Dandy downtown Bacolod

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By Gabby Fernandez

Of Snapshots & Zeitgeists

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I DON'T know exactly when it happened. This collective change of attitude towards this specific place. A place that had defined the city’s spirit for countless generations.

A “change of attitude” may not even be the right phrase. All I know is that sometime during the turn of the century, “downtown," as we call it, lost its cherished distinction of being the heart and soul of the city.

One can say that in terms of location and as a place for formal ceremonies and festivities, it continues to be the center of Bacolod’s “official” life. How else could it not be?

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The downtown area continues to thrive with rows of streets teeming with commercial activity. With the historic San Sebastian Cathedral and the iconic Bacolod Public Plaza, downtown will always be the center of the city.

But somehow in the past decade or so, this distinction has been relegated to one that is merely literal, a far cry from what it used to be in decades past.

In the mid-to-late 1900s, downtown, specially the plaza, was the place that served as the spiritual and communal center upon which Bacolod’s everyday-life revolved around. Its atmosphere and aura seemed to be a very reflection of the city’s mood.

If one needed to buy anything of consequence it was off to the many specialized shops in Plaza Mart or Lopue's San Sebastian or the now defunct-shops that, for me, spoke so much about Bacolod and the nature of its commercial life: China Rose and Indian Emporium.

If one wanted to watch a movie, there was nowhere else to go but to the various movie-houses in the downtown area. Most festivities or political rallies, civic or school ceremonies, would be held at the Plaza Gazebo (proper name: Bacolod City Bandstand, constructed in 1927). For receiving or celebrating momentous sacraments that involved a big number of young Catholics, the San Sebastian Cathedral would be the church (consecrated Jan. 19, 1882).

But yet there was more to downtown than just those places or activities.

As it bustled with the interaction of Bacolodnons from all walks of life, its sidewalks with numerous groups of students in their respective uniforms, passing through or hanging around, in the public market where housewives exchanged gossip with the vendors while doing their marketing chores, in the variety of shops that specialized in a wide array of products, the kapihans where the latest political developments would be discussed and debated - with all these, downtown exuded an ambiance, a character that seemed to embody the spirit of city-folks connected to one another.

In the late 80s, while I was in college at La Salle, I remember repeatedly going to the plaza for my assignments in the photography class. I found the most interesting characters and subjects for my photos within the plaza grounds: men playing chess on the many benches around the area the kids playing in the wide expanse of spaces, the vendors of popcorn with their Petromax-lit caritons or of simply the great mass of people that would traverse the plaza, going to or coming from, somewhere else.

I am certain that countless more Bacolodnons, especially those of the older generation, will have their unique stories and memorable experiences of why downtown and the plaza were special to them. In fact I wish someone would write a book about the area’s development and the special place it held for Bacolod’s citizenry. Not for me really, but for the succeeding generations who will never be able to fathom why it was so special in the days gone by.

Don’t get me wrong. The reasons for downtown’s displacement as the center of our city life are necessary and valid. Much-needed commercial and real-estate developments through the decades have led to a far more interesting, progressive and competitive city.

Still, I pine for the old downtown. Or rather the communal spirit and small-city aura that it exuded.

Last summer, I felt the urge to visit the Cathedral. Something I had not done in a long time. I’ve always had this silly belief that my prayers were more powerful, more reflective when I said them in large churches. From there, I decided to take a nostalgic late-afternoon walk through the plaza.

It was a pessimistic endeavor really. I was certain that in the decades since I had strolled the area to take my college photographs, the place would have worsened, it would no longer hold the appeal it once had on me.

To my surprise and utter delight, as I walked leisurely around the area, I found myself smiling. The men playing chess were still there, the vendors with their colorful ware still everywhere, the carts of popcorn and nilagang mani were still at the usual places.

It was a wonderful feeling, that which I felt right there and then. It was a fleeting flashback of the quaint charm and laid-back calmness that pervaded the air.

It was a pleasing reminder of everything that I loved about this city.*

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Gabriel 'Gabby' Fernandez is a film director, an acting coach and an educator. His latest film, "Mana," was graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board. He is also the founding director of the Kinengkoy Comedy Express, as well as the workshop director of the Bacollywood Workshops. He is a proud graduate of the MassComm program of the University of St. La Salle.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on July 10, 2014.

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