Home and the city

I’ve been working my way through Reportage on Crime, an anthology of Nick Joaquin’s true crime stories. One such piece, “The Lodger,” deals with the demographic shift in Manila brought on by the influx of laborers (and their families) from the provinces.

I don’t have the same intimate understanding of Manila as Nick Joaquin does, which probably helps explain my disagreement with his prescribed solution to the worsening city sprawl:

The area should be cleared; the squalor there replaced with multi-story residences, so that ManileƱos who have fled to the suburbs may be attracted back to the city. What the city badly needs is people with roots in it, people who care about it, people who look on it as home, not a lodging house.

Joaquin, Nick. “The Lodger.” Reportage on Crime: Thirteen horror happenings that hit the headlines, Anvil Publishing, 2017, p. 154 (pp. 139-155).

This diagnoses incoming workers (and therefore, lodgers) as an affliction. But why should they bear full blame when their arrival has essentially been driven by the dearth of opportunity in their home provinces?

What’s baffling is that Joaquin acknowledges this in “Flesh and the Devil,” which comes earlier in the anthology. Writing about the hellish world of sex trafficking and how so many young girls from the provinces seem so willing to enter it, Joaquin writes:

“[T]hey are still willing to risk their bodies, their honor, their very lives on a trip to the city — and what drives them is despair, utter despair. They act on the desperate hope that they can somehow avoid falling into the usual hell and succeed in making for themselves in the city a life less grim than the slow agony in the barrio.

Joaquin, Nick. “Flesh and the Devil.” Reportage on Crime: Thirteen horror happenings that hit the headlines, Anvil Publishing, 2017, pp. 96-97 (pp. 95-103).

He doesn’t extend quite the same sympathy to the lodgers encroaching upon Joaquin’s old Manila. Even Joaquin’s broadening of his lens, immediately after the quoted solution above, doesn’t push far enough. At best, it glosses over the most salient aspects of the problem; at worst, Joaquin misrepresents the issue:

The tides of commerce that have engulfed so much of Quiapo should be diked; more important than more business are more places where people can live within convenient distances to their work.

[…] The projected multi-story tenement in Tondo is very much in the right direction.

Joaquin, Nick. “The Lodger.” Reportage on Crime: Thirteen horror happenings that hit the headlines, Anvil Publishing, 2017, p. 154 (pp. 139-155).

I have two major objections to the above argument.

First, Joaquin’s statement tags the unchecked industrialization of Manila as the problem without acknowledging its critical flipside: the neglect of the provinces. It’s not so much that Manila is being made into too-attractive an option for workers; it’s that Manila has become the only option — the only place for anybody to go for any hope of a reasonable living — and distended and decrepit for it.

While I do agree that any push for urban development/commercialization must come with the infrastructure to sustain that progress, at some point that ceases to be the main issue. We should all be worried when “development” outstrips the systems and structures that should buttress it, yes. But we should also question the hyper-concentration of investment and opportunity that fuels such metastatic growth in the first place.

That brings me to my second point. The remark about the new Tondo tenement assumes accessibility, which is far from a given. Plenty of tenements could be built, but these don’t come with any guarantee of affordability for the lodgers who make up the problem that Joaquin thinks such tenements will solve.

Even assuming, arguendo, that these places’ amenities consist of nothing more than the minimum living standards required by law, there’s “the greed of the propertied” (as Joaquin himself writes) to consider. The law of supply and demand doesn’t quite account for capitalist hunger, nor the regulation-flouting power that helps feed the moneyed classes.

Which brings us back, in a way, to the Point #1 and some common denominators for many of Manila’s lodgers: a poverty of decent, attainable options, never mind comfortable or desirable ones. They might be choking Manila, but they do so in self-defense: the conditions that created the city destroyed better alternatives and possibilities elsewhere.

Someday, when I’m not quite the same crumbling husk as Manila’s many abandoned buildings have become, I might try to expand this into some sort of full-fledged rumination on the economics of urban housing, dormitory life, fleeting encounters with the Bay Area’s homeless, and the gradual corrosions of the relentless urban grind.

For now, I guess I’ll end this with the assertion that rootlessness isn’t exclusive to transplants. Modern cities have no natives — none comfortable inhabiting the role, anyway.