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A Capital City at the Margins

Quezon City and Urbanization in the Twentieth-Century Philippines


From 1948 to 1976, the national capital of the Philippines was not Manila – it was, instead, the largely planned Quezon City. Founded by President Manuel Quezon in 1939 as a new capital for the young nation, similar to Washington, DC in the United States, Quezon City nonetheless did not become the showcase capital that Quezon envisioned it to be. What was meant to be a capital city devoid of the ills of Manila, ended up absorbing the very problems that made the government move away from Manila.

The book A Capital City at the Margins: Quezon City and Urbanization in the Twentieth-Century Philippines, by Michael Pante, examines not only Quezon City and Manila, but also the entire urban region around them, much of which became the present-day Metropolitan Manila region. The book shows a history of urbanization and city planning, from the walled city of Intramuros as the nerve center of Spanish colonial rule, to the American efforts to rehabilitate Manila in the likeness of US cities, and to the eventual founding of a new city far from the dense urban center of the centuries-old capital.

The book lays out the premise that Quezon City, instead of being a capital in its own right, was greatly shaped by its being a periphery to Manila. The widespread poverty, criminality, and prostitution in Manila during the American period prevented the implementation of proper city planning, notably Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful plan. Americans and the local elite moved away from the center in Manila, and lived in the suburbs, including areas that will later become parts of Quezon City.

Quezon City was intended to be a planned capital, away from the perceived dirtiness of Manila. What happened, however, was that Quezon City became a sort of extension of Manila’s rapid urbanization. During and after the Second World War, Manila residents moved to Quezon City’s vast empty spaces. The University of the Philippines was also moved to the large government-bought estate in Diliman, meant to be as far from the ills – and politics – of Manila as possible. Succeeding governments developed vast estates purportedly as settlements – the so-called jeprox, or “projects” – for the working class, but poor management made them too pricey for the ordinary folks, and ended up being reserved for the middle- and upper-class residents.

Plans for a new government center in the northeast heights of Quezon City also fell due to lack of funds and poor management. Quezon City, being located between Manila and the provinces of Rizla and Bulacan, also became a buffer zone amidst the Huk insurgency. It became a halfway point where the insurgents could launch operations to Manila, and though such operations never happened, Quezon City still became a hotbed of criminality and insurgency.

The elite of the society happily bought properties and lived in privately developed enclaves in and around Quezon City. The boundaries of Manila and Quezon City also became top residence choices for the elite, while the city’s center, meant to be the focal point of the new capital, teemed with informal settlements. The vast estate of the Araneta family in Cubao, meanwhile, became the new city’s commercial center. Cockfighting, long considered a social ill, became widespread and tolerated in Quezon City. The Araneta Coliseum, which became the world’s largest indoor arena at the time, was built initially as a cockfighting venue, and its surroundings later became a commercial center.

During Ferdinand Marcos’ presidency, Quezon City became a second-rate city, behind the more favored Manila. By this time, informal settlement – squatters – teemed all over the city. This created a negative perception for First Lady Imelda Marcos, who is also Metro Manila Governor. Much of her projects for the beautification of Metro Manila region focused outside Quezon City, which was stripped of its status as national capital in 1976. Nonetheless, the specialist hospitals put up by the government found their ideal spots in Quezon City.

The University of the Philippines was originally relocated from Manila to the empty lands of Diliman in order to keep its students far from politics, shielded in its own enclave. Instead, Quezon City became the perfect spot for a more politically active student life. The proximity to the provinces of Rizal and Bulacan, hotbeds of insurgency, and the proliferation of the urban poor in squatters around the campus, influenced the students to become more active in social works and political movements – and in taking up arms themselves. The Diliman Commune of 1971, when the students barricaded themselves inside the campus for a couple of days, would not have been possible if UP stayed in its cramped campus in Manila.

As the Marcos regime kept suppressing dissent, with corruption and violence continuing unabated, Quezon City became the perfect place for political mobilizations. Numerous religious organizations, which have turned against the government, offered shelter for dissidents in the numerous churches, convents and seminaries in Quezon City. Manila, overwhelmingly working class, with its narrow streets, became synonymous with leftist movements. Quezon City, meanwhile, with its more cosmopolitan character, became the perfect halfway point for the poor and middle class who are opposed to the Marcos regime.

The revolution that toppled the dictatorship – the EDSA Revolution – occurred in the city’s southern area, the stretch of national highway in between the headquarters of police (Camp Crame) and military (Camp Aguinaldo). As the author argues, this became the moment when Quezon City became a more “classless” society, as the poor, middle class, and the rich, came together to destroy a common enemy – the dictator. It was also at that moment that Quezon City stopped being merely a periphery of Manila – it has become “a central part of an ever-growing metropolitan region.”

The author also notes, if not in detail, some comparisons in urban developments among other Southeast Asian cities: notably, how Quezon City is more like Putrajaya in Malaysia, a planned city built as embodiment of Mahathir Mohammad’s political aspirations, a model city fit for his vision of what the Malaysian nation should be. It was also situated relatively near Kuala Lumpur, as Quezon City is to Manila. This was contrasted to another planned city, Naypyidaw in Myanmar, which was built very far from the old capital of Yangon. It features a more “decolonized” type of urban space, and is too far from Yangon so as to make political mobilizations impractical, if not impossible.

A Capital City at the Margins is the story of how Quezon City came to be, and how the urban dynamics of the Greater Manila region came to shape its development. It started out as a periphery, an extension, to the centuries-old capital, and decades later, rose to become a city in its own right. It didn’t become the capital city that Manuel Quezon envisioned it to be. The problems that hounded Quezon City throughout its history are still the same issues faced by Filipinos today. The poor management and uncontrolled urban growth that prevented the implementation of city plans for both Manila and Quezon City are still problems today, though as the book shows, it isn’t just the lack of political will that caused these plans to fail. Yet, in the end, Quezon City remains a major city today, and unlike before, it’s no longer just a city at the margins.