This is the first of a three-part series on the places in Manila your mother warned you about. “Downtown Manila” used to be the old cultural and commercial center of the capital. Roughly, it includes some parts of Quiapo, Carriedo, and Sta. Cruz.

In the ’60s and the ’70s, the best restaurants, movie houses, and shops were found in these districts on the right bank of the Pasig River. Then time marched on, and these historic places slowly deteriorated. Escolta, dubbed as Manila’s Queen of Streets, is one such place.

Manila’s Queen of Streets

Now home to many street urchins and pickpockets, Escolta used to house important financial institutions at the turn of the 20th century. These include the Manila Stock Exchange, HSBC, the Insurance Commission, Prudential Bank, and Monte de Piedad, which is considered the country’s first savings bank.

As the country’s premier business district, Escolta was the preferred address for the headquarters of many local and multinational companies in the first half of the 20th century. Department stores, movie houses, theaters, office buildings, film production houses, restaurants, and fashion boutiques can also be found there.

The first half of the 20th century saw the rise of the city’s first skyscrapers along Escolta. One of these, and my personal favorite, is the El Hogar Filipino Building. Built in 1914, this iconic structure was designed by Ramon Irureta-Goyena and Francisco Perez-Muñoz in the beaux-arts style. According to tradition, El Hogar was erected as a wedding gift by a Spanish conde to a scion of the Ayala de Zobel clan. It housed a financing cooperative, the offices of Smith, Bell, and Co., and the Ayala Life Insurance Company.

This beautiful building survived the carpet-bombing by American soldiers during the Second World War, as well as a number of earthquakes. However, its fate hangs in the balance today, as it is under the threat of demolition. The city government of Manila must hate beautiful things.

Another personal favorite is the Capitol Building Theatre, which was designed by National Artist Juan Nakpil in 1934. A good example of an Art Deco theater, Its façade features a bas-relief of two muses created by the Italian sculptor Francesco Ricardo Monti. I read on Wikipedia that its lobby featured a mural created by Victorio C. Edades, Botong Francisco, and Galo B. Ocampo. Today, some shops still operate on the ground floor, but the theater has long been closed.

Slow Decline

In the 1960s, the number of establishments along Escolta dwindled as banking and financial institutions moved to Ayala Center in Makati. In the ’80s, moviegoers moved on to newer movie houses in shopping centers such as Quad and Isetann, while shoppers flocked to the RTW stores in Carriedo, Quiapo, and Baclaran. Syvels and Ketch were soon surpassed and replaced by C.O.D. and Shoemart. Some buildings were abandoned while others were occupied by new stores, companies, and restaurants.  Escolta was no longer the vibrant commercial hub it used to be for close to a century.

A New Revival

As early as 2011, the city government and other stakeholders have been talking about attracting businesses, particularly BPOs, back to Escolta. In an interview with Businessworld, Dominic Galicia of Dominic Galicia Architects, the dialogue “ to broker a marriage between two of the country’s strongest resources: our BPO industry, and our 20th-century heritage architecture, the best examples of which are located in the Escolta neighborhood.” (I’m not sure what has become of that; I hope we can see this become a reality within the decade.)

If you want to learn more, I encourage you to follow the news on ongoing efforts to revive Escolta. You can also connect with organizations that advocate cultural preservation, such as Escolta Revival Movement and Heritage Conservation Society.

Better yet, take a jeep or a bus to Sta. Cruz on a weekend, and take snapshots of the breathtaking structures along Escolta. If more and more people show interest in this side of Manila, maybe the city government will eventually realize its worth.