Manila (CNN) The old world ambiance of Manila‘s Cafe Adriatico is unmistakable.
Wooden furnishings, brushstroke paintings and soft music are all a reminder of an era gone by.
Located in the older neighborhood of Malate, Cafe Adriatico is a memento of what Manila once was.
It’s now obscured by the urban decay that epitomizes the bayside origins of this vast capital — especially in older districts around the walled city of Intramuros, where Manila was first established.
For many, discovering such a gem requires a map, or better still, a guide.
Pink bunny ears
Filipino cultural activist and founder of “Walk this Way” tours, Carlos Celdran, is one of the best Old Manila tour guides.
Both comedian and historian, Celdran guides Filipinos and foreigners, young and old, around the original districts of Manila, entertaining them with his theatrical performances.
He often wears outrageous headgear “so that people can see me” (it was a headband with pink bunny ears during our visit) and is so good at his job he was once invited as a guest to perform at an art fair in Dubai.
Founded in 2002, “Walk this Way” has taken a lead in informing the public about Old Manila’s neglected heritage buildings.
To celebrate the city’s 444th birthday, Celdran is offering special “barter tours” of Malate and Ermita, two districts of the original city off Manila Bay.
Participants can pay for the tour with anything — books are recommended and will be donated to the Library Renewal Partnership, a social enterprise.
The tour’s underlying narrative is how to leverage art and heritage architecture to revitalize decaying areas.
Cafe Adriatico is one of the stops on his tour.
“In the early 1980s, Cafe Adriatico, Penguin Cafe and Coco Banana were the heart of bohemian culture in Manila,” says Celdran.
“It was where artists and celebrities would meet to hang out.”
This was also a time when Old Manila, not the financial centers of Fort Bonifacio and Makati in the larger Metro Manila, was the hub of the city’s energy.
Beyond the former haunts of artists, other points of interest on the tour include the art deco Luneta and Miramar hotels; Hiraya art gallery; the Supreme Court; and the Philam Life Building located on U.N. Avenue, the last of which was scheduled for demolition by the SM Development Company.
“SM is planning to demolish the Philam Life Building and move its auditorium to the Mall of Asia,” Celdran says through a hand-held loudspeaker.
There was talk by SM about preservation but the fate of the building is still in limbo according to the conservationists.
“Take action, go online using the hashtag #SavePhilam and tell them to stop!”
As the tour reaches its climax, Celdran takes his social activism up a notch.
At Luneta Park, participants of the tour take a group photo in front of Rizal Monument with the Torre de Manila, a controversial luxury property development, looming in the background.
Celdran criticizes it as an example of poor urban planning.
In June, construction of the building was temporarily halted in response to a petition that accused it of ruining the sightline of the Rizal Monument.
Celdran encourages tour group members to pose for a picture while pumping their fists at the building now derisively labeled the “Philippines‘ photobomber.”
The irreverent Celdran has become an unlikely scholar of the city.
At his high-ceilinged Malate home, not far from the Adriatico Cafe, he pores over details of what makes this original Manila City so “real.”
There are boxes of books by the doorway, donations given at previous Old Manila barter tours.
“You have ocean front, then you have residential area in a grid pattern that leads you to the national park, governmental buildings and a 17th century walled city,” Celdran says.
“It’s wonderfully planned but was never given a chance to shine,” he says. “A grand plan gone wrong.”
For sure, the bayside districts of Malate and Ermita are now synonymous with poor urban planning.
Sidewalks are absent and buildings falling apart.
What life remains is woven into the itinerary of the Old Manila tour, which Celdran hopes will speak to Filipino youth and remind them that their city has more to offer than shopping malls.
“None of us know the story of our heritage because we are all in the malls,” Celdran says. “There is a need to fill a hole, which is why so many young Filipinos have joined these tours.”
The response to “Walk this Way” led Celdran to co-found VivaManila, a community group that began as a hashtag he and friends living in Old Manila used to create social media vignettes of life in the overlooked origins of the Philippine metropolis.
Expose people to the heritage of their city, the idea goes, and neglected areas will begin to gentrify with the help of art and culture.
And, unlike in the business center of Makati, there is ample room in the older districts to restore and grow.
“In Old Manila, there is a high percentage of underperforming land,” says Julia Nebrija, executive director of VivaManila and a consultant at the World Bank.
“It can be revived by showing the potential of the place and its people. Not just by respecting the past, but showing creative possibilities of the future.”
“Remember, if you want to save your heritage architecture, you must use your heritage architecture,” adds Celdran.
A “Walk this Way” tour of Old Manila’s Malate and Ermita districts will be held on July 25 at 3 p.m. Email email@example.com or text Lesley at +63 920 909 2021 for reservations. For other tours, go to carlosceldran.com for more details.