Manila’s Tale Of Two Cities: Where Rich And Poor Coexist


An old man on Kalayaan Avenue smokes a cigarette, with buildings from Bonifacio Global City in the background.
An old man on Kalayaan Avenue smokes a cigarette, with buildings from Bonifacio Global City in the background.

When Marc walks out of his Makati neighborhood, a cramped warren of squat slum dwellings in West Rembo, the view he sees could not be more contrasting to where he has just come from. His neighborhood’s crumbling cranny – too narrow to be marked on maps; too populated to be free of cars – empties out onto 8th Avenue, a main thoroughfare into Bonifacio Global City (BGC), Manila’s high-end business enclave, home and posh playground to the Philippines’ wealthy elite.

On this Saturday afternoon, Mark, a 31-year-old spaghetti sauce salesman, is waiting for friends to visit him. They’ll be dropped off by one of the belching jeepnies that endlessly blare down the cross street of Kalayaan. Compared to residents of the BGC, where jeepnies are not allowed to drive, Marc might as well be in a different country.

“The Philippines is still very poor. There are not more jobs than before,” the man laments, looking out towards a horizon of skyscrapers, many completed and still more to come. His answer strikes me as ironic: Just six years ago, BGC was mostly dusty lots with little more value than hand-me-down infrastructure built by the US military. But today, Marc’s home is at the footsteps of the Philippines’ most tangible economic success story, brimming with all the ostentation of such splendor: He is about 600 meters from Manila’s trendiest new clubs, Valkyrie and the Palace Pool Club, an al fresco affair featuring two swimming pools – another 300 meters down 8th Avenue is the Philippines’ first Lexus dealership.

A boy collects junk from a scrap yard, with the W Tower standing in the distance

The stark reality for Marc and the other 20 to 35 per cent of Metro Manila that live in “informal settlements” is that the Philippines’ much-trumpeted economic boom has been within sight but out of grasp. Such sustained inequality has been the arch nemesis of the current administration under President Benigno Aquino III, whose political mantra has continuously aimed at repealing the country’s ignominious status as one of the most unequal nations in ASEAN.

Yet, while the Philippines’ historic economic growth, the fastest in 40 years, has created a young middle class, Filipinos at the bottom of the barrel still eke out a day-to-day existence with inadequate access to housing, education and healthcare.

Informal settlements like those in West Rembo suffer from re-occurring brownouts and are vulnerable to the catastrophe of severe weather. The socio-economic divide has had a conscious effect on the two worlds. People in West Rembo have a distinctly different culture to the moneyed of Manila, who live just a walk away from each other. For the people of West Rembo, there is a rural vibe in their tight-knit communities that Filipinos would liken to a “province”: mom-and-pop stores sell lighters and snacks through tiny wooden-frame windows, men with protuberant bellies fan amber coals of barbeques and homes have an improvised look to them, as if they were built in a hurry. One family I spoke two, a welcoming three-generation group from Cotabato, Mindanao, created the walls of their second-floor by nailing sheet metal to wooden beams; a small square cut-out serves as a window, barely big enough for one head.

A boy runs does an alley in one of West Rembo's cramped warrens
A boy runs down an alley in one of West Rembo’s cramped warrens

Such dwellings in West Rembo are titled and rented out for between 1,000 to 4,000 pesos a month ($21 to $85; depending on size and utilities available), but this is not the case for the precarious squatter settlements along the winding Pasig River and more notorious slums, such as Tondo. Starting in the 1970s, the World Bank began a citywide project to begin transforming squatters into informal settlements through grants that would work towards upgrading the dwellings infrastructure and providing the government funds to subsidise them. This marked a breakthrough in sustainable housing for the capital. Previously, relocation programmes, where slums were bulldozed and their inhabitants moved to the city’s exteriors, proved to be ineffective. Irked and ill rewarded, those who had just been relocated often moved back into other settlements, exacerbating population burdens in already dense and squalid areas.

West Rembo residents don’t have to suffer grinding poverty and, indeed, have access to basic healthcare and free education – all the way up to tertiary level. “I live in Makati so I can go to the University of Makati (UMak) for free,” Beng, a 23-year-old car washer told me. “There are more jobs now than before and life has gotten better,” she said, her older cousin echoing the same sentiment from inside the family’s tire shop, a half-burnt cigarette dangling from the corner of her lip. Yet, while Beng can opt for free classes at UMak, she is currently not enrolled. Instead, in order to support herself and her extended family, she works six days a week washing cars, a job that could potentially bring in up to 6,000 pesos ($128) a month, a fair wage.

A man in crutches takes a break in Guadalupe Viejo, Makati

Marc’s home is brisk walk away from UMak, and while his children (when he decides to have them) would be able to go there for free, he still sounds saddened by the state of education. “K to 12 schooling is bad here,” he tells me. While the government has made “stellar efforts to build classrooms,” according to the Asian Development Bank, it is not always the case that these buildings continue to receive funds to sustain them. Down his narrow alley, there is a small building with a sign over a door that reads “Barangay Outpost – Teacher’s Compound Phase 2.” There are no curtains on the iron-bar windows, allowing for a full view of its interior contents – the room is completely empty, save for a small desk in a corner that is no bigger than a nightstand. Just next to the teacher’s compound, lively games of basketball are in mid-play on two courts, one with young boys, and the other with older boys up to their early twenties. They would undoubtedly benefit from a well-furnished and staffed facility.

Free jobs and education has been the staple of the Binay platform – the political family that has governed Makati for over a decade. Former Vice President Jejomar Binay and his son, Jejomar Binay, Jr, have both held the post of mayor of Makati City, albeit with great controversy. Over their years in power, they have managed to install a strong following in Makati, Philippines’ central business district, by employing populist measures that have at times gotten them in trouble. The younger of the Binays was recently ordered to step down from his office due to corruption allegations. However, their policies proved effective in corralling a loyal support base, and the people that stood by them have benefited from enviable locally funded services, such as free enrollment at UMak.

But for those outside of the immediate political sphere of influence, such tactics have had no dramatic effect on their livelihoods, which remain a day-in and day-out struggle.

To someone like Marc, government handouts aren’t even worth spaghetti sauce.

Boys playing 'cops and robbers' in West Rembo
Boys playing “cops and robbers” in West Rembo
A family from Mindanao waves out of their make-shift window in West Rembo
A family from Mindanao waves out of their make-shift window in West Rembo
An empty teacher compound in West Rembo
An empty teacher compound in West Rembo
EDSA's nightmarish traffic only exacerbates hardships for Manila's poorest
EDSA’s nightmarish traffic only exacerbates hardships for Manila’s poorest

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