Finding the forgotten

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We were told to “find the beauty in the abandoned,” but after seeing the dust and the darkness in films like The Conjuring and the stories of Stephen King, we knew better than to enter old and empty places.

Fiction has offered enough imagery with its cobwebs and haunted hallways to make sure people stay clear of abandoned spaces, but our curiosity won out in the end. We couldn’t know just how bad these places were unless we went and found out for ourselves. With this in mind, we set out into the Metro to hear what riveting stories these abandoned spaces had to tell.

Manila Metropolitan Theater

We were lucky to catch a heritage tour of Manila one rainy Sunday afternoon, led by Lawrence Chan of the Filipinas Stamp Collectors’ Club. The excursion culminated near Padre Burgos Avenue, with a visit to one of the city’s forsaken treasures: The Manila Metropolitan Theater (MET).

Designed by Juan Arellano, a prominent Filipino architect in the 1900s, this once-grand structure barely survived the events of World War II and eventually fell into neglect in the 1960s. There have since been several attempts at restoration and renovation, but to no avail—today, its façade is marred by fractured windows, crumbling walls and peeling paint.

The MET is one of the many theatres of 1930s Manila rendered in Art Deco style, an approach that blends glamour with industrialization. Even though it isn’t in use today, one of the reasons that the MET is still standing could be its architecture.

“[An abandoned place] could [still] be there because it is beautiful, and because it is a testament to the creative prowess of the Filipino architecture type for example,” explains freelance heritage manager and former History Department instructor Kara Garilao.

The theater is rumored to be haunted, but Garilao recommends that these stories be taken with a grain of salt. “[People make ghost stories about the MET because] perhaps there aren’t too many places where weird things happen, or are said to have happened. And you know, sometimes people are also very creative. They hear a story and then they add their own touch to it.”

Given the eerie tales, the tour’s timing couldn’t have been better: The sun was already setting. We began at the courtyard and savored our last bits of light—the hallways and chambers seemed to be submerged in their own kind of darkness.

There were only two light sources in the whole theater, one near the entrance and the other by the stage. After parting with the first, flashlights guided our group through the narrow and dilapidated dressing rooms of the first floor, where abandoned props and rubbish were strewn about the steps.

We then made our way to the stage and felt immediately dwarfed—the MET was gigantic, with at least a thousand empty chairs that stared back at us. By then, the darkness and space beyond the sole fluorescent light was so encompassing that it seemed like a different world.

We walked through empty hallways and rooms with damaged vestiges of art: There were crumbling bas-reliefs, broken stained glass windows and a collapsing precast marble ceiling. “If you’re lucky enough, you would find artifacts that tell something about the occupants… We kind of get a glimpse into what their life was at that particular time,” Garilao says.

The tour continued in grim darkness until finally we reached the fourth floor balcony of the MET. Here, the reward for the journey was clear: A panoramic view of Manila’s skyline, its vivid colors twinkling in rhythmic fashion.

Aduana

It’s easy to get lost in Manila. Bustling streets twist and turn amidst age-old churches, silent war ruins, lively marketplaces and architectural classics.

As we roamed the streets of Intramuros, a huge relic of a building stood out against the rest. The Aduana has been standing on this same spot since it was designed by Spanish engineer Tomas Cortes and built in the 1800s. Home to Customs Officials during the Spanish era, its arched entrances and neat windows have since seen their fair share of damage, surviving an earthquake in 1863 and the bombings of World War II.

Reconstructed in 1874 following the devastation caused by earthquake, it went on to serve as a National Treasury, Central Bank and as the Office for the Commission on Elections until it was officially abandoned in 1979.

Today, the building’s once-white walls are completely lined with moss and unbidden plants are growing amidst the rubble. Parts of the ramparts expose the inside of the building, as time has caused the bricks to give in to gravity. Behind the structure’s iron bars that close the building off from the rest of the city are glimpses of the ruined hallways, rooms that were once alive and remnants of their high ceilings and wide windows.

Some people are still fascinated by the beauty of this place, especially with its vintage Spanish feel. It is usually frequented for magazine shoots as well as the occasional prenuptial shoots. Chuckling, Garilao speculates, “They want to have that feeling of perhaps their love lasting as long—lasting the test of time—like the building that they’re in. Maybe on a subconscious level they are tapping into this desire to be a part of the past, or establishing themselves in the long narrative of human history.”

This timeworn, rundown building held a striking contrast to everything else around it. Aduana is isolated, with fast food chains, banks and high-rise buildings surrounding it—an ancient island, floating in a sea of urbanized concrete. Amidst all the change and development, it remains a constant reminder of all that Manila has lived through.

Betty Go-Belmonte

Betty Go-Belmonte St. is an ordinary road in New Manila, intersecting Aurora Boulevard, just three LRT stops away from Katipunan. However, found directly beneath the station are a deserted building’s decrepit walls covered in graffiti: A chaotic collage of names, colors and strange figures scribbled onto a dirty-white backdrop.

The shattered glass windows have left gaping holes, revealing flights of stairs and more walls rife with graffiti. We stood there, staring at this massive five-story building that extended all the way to a compound behind it, wondering, “What happened here?”

There’s a sinister feel to this building. Just one among many derelict structures that line the street, the building’s façade is covered with wooden planks nailed over holes and patches of cement—a last ditch effort to keep the place intact. The shadow cast by the station overhead adds to the grime and the grit of the place.

No one could to tell us how this unnamed spot along Betty Go-Belmonte St. fell into decay, but it was reportedly a former mall and at some point a school. Today, the entrances have been barred and stern guards ward any trespassers off, even though the area is supposedly open to anyone able to pay the P100 entrance fee.

Mysterious as it is, the building isn’t as grand or historically significant as the two previously mentioned. But as Garilao says, there will always be some value to the stories that old spaces hold. “It may not be historically significant in the sense that nothing really happened there, but it demonstrated the lifestyle of the people in the past,” she explains. “If a building has a story, it may not be grand, but who knows, it may be of value to someone down the line.”

Because of the air of mystery that resonates throughout the area, we were mesmerized by that stretch on Betty Go-Belmonte. But the rumbling of the trains overhead and the occasional rushing pedestrian brought us back reality: These kinds of places aren’t safe to hang around for too long.

But our curiosity didn’t wane after we left these abandoned areas. Drawn to find out more about the places, it seemed as if the real excursion was only just beginning. As Garilao puts it, “Every abandoned place has a story, whether they intended to leave that story or not… the value of the place is that they are essentially records of the past.”

Perhaps there is beauty in these places, and not just aesthetically; their walls are still breathing the stories of the past, giving them a place in the present. These spaces weren’t forgotten, nor were they left behind, they’re alive—and if they have stories to share, then these stories must be sought out.

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