans now in control of the archipelago… until the pier was built in 1919.

Before the pier was built, ships and boats bearing people and trade barely took note of Dumaguete as a vital stop in regular routes. “Commercial traffic was also slow, a carry-over from earlier days, as Dumaguete was off the main shipping lanes,” Sitoy wrote. “Though there were steamers from Cebu every two days, and two others every week from Iloilo, those from Manila sometimes came only once in twenty days.”

The pier — the first major public works project undertaken by Dumaguete — carved into the Dumaguete shoreline, but also brought with it a steady stream of economic progress. Later, Mayor Ramon Teves Pastor and the town leaders after him set out to develop the Dumaguete beachfront into what we now know as the Rizal Avenue [or Boulevard], previously called the Marina.

The seaside stretch, which invariably destroyed the natural beach front (concrete over sand) and moved the small beachfront community to somewhere else, was the second major public works project in Dumaguete, with the new road connecting with the other arteries in town, including Calle Sta. Cecilia [now Silliman Avenue], Calle Sta. Catalina, Calle San Jose, Calle San Juan, and Escolta [later Alfonso Trese Street, and now Perdices Street]. This was a profound undertaking in all actuality, and invariably changed the pace and the outlook of Dumaguete. We cannot think of Dumaguete anymore without thinking of the Rizal Boulevard — it has become an icon — but it started as a visionary project that probably had its naysayers back in the day.

I shall continue this essay in another installment.

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror