Passageways Between Light and Dark in the Ortigas Business District
Jed Gomez narrates a psychogeographical journey of idiosyncratic encounters across the Ortigas CBD.
September 1, 2017
Written by José Edgardo "Jed" Gomez Jr.
Egg yolk, round of Gouda, or Spanish doubloon? The full moon hung undecided in its shifting textures when I set out to explore the streets of the Ortigas Central Business District (CBD). It was just as well perhaps that it had not shone with such determination, because none of the passersby on the streets far below even bothered to glance up to appreciate its ancient luminescence. Yellowness of a different sort—from scores of high-pressure sodium streetlamps—dominated the nocturnal landscape, throwing signposts, wrought-iron fences and palm trees into sharp contrast versus the shadows between 20- and 30-storey buildings. Starting off from the southern edge of Ortigas Avenue, I picked my way across the cramped (less than 1 meter) walkway and turned to F. Ortigas Jr. Avenue—Emerald Avenue to the old-timers, where each sidewalk opened with sudden generosity to at least 3.5 meters, while the steel pylons of the pedestrian overpass framed the transition from the headlight-streaked darkness behind me to a starkly-lit promenade accented by four sets of what looked like twin LED lights on the roof edge trim of McDonald’s across the street. Even the moving reds and oranges of passing taillights were smothered by the nearly ubiquitous yellow ether. A prominent bluish sign that said “Protected Bike Lane” struck me as unintentionally wry humor; it made me wonder what an unprotected bike lane might look like—all those other paths where cyclists might get sideswiped in Metro Manila, no doubt. Just ahead, three headless Royal Palms stood forlorn in the shadows behind the first waiting shed ahead of me. Were they an ill omen, or had I just witnessed too many decapitations in HBO’s recent popular series, Game of Thrones?
As I had walked this way before during the daytime, I decided to take a detour and swung right into Garnet Road, once again into semi-darkness punctuated by the mostly-white fluorescents signs of small shops. Garnet is one of those roughly northwest-to-southeast rows of curving streets here, which for some reason have fewer, more widely-separated streetlamps, hence compel pedestrians to refocus attention on the darkened sidewalk ahead. It was not uncomfortably dim though, as the doorways and windows of nearby establishments allowed interior light to brighten the sidewalks. Just ahead, white light and patches of color streamed down from the corner wall of the Greenhills Christian Fellowship, which illuminated in cruciform the corner with Ruby Road. I turned left, strolled past the dull fluorescent light of a parking lot and clusters of men hauling cargo or putting away trash. I was vaguely intending to look for that much-vaunted Ortigas Park of Paulo Alcazaren fame. Admittedly, I had never stumbled upon it before because it was so small, I discovered, and could almost be mistaken for a mere front yard of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, were it not for the mural on the northern wall, and the wave-like design on a stage backdrop that suggested a water-wall. There, a scattering of loners leaned into the shadows. The signs announcing the park on both sides of this grassy corridor could also use some illumination and enlargement so that the area might hold its own against the commercial signage of the adjacent eating places. I made my way through and emerged once again on F. Ortigas Jr. Avenue. But the same scene greeted me as I emerged into the jaundiced streetscape: homebound office workers scurrying to the nearest public transport terminal, or call center agents and other night owls, popping out of the buildings for a smoke and a chat that invariably lapsed into gossip or existential ranting.
Reasoning that I could review this all again on the way back, I decided to strike out in a new direction, plunging back into the shadowy spaces to the west, and picked my way down Opal Road, until I emerged on ADB Avenue. This was a no-nonsense area, as I knew from my few stints inside the multilateral bank’s halls: there was no one hanging out in front of the fortress walls across the street, and only tall, brightly-illuminated hotels and dusty parking lots occupied the side where I stood. Less than a hundred meters down the road I came to another pleasant feature: the curve of the sidewalk had been expanded (or had I simply not noticed how wide it was underfoot during my daytime visits, as I walked amidst herds of pedestrians?) following a 4-meter radius at the apogee of its flange. This was, technically, the end of my beat: marching orders ended at the intersection of Julia Vargas Avenue and ADB Avenue, where the hulking outlines of SM Megamall and the San Miguel Headquarters sat diagonally across from where I stood. I could have called it a night. But there was still the rest of the Ortigas district that lay to the south, beckoning in the darkness across the main road with the promise of a good story. So, setting caution aside, I crossed Julia Vargas Avenue, and searched for a path that would lead me to the twin towers of the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE).
A brief cartographic orientation is necessary here: the Ortigas CBD, or Ortigas Center, is more or less encompassed by the territory of Barangay San Antonio of Pasig City, although functionally and visually, the built-up area and peoples’ activities blend into Barangay Wack-Wack in Mandaluyong City, where vehicles and pedestrians going to and from EDSA provide a daily flow of commuters. In my own experience as a motorist, pedestrian, and researcher of urban conditions, it is practical to delineate the area with the following borders: Ortigas Avenue to the north, EDSA to the west, Meralco Avenue to the east (although a case might be made to push this down to Lanuza Avenue, given the share of commercial activity that spills into MetroWalk and the CW Home Depot area), and Shaw Boulevard to the south (again, a case might be made to push this down to the Greenfield commercial complex, but that’s about as far as it should go).
Within this entire commercial and institutional zone, it is possible to visually identify and divide the area further into three distinct zones: (1) the office blocks from Robinsons Galleria to F. Ortigas Jr. Avenue, (2) the plaza-like circulation area in front of the Philippine Stock Exchange, and (3) the linked loops that make up the residential, commercial, and institutional areas near the University of Asia & the Pacific (UAP) campus. These three areas cut the elbow macaroni shape of Barangay San Antonio into roughly equal chunks, and according to Google Maps, measure no more than two kilometers from end to end. If I pushed on, I would, therefore, be covering four kilometers in a round trip that night. It must have been the lunar tug on my zodiac sign, which then placed me in the mood for a little nocturnal urban adventure, so I stepped off the curb and shot across.
The sidewalk ahead was still being widened, to match the ample skirt on the side that I had just left behind. Plywood planks had been laid over drying cement as a temporary walkway, albeit unlighted, so that I had to step carefully until my feet found solid ground. There was no dominant yellow glow here. Rather, quartets of white globules dispelled the blackness in the Metrobank parking lot on the left side, somehow reminding me of similar lighting in the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City—there was something distinctly appealing to the senses about these glowing, bulbous quatrefoils. I walked on, searching for that footpath that cuts across westward to Jade Drive beside the parking lot of the PSE plaza area. It was enveloped in foliage and darkness. This lightless passageway definitely had to be placed on the to-do list of the Pasig City Hall’s Engineering Office. Though I had used it often during the day, I shunned that path at night, and walked a few meters ahead to the more obvious ingress: Exchange Road. There I saw the city’s misplaced fencing at its worst—at least for a pedestrian trying to avoid the darkness: there were no openings to the more brightly-lit sidewalk across the street to the south, and the only way was to walk ahead to the central frontage of the PSE twin towers. Along the way, at least one tree had grown so thick as to claim three-quarters of the sidewalk. Instinctively, I crossed to the front steps of the PSE complex, where many office workers were still loitering, and the familiar yellow-gleam sentinels resumed their positions at regular intervals around the corner to Pearl Drive. Again, habits of caution checked my pace: I could reasonably guess that the end of that road was not peopled at this hour, and my martial arts skills were rusty. Oh what the heck, you’ve gone this far anyway, the temptress orb overhead seemed to whisper…so off I went.
On Pearl Drive, the lighting comes from the restaurants and convenience stores on the right-hand (west) side. Across from these, the UAP campus complex is wrapped in darkness, except for a few windows with fluorescent white lighting inside. The road ended at the Gold Loop, which I knew from daytime driving experience to be a tree-lined service road seldom frequented by casual walkers. I hesitated. To the right, the blazing interiors of a corner building—Hanston Square Properties, according to the map, flooded the shady lane with a reassuring white glow. I marched on, past a small group of men and women huddled together beside the parking lot to the left. They were murmuring between puffs of cigarettes. The few streetlamps in this muted space seemed oppressed by the scraggly woods, so that combined with the sight and whiff of uncollected garbage, the hue of the landscape turned into bile. I quickened my pace. No one was about. The eyes of the night’s watch at the backdoor of the Development Academy of the Philippines followed me curiously as I snapped photographs on the sly. I felt that I was nearing the edge, made a final turn to Araneta Street, and came to where the sidewalk became a dusty parking lot on the right-hand side and a stretch of broken slabs on the left. In this darkest stretch, one can see the how the roots of growing trees have burst up through the pavement. Clearly, this was one part of the greater Ortigas area that undeservedly earned little attention from the designers. Ahead of me, I could see the lights of establishments on Escriva Drive, and heard the reassuring din of traffic on Shaw Boulevard. I had reached the far end, worked up quite a sweat in my barong (yes, I was wearing a gray barong Filipino, like some politician’s bodyguard), and resolved to head back another way.
I passed an old haunt: the office of the National Economic & Development Authority, where I used to do much research or persuaded friends to share the buzz on government’s big plans. The open-air antesala had since been renovated and enclosed to form an airconditioned foyer, from which white fluorescent light radiated—not a bad improvement for that hoary institution.
And then it hit me, possibly the quaintest little surprise of that night’s stroll: on the left side, where a dusty pebble-strewn driveway led into a hidden courtyard, were rows of stalls for sidewalk eateries: Flor’s, Joan’s Canteen, and what not. Here, literally tucked into a lot bordered by a canal was the watering hole of the proletariat! Most of the stalls were shuttered for the night, but the one closest to the breach caught my eye with its warm interior glow, which revealed green plastic chairs, greasy tables, and noisy electric fans. In here sat the laborers, the chauffeurs, and the tired waitresses, chomping down on lutong bahay, a stone’s throw away from the opulence of mid-rise residences and glittering office buildings. In my opinion, this was a good find, as nothing makes for a delightful cityscape better than an artfully-misplaced counterpoint. The nocturnal timing had helped a lot too, I mused, since I probably would have dismissed this mini-compound as just another hole-in-the-wall during the day.
Moving further on the return route, I saw to the right the bright glow of a Mini-Stop, and soon afterwards, a row of Korean restaurants and groceries: ‘Jang Ga Nae’ and some such representative of our latest wave of entrepreneurial migrants from Seoul. From there, the Escriva Drive turned somber once again, as closed gates and darkened residential windows characterized both sides of the street. I completed the greater loop (which partly encompasses Gold Loop) by walking its last leg, Amber Drive until one faces the huge red letters of Tycoon Center, just missing UAP on the swing-back. There, the familiar signage of Yellow Cab and Jollibee greeted me.
I hurried back to the PSE towers. I had one more target: that nameless bypass road on the northside of the Stock Exchange parking lot. It was a traffic spillway with no sidewalks, or really a one-way eskinita hemmed in by a tall buildings and fences of unyielding neighbors, which allowed motorists to shortcut their exit from the loop of the PSE complex onto the southbound side of Julia Vargas. I took one long look at the unbroken flow of cars still negotiating this strait and decided that walking through during the daytime was risky enough already. I resolved to find another way out, back to the first zone. That left me only the eastern egress unexplored, so I headed towards Meralco Avenue. At the corner of Jade Drive, a rag-covered hobo crouched in the hollow formed by the roots of a tree, completely enveloped in darkness. I imagined that he was what a lamang-lupa might look like. At the corner where Tully’s Coffee stood, I made a quick nod to the Lopez Museum across the street. Like Ortigas Park, its signage was not illuminated. I suppose this was forgivable; after all, visitors came only during the daytime to the Benpres Building. From there, I followed the gloomy bulk of the flyover northwards, then turned back up to follow the ascent of Julia Vargas. The intersection with F. Ortigas Jr. Avenue was still a pedestrian’s nightmare: a walkway had been under construction in that area since last year, as I recall, and people had to step down to the street level to circumvent the construction equipment and debris that blocked their onward movement. The lack of sidewalks also foiled others’ attempts to cross Julia Vargas Avenue northwards to get to F. Ortigas Jr. Avenue, but I tried it anyway, and found myself playing hopscotch with the passing vehicles and cyclists, until I broke through to the familiar wide sidewalks and the abundance of yellow streetlamps in this part of town. From that point on, there was not much more to notice in terms of the interplay of light and dark. I stopped a moment to marvel at the bicycle-sharing rack with its specially-configured blue and green bikes, then decided to head home.
At the end of my jaunt, the landmark Meralco Building (a.k.a Eugenio Lopez Building) completed the night’s canvas beautifully: just above the ashen symmetry of its ribbed concavity, the full moon hovered in quiet splendor. There was an unspoken understanding between those two icons, for they seemed to manifest the certainty that no matter how immense and garish the rest of Ortigas Center had become, they would remain steadfast in the memory of having sunk deep roots in native firmament, when nothing but darkness and emptiness once covered the urban space.