Notes on a Growing City, Part 2: A Brief History of Public Works Projects

Rizal Boulevard in the 1940s, from my personal collection

Almost all significant — and by significant, I mean “large and ambitious” — public works projects come parceled with fervent opposition and heartbreak.

When the Eiffel Tower — that wrought-iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris, France — was built by engineer Gustave Eiffel in 1887–1889 for the 1889 World’s Fair, many of the country’s leading artists and intellectuals criticized its design, but were mollified only by the promise that it was a temporary structure scheduled to be torn down and scrapped by 1909. But the “eyesore of Paris” soon became a global cultural icon of France, and one of the most recognizable structures in the world.

Imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower.

When New York’s Central Park was built in 1857 [and completed in 1876], the plan necessitated 315 hectares of land — and one of the first casualties of the project was the majority-Black settlement named Seneca Village, the properties of which were seized through eminent domain and were thereafter razed and demolished. At its peak, the community had 264 residents, three churches, a school, and two cemeteries.

Imagine New York without Central Park.

The people who cite these examples are of this kind of thinking: build the damn thing anyway, regardless of the opposition — ultimately these projects will become so much a part of the landscape that people will learn to love them.

Most times, though, many of these projects seem to be designed with clear-cut winners and losers, with the line often cutting across economic and racial divides — and the losers being the minority and the disenfranchised and the winners the fat cats in the city who could care less about the plight of the poor and the lower middle class.

In the 1930s, the neighborhoods of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop of Los Angeles were thriving communities made up of predominantly Mexican-American people in what is now known collectively as Chavez Ravine. It was a cherished community, one of the few places in Los Angeles where Mexican-American families could buy property and build wealth, given the racist policies restricting land ownership then. In the late 1940s, the city unfairly dubbed the entire neighborhood as “blighted,” which allowed Los Angeles to evict its residents with the purpose of “building a public housing project” — with the residents promised little to no compensation at all for their properties. They fought a decades-long battle to preserve their community, and were subsequently red-tagged as communists in the Red Scare politics that was predominant in the 1950s. The city’s plan for the housing project collapsed in the face of opposition, but this did not stop Los Angeles from continuing on with the evictions. The area of Chavez Ravine was eventually used to build the Dodgers Stadium.

The same thing happened with Filipino-Americans in San Francisco in the 1960s. Many of them lived in Manilatown, which contained affordable places to live in, especially the small and cheap rooms of residential hotels. One such hotel was the International Hotel or the I-Hotel along Kearney Street, where rents went for less than $50 a month in the 1960s. During the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of seasonal Asian laborers came to reside at the hotel, and a community — 10-block strong — soon was built around it, composed mostly of Filipino-Americans. But San Francisco had other plans: they wanted to push for the “Manhattanization” of the downtown area, and this included demolishing Manilatown. The community was slowly cleared, with the I-Hotel remaining as one of the last strongholds. Its tenants fought to save the hotel, to fight for their right to affordable housing as well as to preserve the last vestige of Manilatown. The fight went on for a decade, until one violent night in 1977. In the early morning of August 4, riot police began to physically remove tenants from their homes, despite the 3,000 protesters outside attempting to barricade the hotel. Within six hours, all the 55 remaining tenants were evicted, rendering them homeless. The bigger tragedy was that the city never went ahead with their original plans for the area — the hotel remained vacant for two more years before it was finally demolished. [There is a silver lining to this story though: a new I-Hotel was completed on the very same spot in 2005 — this time with affordable housing in mind for its renewal. It now contains 105 apartments for housing seniors — with the initial occupancy determined by lottery, and with the remaining evicted living residents of the original I-Hotel given priority. It also houses a community center and a historic display commemorating the original hotel, Manilatown, and the continuing struggle for affordable housing in increasingly expensive San Francisco.]

But sometimes these public works projects invariably encroach a little bit too much into the natural environment.

When the Sydney Opera House was constructed in 1958, its foundation was built on top of Bennelong Point, a former island in the Sydney Harbor, known to the local Gadigal people of the Eora nation as Tubowgule. It was a small tidal island that largely consisted of rocks, and features a small beach on its western side.

Imagine Sydney without its opera house.

When the National Mall of Washington, D.C. — which today includes in its entirety the U.S. Capitol, the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and various museums, galleries, and monuments important to American history and culture — was first conceptualized in 1791, the decades-long construction built on the former course of the Tiber Creek going to the Potomac River.

Imagine D.C. without the National Mall.

But the two examples above were also incursions into space that had fallen into environmental neglect: Bennelong Point was a miserable pile of rubble deposited from the construction of nearby Fort Macquarie, and the Tiber Creek had become a wasteland called the Washington City Canal, an open sewer deposited with sediments and waste. One could argue that the public works projects built on top of them actually made proper use of environmentally degraded space. A lot of people would give these projects a pass.

But what about those public works projects that are blatant in their sheer and massive remaking of vast swaths of the environment — often for the bad, but touted for the good in something else?

The Three Gorges Dam in China, completed in 2006, was designed to generate total electric generating capacity of 22,500 MW and to increase the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity. It was also heavily touted as instrumental in reducing the potential for floods downstream, which could possibly affect millions of Chinese. After completion, China regarded the project as a “monumental social and economical success,” but the construction of the dam erased many towns and cities in the process, flooded archaeological and cultural sites, displaced about 1.3 million people, and caused significant ecological changes, including increased risks of landslides. Was the economic benefit worth it for the untold damage to the environment and to local culture?

There are many, many others — disasters of incomprehensible scale that descended on various public works projects, often industrial in nature. It is in the light of these possible dangers that people have become increasingly aware of protecting their communities from projects touted as “beneficial” — often free! — when the hidden costs are actually insidious. Beware of the “beneficial” and the “free,” we soon learn: remember, as the quip goes, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Keith Schneider, writing for National Geographic in its 20 November 2017 issue, recognized that that people now are ready to fight “development” that actually prove detrimental to their communities: “Though few recognized it at the time, 2011 may mark a turning point for the era of building mega energy and mining projects around the world, according to experts. That year, a series of natural disasters energized civic resistance to giant projects. At the same time, alternative and renewable energy technologies have evolved as cheaper, safer options. And more traditional industrial projects that have moved forward have tended to be smaller scale. / In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the 41-year-old, 4,700-megawatt Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power station in northern Japan, one of the 15 largest nuclear electrical generating plants in the world. /Seven months later and 3,000 miles east, two more mega energy projects failed in India. Early in December a large group of farmers and activists, supported by a Himalayan state government’s concern about fisheries and flooding, barricaded access roads and shut down construction of the $1.6 billion, 2,000-megawatt Lower Subansiri hydropower dam on the border between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. On December 31, 2011, along the Bay of Bengal coast in Tamil Nadu, Cyclone Thane wrecked the $2 billion Nagarjuna oil refinery as it was nearing completion. Operations at the hydropower dam and the refinery never resumed.”

“In the years since, a number of mines, mega power plants, and other huge industrial infrastructure projects have failed around the world,” Schneider continued. “A series of ecological, social, market, and investment forces have aligned on six continents to foil industrial developers who want to tear at the Australian landscape for coal, drill through Arctic ice for oil, move villages out of Himalayan valleys for hydropower dams, scrape South American mountainsides for new mines, divert rivers in South Africa to cool power plants, clear forests to mine Alberta sands for oil, construct a new nuclear plant in South Carolina, and race across the countryside with new pipelines to transport liquid fuels.”

People do fight back — even when they know that the people they are fighting are powerful figures capable of railroading their public works ambitions by any means, and often ruthlessly.

In 2007, outrage from Dumaguete locals — led by fierce opposition by Silliman University and its alumni — halted the plans of the Philippine Port Authority to reclaim parts of the Dumaguete shorefront in order to expand its port capacity.

In 1974, the National Power Corporation [NAPOCOR], upon the instruction of then dictator Ferdinand Marcos, began sending survey teams in specific locations in the Mountain Province, and soon the Chico River Dam Project was hatched. The dam was intended to generate hydroelectric power — but opposition began to mount. In May 1975, more than a hundred papangat or village elders from Kalinga and Bontoc created a federation led by Macli-ing Dulag — the first time the Bontoc and Kalinga joined intertribal forces — to oppose the construction of the four hydroelectric dams that they knew would deluge many Kalinga villages, including sacred burial grounds and rice terraces. They considered the project a threat to their residences, their livelihood, and their culture. They declared themselves ready, even for armed resistance, to defend their ancestral territory.

This early opposition forced Marcos to temporarily halt the project in 1975, but soon issued Presidential Decree №848 in December of that year, where he constituted the municipalities of Lubuagan, Tinglayan, Tanudan, and Pasil into a “Kalinga Special Development Region” in an effort to neutralize the opposition by militarizing the area. Various units of the Philippine Constabulary as well as the Philippine Army Brigade were brought in to suppress opposition. This resulted to the tribal leaders being incarcerated regularly. On 24 April 1980, armed forces opened fire on Macli-ing Dulag at his home, and killed him instantly. The public outrage was considerable. Dulag’s murder since then became a turning point in the history of Martial Law, because for the first time since the press crackdown since 1972, the mainstream press confronted the issue of the military’s arrests of civilians under martial rule. It also became a landmark case concerning ancestral domain issues in the country.

The Chico River Dam Project was eventually shelved a few years later.

One of my heroes is Jane Jacobs, the American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist who led a very successful grassroots efforts to protect New York neighborhoods from the massive public works projects envisioned by Robert Moses, a powerful developer and public official known as the “master builder,” who was responsible for much of the contemporary infrastructures in the city. Jacobs’ views of a vibrant city were influenced in equal measure by urban studies, sociology, and economics. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities [1961], Jacob argued that “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” — terms banded about by Moses in his effort to remake the city in what he called a “progressive” manner, actually did not respect the needs of the city-dwellers themselves. What Moses wanted was a community of highways, readily accessible by cars — and if that meant demolishing neighborhoods to make way for a new highway, so be it.

Jacobs was appalled by that idea, and set forth her theory of urban planning that has only gained increasing currency everywhere in the world today. She envisioned neighborhoods that were walkable, that had parks, that housed thriving communities in spaces that were a good mix of residential and business zones. Most of all, in direct opposition to Moses’ car-centric city, she envisioned neighborhoods that were mostly free of cars, and were dependent on public modes of transportation. Designing public spaces for people and not for cars was part of her vision.

When Moses set about overhauling Jacobs’ Greenwich Village neighborhood by planning to build a highway through it, she took to the streets, she took to the media, and she took to the people themselves — and soon was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Moses’ plan would have passed directly through an area of Manhattan that later became known as SoHo, as well as part of Little Italy and Chinatown. She was so vehement in her opposition that she was arrested in 1968 for inciting a crowd at a public hearing on Moses’ project — and was often ridiculed by city planners, mostly male, who called her a “housewife” who did not have a college degree or any formal training in urban planning.

But time has been kind to Jane Jacobs and her ideas. Her concepts of urban planning have been acknowledged as truly revitalizing of urban communities. She is highly regarded today, a significant influence for later generations of urban planners and designers. Today, her ideas of thriving neighborhoods which respect the dwellers in them are being used by many cities all over the world — including her native New York, Seoul, Tokyo, Bogota, Barcelona, and many others. Increasingly, cities have begun turning highways into a combination of pedestrian walks and parks, especially around city centers. They have also began building parks in vital centers in the urban sprawl, complete with trees and streams, and revitalizing patches of forests and riversides within the city. And Robert Moses’ car-centric idea of urban planning is no longer considered the best way to develop cities. Economists have noted that communities with busy car traffic have businesses that suffer invariably; they’ve since discovered that communities where people walk contribute considerable foot traffic that lead to people going into shops and thus supporting the local economy.

Who makes a city, and determines how it must be shaped? Its political and business leaders? Its urban planners? The only correct answer is its people.

In 2016, when Felipe Antonio Remollo ran for city mayor and unveiled his plans for a walkable Dumaguete with his vision of turning Perdices Street into a pedestrian park, I was reminded of the vision of Jane Jacobs and that thrilled me. The gambit felt impossible but I also thought: it was time to usher Dumaguete into becoming a city of the future without having to pass through the urban messes of bigger cities like Manila or Cebu.

Ipe clearly loved Dumaguete, had ambitious plans for it — which reminded me of his first try as City Mayor between 1998 and 2001, where he embodied a vibrant community about to enter the 21st century, and where he first unveiled his city center plan, as well as the plan to incorporate Dumaguete into a bigger Metro Dumaguete with Bacong, Sibulan, and Valencia. It was necessary to include our neighboring towns into the general developmental make-up of Dumaguete, since they were [and still are] communities that contribute to the large daytime population of the capital.

In his current administration, Ipe wanted to remake the public market into a kind of public mall. He considered sports as a vital part to the development of the city — and slowly, Dumaguete was becoming a favorite host city for many of the country’s premiere sporting events.

He considered local arts and culture and heritage and history as sacrosanct, seeing them as vital factors in making Dumaguete truly world-class. He saved the Presidencia from decades of neglect (who knew it was designed by the great architect Juan Arellano? — we found out only when he took over as mayor), and partnered with the National Museum to restore it and make it a regional museum showcasing local heritage and history. He made Burgos Street a walkable artery connecting three heritage centers: the Rizal Boulevard, Quezon Park, and the campanario. His plans for Quezon Park, City Hall, and its environs [especially the Old Spanish District] were promising, often making me wish these plans were going to happen as soon as possible.

Under his guidance, tourism flourished — and the City Tourism Office itself became the presiding hub for three working committees under the Hugkat Commission banner: one for arts and culture, one for heritage, and one for tourism development. In 2019, we managed to pass a groundbreaking Culture and Tourism Code, which laid out the structures and the plans for better management of these vital sectors in the city. We were pushing to make Dumaguete a UNESCO Creative City.

“I don’t want Dumaguete to remain a gateway to other places,” he once told us. “I want Dumaguete to be the destination.”

What’s not to love?

I could understand the city’s difficulties in many vital matters that continue to bedevil — like its waste management problem and its traffic problem. But these headaches were decades in the making, issues mostly ignored by city leaders who come and go with every election cycle — and the solutions clearly required also years of untangling and sometimes cunning leadership. I knew Ipe was capable of that. The story goes that in the early 2000s, he wanted to change the fencing around Quezon Park to accommodate parking, which could help in the decongestion of city streets. The City Council, composed mostly of opposition leaders, did not agree. Ipe reportedly submitted another plan, to augment and improve the sewage around Quezon Park — and this the Council approved. When the sewage project was finished, it also came with moving the fences around the park to provide enough space for parking. I’m not sure if this anecdote is true — but the first time I heard it, I laughed. “That’s visionary thinking,” I said.

In the context of the pantawan, and then the bigger People’s Park, and now the “Smart City” reclamation island we’re now battling over, I am of course troubled.

Do we really need this new reclamation push? My gut instincts say “no.” And I’m saddened that it had to come from Ipe because I do believe in his dreams for the city [except this one]. I’m just thankful that we have a political culture in Dumaguete where you can register dissent even in opposition to somebody you know [a friend, even], without your dissent and your passionate opposition becoming a liability. In many other places today — some close to Dumaguete — dissent seems impossible, and silence is often assured by the threat or specter of death.

Who makes a city, and determines how it must be shaped?

I still say people, and to be more precise: a properly consulted population. In Dumagete, we do have people with the same vision with the likes of Jane Jacobs and the fiery steadfastness with the likes of Macli-ing Dulag. We also need our leaders, yes — especially in the interest of having someone at the helm to lead us into the shaping of our city. But we need to qualify that as “leaders who listen.”

I shall continue this essay in another installment.

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