Friday, November 11, 2005

Bayani's urbanidad

One interesting feature of words and phrases that become part of the arsenal of people in power is their effect of shifting the locus of social contention by redefining issues. Dogmatic and unimaginative critics of the status quo find themselves tongue-tied, reciting the same old lines -- unaware of or simply refusing to recognize the fact that the rug has been deceptively pulled from under their feet -- or suddenly praising things that previously embodied everything they hated. Among the enlightened Pinoys here in Manila, the first and the last were the more common reactions when Metro Manila Development Authority czar Bayani Fernando came out with "urbanidad". Fernando's theory is that all of the ills of urban areas like Manila stem from Pinoys' behavioral makeup which simply does not fit with the demands of modern city life. Hence, the need to inculcate urbanidad, which Bayani translates as "urbanity".

Urbanidad has effectively displaced social criticism about urbanization and the problems it has spawned in metropolises like Manila. Instead of government's failure to regulate the number of vehicles in the city based on the actual capacity of existing road networks, discussions and interventions have now focused on how to train undisciplined drivers and oblivious commuters in the proper use of roads. Instead of the persisting underdevelopment in the countryside, the continuing influx of poor folks from these areas, and the incapacity of government to provide basic services, people now talk of the impertinence of sidewalk vendors, drug addicts and criminals from the ever-growing squatter colonies. There is also this penchant for quick-fixes, all these short-sighted engineering solutions that gloss over lessons and insights from more systemic views of the problems. Thus the pink fences and the wet rug-wielding vehicles meant to control hard-headed pedestrians. And the construction of these walls that look like facades of bright, colorful middle-class homes in order to hide the subhuman conditions of shanties behind them.

It took me a year to get my thoughts straight on this urbanidad thing. Growing up in Manila, I was able to see it transformed from an urban jungle to a hellish megalopolis of unending traffic jams, daring crimes, sprawling urban poor communities, rising mountains of garbage, and lung-killing smog. Since the time of Imelda Marcos and her cosmetic "urban beautification" campaign, I've been waiting for the day when all of these problems would somehow be solved or at least mitigated. It may have been foolish. But I was desperate. So when Bayani Fernando came along with his new pet, I held my peace. It was like being starved for so long and then forcibly fed with a completely unfamiliar, almost unpalatable dish. You just let your torturer satisfy your hunger, while hating the whole thing. The only problem is that at the end of your self-imposed ordeal, there's a bad taste lingering in your mouth. And you want to puke.

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