Thursday, October 28, 2021

Sunday Essay: Remembered cities

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

Sunday Essay

FOR the third time in four weeks, I drove past the view of the bridge that’s being built between Cordova and Cebu City. On one of these drives, I brought my mother and two teenaged nephews along.

Yes, while we took precautions, it was not an essential trip. Guilty as charged. But I wanted them to see the bridge, thinking it would also make them feel the hope and awe that seeing it had given me.

For nearly a year now, they’ve spent the most time indoors. One of the boys hasn’t stepped inside the new school he was so excited to transfer to. Even the mall that’s a 10-minute drive away from home was off-limits. They’ve endured the changes of 2020 with patience and good humor (on most days). It can’t have been easy. To some teenagers, being cooped up can feel limiting—even for a generation that spends as much time fiddling with screens and being in their own bubbles as they do.

As soon as we emerged from the SRP tunnel and the new bridge’s towers came into view, both nephews cooked up a plan to shoot a video on our drive home. They were impressed, and wondered how the massive decks got lifted into place on top of the pylons that rose from the water.

For my mother, the sight of this emerging structure reminded her that when she first arrived in Cebu, the first bridge between the islands of Cebu and Mactan hadn’t even been built yet. That bridge has now been open for 48 years. But in my mother’s first few years in Cebu, the engineering and construction marvel that attracted crowds was the space we now know as Cebu City’s North Reclamation Area. The idea that the vast blocks of land they were standing on used to be seawater astonished them. We had to remind ourselves that the other space we were viewing the bridge from, Seaside City mall, was reclaimed land, too.

Does sightseeing since this pandemic began make you feel some nostalgia? Live somewhere long enough and you begin to see not just the spaces before your eyes but also what, in your mind’s eye, those spaces used to be. Present-day Colon Street is, for instance, less familiar to me than it was in the late Seventies and much of the Eighties. On that street was the cinema where I saw a movie for the first time; on that street was a dim sum restaurant that was a little fancier (silk-gowned hostesses offering food from their carts) than the fast-food version that holds the space now. Hygiene dictated that they wear masks. Now, we all do: It’s a coming-full-circle moment that feels a little bittersweet.

In a video, The Economist muses about how the Covid-19 pandemic will reshape many of the world’s cities. The fortunate minority who can work from home now have the choice to leave the city for their hometowns, internet connections permitting. It sounds idyllic.

You can work as you always did, yet begin or end your workdays with a view of green and quiet hills or the waves lapping on a sun-warmed shore. Yet if we all did that, the business districts where we used to spend much of our waking hours would be gutted—their restaurants, pharmacies, grocery stores, and coffee shops emptied of the planning and busyness that used to fill them.

When middle age finds them, how will my nephews remember this past year of seclusion and inner spaces? What feelings will this bridge—so new now, but at least a quarter-century old by then—evoke in those who cross it? What will the cities they live and work in be like?

If I’m lucky, I might still be around to see all that and to ask them, unless memory fails me. In any case, I hope that life in the midst of a pandemic will have given them the inner resources they’ll need: enough patience, faith and perseverance to bridge the realities of the present with all the potential the future still offers.


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