Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A call to save your hometown's arboreal legacy

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
     Baguio's pine trees are vanishing. But it is not because its natural environment is deteriorating--that's just what everybody assumes.  Many don't  realize that as the city's legendary treeline recedes, it is not just losing something God-given, it is also throwing away the hard-won prize of one of its earliest and most ambitious project in planetary engineering--the artificial greening of Baguio in the 1900s. It is an effort that goes back more than a century ago. Present generation of Baguio residents may not  even know be aware of it anymore. 
     A surprising discovery you will make when looking at old yellowed photographs of Baguio is that at the turn of the century, there were probably fewer trees growing in the city than there are today.   Contrary to the common perception, Baguio's history is not rooted at all on the tall majestic pine tree, but rather on  a plant very much lower to the ground: green algae.

These "paper trees" lining Harrison
Road are not native species from
Baguio. They were imported from
Chicago and planted around the
Burnham Park as part of an early
and ambitious project in planetary
engineering--the aritificial greening
of Baguio in the 1900's
     Its very name--Baguio--comes from the Ibaloi word "bag-ew." It refers to a green mossy plant that grew all over the place, thriving particularly well in the moist and humid climate.
     Geographically, the accurate ancient name of Baguio is Kafagway. Yet it was the term "bag-ew" that soaked into the consciousness of the city’s pioneers because of the way  this plant thoroughly dominated the landscape. It grew on rocks, on the ground, on the barks of trees--it even grew on flotsam drifting across the old swamp that Burnham lake used to be.
      Prior to the 1900s, this green algae might well have been the iconic representation of Baguio--and not the pine tree.
     There are, in fact, very  few references to the pine tree in the city’s precolonial or post-modern traditions. Even the native Ibalois do not have a name for this tree. They have a name for its aromatic wood which burned bright, strong and fragrant--saleng. But the tree itself goes by no particular name in the vernacular. This is because the pine tree did not really grow in thick clumps around the old Kafagway settlement as some presume.
     There is ample proof of this in many aerial photographs of Baguio that are now stashed in the archives.  Admittedly, those photographs do not reach too far back in time.  After all, Baguio was chartered in 1909, only six years after the dawn of aviation. The first DC-3 did not even fly over Baguio until 1938 to help map out the early topographical charts of the Gran Cordillera mountain range.  
     Forestry authorities today still use many of these old pre-World War II vintage aerial photographs as reference.  Now Google Earth makes it possible to look  down on every square inch of the planet (even Baguio City), and these old aerial photos provide a rich reference of comparative data on the extent, or retreat, of Baguio City’s  mysterious treeline.
    That city treeline did not even exist in 1909, the year Baguio became a chartered city. Old photos suggest that almost the entire old townsite stretching from Camp Allen in the west to the site of the present Baguio Convention Center to the east, and from Kisad Road in the south northward to General Luna Road--Baguio City was practically treeless in the early 1900s.
     The outlying areas were thickly forested, for sure.  And most of these well-identified forests--such as Busol, Ambiong and Buyog--still are. They are forest reservations by law and while squatting is a problem, these areas largely remain forested. 
     What is amazing was how the early American city administrators--visionaries like Eusebius J. Halsema--transformed the treeless pastureland that the central city district  used to be into the lush city parks they are today. It was nothing short of planetary engineering. Sadly, today the success of that project is long forgotten. The city doesn't even have a decent seedling project anymore.
     That’s not to say that the city's landscape in 1909 was desertlike. As pasturelands go, Baguio  was  green as can be. Oldtimers even refer to the era from the 20s right up to World War II in 1942 as the "Green Years."
This is just one of 100 pine trees about to be destroyed
in Dominican Hill under the relentless onslaught of more
housing constructions creeping up the hill from the
south side (Marcos Highway). All that forestry authorities
can do is paint numbers on the tree trunks to enable
them just to keep track of how many have been cut.
     But if there weren’t as many trees and yet the city was described as "green" how then did  the city look like? Like some of those poster images you often see of Holland and other grazingland states in Europe, some would surmise.
     The greening of Baguio--actually it’s regreening--by the introduction of taller arboreal foliage was a deliberate effort, part of the execution of the city’s design by Daniel Burnham. This renowned Chicago architect envisioned the City Pond (later renamed Burnham Lake in his honor) as the centerpiece of Baguio’s townsite layout. Government offices would then be clustered in opposing "poles"--all local administrative offices would be situated on the hill south of the lake: City Hall which housed the City Services, City Police, city jail, and the City Council, as well as the early city school district headquarters housed in the Baguio Central School.
     All national administrative offices would be clustered at the National Government Center located on the hill opposite City Hall: the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals compounds and all the executive departments’ official summer headquarters. The cluster soon earned the name "Cabinet Hill."
     Then Burnham envisioned that the roads connecting these government hubs would be tree-lined avenues and boulevards. But the old Baguio lacked the right species of trees that can grow tall enough to lend the landscape the stateliness required of a world-class city. Thus, the program was launched to plant tree sapling all over the city. By the end of 1911, it is estimated that the old Bureau of Forests had planted more than 30,000 saplings.

One of these stately tall Norfolk pine trees is planted
at each corner of Burnham Lake. They are just under 
a century old, thriving well in the sub-tropical climate 
of Baguio. However, these trees can only reproduce
in the sub-zero temperatures of their original Norfolk,
Virginia habitat. They have been unable to produce
viable cones here, so when the last of these majestic
trees die off, their species will vanish from Baguio's
landscape forever--which is probably less than 20 or
so short years from now.
     For this ambitious project in early planetary engineering, the Americans imported three  rare species of trees that were not native to Baguio: the Norfolk pine from Norfolk, Virginia, the Douglas white bark from Chicago (which earned the local name "paper tree" because of the papery texture of its bark) and the red weeping willow from Washington (which became known locally as "bottlebrush").
     These trees were planted all around Burnham Park and in the yards of all government buildings. It would take almost 25 years before these trees grew tall enough to draw attention to their stately beauty.
     But the hardy Benguet pine wasn’t totalled disregarded. These were grafted with taller strains of the same species from Burma and Indonesia--all were Asiatic pine trees that thrived uniquely well in the tropical climate. The hybrids grew taller because they splayed less branches than the unmodified Benguet pine. These are the pines trees you can still see within the Baguio townsite--in seriously dwindling numbers.
     This is a shame. The specially-imported trees around Burnham Park are too old to bear seeds that would be viable. But a well-trained and highly-motivated botanist could probably produce saplings through grafting and budding, so long as enough trees remain to undergo the procedure.
     The hybridized local pine trees are all but gone. Because they look all too similar to the unhybridized tree population, few realize that they are specially-modified and too few to effectively reproduce on their own.
    The tragic thing is that most of these hybrids have been planted near and around government buildings and summer staff houses--many of which are rebuilding and expanding. As these building’s footprints grow, more of the surrounding hybrid pine trees are falling to the ignorant chainsaw operator who thinks the tree he is felling is just like all the other pine trees elsewhere in Benguet.
     No loss is more  felt, and no ignorance could be less blissful.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Burnham Park: portrait of a city

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
     It is named after Daniel H. Burnham, the Chicago architect who designed the city’s basic layout. Burnham Park is synonymous to Baguio City as Central Park is to New York City. 
     Featurewise, it’s pretty basic. A man-made lagoon dominates the center of the park. Flat-bottomed boats rent out to tourists who care to jostle among a hundred other boaters in this tiny lake. In the 1960s there were real sailboats here too. But few people knew how to work the till, rudder, main sail and jib to actually scoot around the lake on windpower alone, and mishaps were frequent. Increased siltation has also made the lake shallower. The sailboats, with their heavy ballasts under the keel, began running aground. On most days, dead winds forced boaters to use loose oars which were constantly tossing overboard. Finally, the last sailboat was lifted out of the lake in 1974 and all the boats now have anchored pivoted oars and flat bottoms.
     They are less exciting for real seamen but friendly to most landlubbers who have never sailed. At the very least, the boats present a more picturesque alternative experience to sweating it out on a rowing machine in a gym. Imagination has flourished too. More recent novel ideas have given way to prowheads in the mold of "Little Mermaid" and other Disney characters.
With comely mermaids at the prow of Burnham lake's
famous flat-bottomed boats beckoning, who can resist
picking up an oar ?

     The boats also give you unobstructed access to the entire lakeside flower beds ringing the lake. The city parks services does a good job of repotting flowers in sync with whatever species is supposed to bloom at any given time. So the flower beds lining the lake’s perimeter alternately holds vibrant growths of chrysanthemum, dahlia, marigold, everlasting, gumamela, gladiola, baby’s breath, statis, giant sunflower, and many other flowering plants year round. Towering at each corner of the lake is a giant Norfolk pine, kin to the tall "grand pine tree" at the foot of Session Road--which transforms into the largest outdoor Christmas tree in December.
     About the only other activity going on in Burnham Park is biking. Private concessionaires rent out bicycles by the hour on the south lane of Lake Drive. Not much of a cycling circuit this one--mostly, it is there just for people to learn how to ride a bike. But if you’re an accomplished cyclist, the 100-meter turnaround present little challenge. But for the serious two-wheeler, the rest of the city is perfect cycling country. There are several mountain biking and road cycling clubs active in the city. On weekends, colorful pelotons are a common sight around the circumferential roads of Baguio, like Loakan, South Drive, Ambuklao and Kennon roads.

Biking around Lake Drive brings families together--and
can be a perfect opportunity for equalizing the sexes.
Daddy can rest his arthritic knees while Mommy works
the pedals.

     But the biking in Burnham Park is popular for a whole different reason: it brings family and friends together. Also, with its proximity to local schools, I used to believe that every school kid in Baguio at one or another would have indulged in the basic truancy of cutting classes to ride these bikes.
     I know my school mates in Baguio City High School (1980) and I did. We were an entire class, in fact, who would promptly forsake a day’s worth of classes just to scrape our knees and collect road rash in our arms and legs (or sometimes faces!) riding these bikes. Until you learned to ride one of them, you were not considered a "true City Higher."
     We rented our bikes from a retired local sports legend, Alejandro Cabusora, who was one of the concessionaires. He was the 1968 Northern Luzon Athletic Association (NLAA) decathlon champion and would have gone on to become national champion. But the bus carrying the Baguio delegation to the games figured in a crash on the way. Alex Cabusora suffered a spine injury that left his sprinting legs paralyzed. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair--but kept inspiring young athletes with his motivational speaking. The City awarded him a bike rental concession in Burnham Park in appreciation.
     Back then, the bikes rented out for fifty centavos for 15 minutes--or two pesos for a full hour. At least in theory. Whenever time was up on our bikes, Alex Cabusora would glance at his stopwatch and yell out to us, "take one last round!" That "last round" would stretch for another half hour because each time we pulled in to return the bikes, Alex would keep saying, "Didn’t I tell you to take one more round?" I know I once rode his bike all morning and paid fifty centavos. Time stood still for City Highers on that bike lane.

All of life is a swing, when you think about it. You hit the
highs and the lows over and over but at the end of the
day you still get off the ride--like these swinging sisters
have discovered.
     When all of Alex’s bikes were out, we rented some from another kindly old man, Mr. Lomibao. He’s another guy with a defective stopwatch just like Alex’s. If my City High batchmates and I were cardiologically healthy in those days, we owe it to Messrs. Cabusora and Lomibao and their bicycles.
     There were memorable incidents too, like when a few misguided misfits (who were not from City High) would try to steal the bikes. They snuck out the hilly portion behind the Children’s Park and spilled out onto Kisad Road. Then these jerks tried to make a run for it, pedaling madly up towards Legarda Road. But all it took is for one of us to shout in Ilocano, "Adda agtatakaw!" (Someone’s stealing a bike!). Mr. Lomibao would chase them down on his motorcycle--and he always got every one of them. But the perps usually never got so much as a tongue-lashing from Mr. Lomibao. He basically just scared the bejesus out of these deviants, threatening to tell their parents about their mischief. They quickly realized their mistake and asked for forgiveness--which they always got. Today, these people would be very forgiving adults, I imagine.
In our day, that's NOT a slide. Back during those times
when kids were sturdier and parents weren't so over-
protective and litiguous, a slide is defined as something
that if you fell off of it, you actually broke a bone! 

     The Children’s Park has been renovated recently. New rides (seesaws, slides and swings---all for free) and jungle gyms have been installed. But I miss the old giant "rocketship" slide that used to sit on the outer edge of the park. Rust and disrepair had forced city engineers to finally scrap it in 1985. It was a tall tower, shaped like a rocketship sitting on a launching pad. The gantries are the downslides--there’s one for fraidycats about 5 feet off the ground, a middle chute for aspiring bullies about 10 feet high, and the topslide for certified playground toughies which was all of 20 feet high. You either slid down off it on the steel chute, and touch on the ground five or six seconds later. Or you could get ambitiously show-offy and slide down "bannister style" sitting on one handrail while keeping your weight across the opposite handrail. You either slid faster and reached the foot of the slide about 2 seconds faster--or you arrived even faster than that and a little "more vertical" at 32 feet per second squared. That means you fell off the slide completely and landed badly on the sandpit below, with a whole new practical understanding of Newton’s law of motion.
     But in those days, unless you were bleeding or you actually broke a bone, no one paid attention. I guess kids were sturdier then.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Survival lessons we can learn from a tree

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon    

     The seed must have fallen off the back of a truck carrying lowland vegetables, as this truck inched its way up to Baguio on the newly-cut "Benguet Road."
     That’s right-- "Benguet Road" was how it was called before this road was renamed after Col. Lyman Kennon of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who built it in 1903.
     Or perhaps it was blown up from the lowlands by a strong wind. Perhaps a bird had it in its beak and dropped the seed because its strong minty, camphory scent was unappealing. Still another theory is that the seed somehow got mixed in with a bunch of betel nuts in a native roadworker’s betel pouch and was tossed away in the vetting process.
     No one knows for sure exactly how the seed of a Sangilo tree ended on the road side along Kennon Road--and on top of a huge granite boulder at that. Only one thing is certain: it wasn’t human will that put it there.
     Why not? Because if a normal human being wanted to plant a tree, he would press the seed into the ground, not leave it on top on a dry rock. And for this particular species, if anyone wanted to plant a Sangilo tree, he would stick a sharpened twig from a mature tree into the soil and not start with a seed.
An iconic Baguio shot, if there ever was one, would be
this 25-foot lion head that greets tourists coming up
Kennon Rd. developed by the Lions Club. The sangilo-
on-a-rock grows just ten meters or so farther downhill
from this favorite poster shot setting.
     In fact--who knows?--it might actually have been a Sangilo twig that was shoved into a crack on the rock by a hiker using it as a walking pole. This hiker must have clambered up the rock to catch a panoramic view of the Bued River canyons below and gloat on his mountain climbing progress. When his walking stick got lodged into a crack on the rock, he might have just snaped off a good 3 or 4 inches off the tip and went on his merry way.
     Whether it was a seed or a twig, the progeny of this Sangilo tree lay on top of that rock and teetered between life and death. It had to have been the rainy season. Drops of water from the sky fell just in time, and often enough, to keep the seed or twig from completely drying out. Most of that water spilled off the side of the boulder. But a few drops mercifully pooled in a tiny dent on that rock, enough to soak the seed or the tender bark of the twig and soften it.
     Life finds a way. Nature is a master at survival. Weeks of being soaked in that life-sustaining water enabled this Sangilo sapling to grow tender little shoots that clung to the rock face. Now its was safe, at least, from getting blown away by the next gust of mountain air that blew through these canyons.

It wasn't a perfect likeness but early visitors to Baguio
had long noticed that this particular rock along Kennon
road looked uncannily like the African king of the jungle.
So in 1973 a local civic club bearing the beast's name
commissioned a mason to chip or build up the rock in
just the right places to complete the look. Today the
now legendary lionhead guards the entrance to the city.

     Day by agonizing day, that sapling absorbed drop after precious drop of early morning mountain dew. By midmorning the rising heat of the sun bearing down on that rock completely baked the rock dry. And that tiny sapling held on for dear life, waiting for the cold evening--and the lifesaving dew of the next morning.
     Soon it sprouted a brave little leaf, then two--and then more. The soft tendrils of roots anchoring it to the rock grew longer and stronger too. It shot slowly downward towards the ground in a death race to reach the soil before the rest of the plant died, unable to be sustained only by the dew.
     It was quite a height to creep down for these tender little roots. It was about three meters from the top of the rock to the rich soil beneath it. But those roots finally made it and soon this sangilo was drinking all it could from the ever moist Benguet soil.
     Then the tree grew in leaps and bounds, no longer starved of water or nutrients. Its leafy crown spread wide, and those tender roots grew large and strong. It is estimated that this Sangilo tree is now about sixty or seventy years old, at least. Its complex root system has completely enveloped the rock on which it once clung tenaciously for dear life. Now it is the tree that holds the rock so firm that its viselike grip had actually split the rock.

From a distance, the sangilo on the 
rock is an imposing specimen of a
little-known Philippine hardwood that
would probably never land in any 
endangered species list. But that
should make it even more inspiring 
and compelling to preserve this one
particular tree. 

     It has been documented that this particular Sangilo tree is the only tree that grows on top of a rock anywhere in the country. In 1984, this hardy Sangilo tree, now all of twenty feet tall, was recognized by the Tree Preservation Foundation of the Philippines as a success story of survival by a Philippine tree genus. A brass plate riveted at the base of the rock proudly announces its rare and inspiring achievement as a tree!
     The sangilo species is not exactly endangered--and considering how it triumphed over all adversity, to force itself to live when all odds told it to die, it’s easy to understand why.
     Today, you can see this tree--still growing robust and majestically--on the right side of Kennon road when you’re coming up, about ten meters before you reach the iconic Lion head. Ironically, local tourism officials seem little enlightened about the significance of this hardy woody survivor--all they could think of to do about it is to convert its behind into a restroom. What a pity.
     But it is a tree with an inspiring story. If you have ever faced a situation whose beginnings are bleak and discouraging--even life threatening--take heart from this sangilo tree, as I do many times.  Everytime I look at it, the only thing I could think of is to parody Joyce Kilmer's undying classic poem and also say to myself, "pithy essays are made by over-the-hill and has-been writers like me....but only God can make a tree.
     The saddest part is that not everyone knows the story of the sangilo-on-a-rock---not even among Baguio residents.
     And now you are among the few who do.*jrd

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Derelict Seminary of the Dominican Fathers

by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

     I have written about this subject in an earlier post. However, it doesn’t do justice to treat a subject like this in fewer than 500 words, and just a couple of images.
     So I went back to Dominican Hill one balmy Saturday afternoon to try to "soak in" the biggest story ever to be NOT told about Baguio City. If the story had to be told at all, it has to be by a Baguio boy.

The fountains in the inner courtyard must have been a
thing of beauty in the days of their prime. All corridors
had these windows to permit a view of the water casca-
ding through four levels.

     I grew up around the neighborhood of Mirador and Dominican Hills on the northwest edge of the city. This was around the years between 1968 to about 1980, when Baguio’s population was under 250,000. I have always felt, even as a young boy, that there was something more to the phrase "a city close to heaven" than meets the eye. It was a phrase sometimes used to describe Baguio City. It’s an attempt to allegorize the fact that at 5,000 feet above sea level, Baguio City does in fact soar higher in the atmosphere than its lowland neighbors.
     But it was more than metaphor. If you don’t debate the issue too deeply and simply grant that the mere existence of religious institutions in a city says a lot about its spiritual heritage, then Baguio is a very religious town. That is only one step removed from saying it is a town close to God’s heart.
     It has the only authentic Gothic cathedral outside of Manila. Baguio is the educational capital of the North. But it doesn’t only dispense diplomas in the liberal arts and the sciences. What few people realize is that Baguio, too, is a center of biblical study. This was especially true in the early years--like the 70s and 80s.

This used to be a winding staircase with heavy pine
wood bannisters. It landed on the ground floor where a
100-bulb Victorian chandelier used to hang on the
ceiling, not too far from the fireplace in back..

     Back then, as a rule of thumb, the male religious ran seminaries, and the women religious ran convents and retreat houses. So priests ran the Recoletos seminary at the fork of Naguilian and Asin roads, the San Pablo seminary in Crystal Cave subdivision, and the Dominican seminary at the top of the hill named after them.
     The nuns ran the convents of the Pink Sisters near Brent School, Santa Catalina Daughters of St. Paul along Marcos Highway, one in Outlook Drive beside the Mansion House, called the Sisters of the Little Flower Novitiate, Divine Word retreat house in Leonard Wood Rd., and a famous one, Good Shepherd Convent in Gibraltar Road near Mines View Park.
     Presently, a sweeping evangelical revival is buoying up the popularity of pentecostal Christian ministries. This has enhanced the significance of inter-denominational bible schools, the two biggest ones are the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (PBTS) in Pinsao Road and the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (PBTS) in Ambuklao Road.

There used to be ornate iron grilles in each of these five-
foot windows. They were a priceless collection of fine
metal art that would be invaluable to any art curator
today. But instead, they were yanked by looters and
sold cheaply as scrap iron. 

     One reputation that Baguio has steadily lost over the years was its distinction as a favorite retreat place. In the 70s, when you talked about "spiritual retreat" the first name that came to your mind was Baguio City. In fact, the peak of tourist arrivals in the city was the annual observance of Lent--more commonly referred to here as "Holy Week."
     That was then. Today, the City Government has all but abandoned Holy Week in its tourism calendar. It frontloads, instead, the monthlong Baguio Flower Festival--or Panagbenga.
Little wonder then that Baguio City is also, ever so subtly, losing its religious heritage. Superficial ritualism remains high, but that’s about all. Churches are packed on Sundays. But the final priestly benediction, "Let us go and serve the Lord," rings hollow today in the face of the continuing erosion of the city’s religious traditions--and the death, or dereliction, of its once-iconic religious institutions.
     Diminishing interest in the orthodox priesthood is depressing enrolment in most seminaries. In the end, some of them simply had to close. This was the fate of the Dominican Hill seminary, which ordained its last young priest in 1977.
A Korean ministry has offered to acquire this property to
turn it into a pilgrimage site or "prayer mountain." But
offers to buy Dominican Hill are stymied by unsettled
issues of which government agency actually holds title
over this land. Some public opinion is against a Korean
buyout simply because they have acquired many more
properties all around Baguio--some say too much.
     I arrived at the site of the old Dominican Hill seminary rather late, around 4:00 p.m. The afternoon sun was beginning to cast long shadows of the few remaining pine trees around. Some local tourists were still sauntering about the yard, taking an obligatory sourvenir shot now and then. But not too soon after, I was alone to contemplate the ruin and emptiness of this once grand and anointed institution.
     It’s a large estate, approximately 5 hectares. The once-stately yard is severely unkempt--live bushes untrimmed, the grass unmowed. As I walked around the crumbling building, I get a chilly and haunting sense of walking after the footsteps of grieving souls, lamenting the derelict state of their "home." I’ve heard stories, as a little boy, that the prayer garden right outside the main building used to be a small cemetery, where old and anonymous priests were buried. It doesn’t sound true, but the eerie silence punctuated by the chirping of birds and the gentle rustle of the wind certainly makes it believable enough.

In the afternoon haze of Baguio's legendary fog, you get
a sense that this place stis on the clouds. A few local
tourists take obligatory sourvenir shots at the black St.
Martin de Porres prayer garden, reputed to be a small
old cemetery before it was transformed into an outdoor
venue for priestly sacraments. This is the main drive-
way leading up to the front of the seminary building.

     The scene is like the setting right out of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery novel. I was decidedly alone, but sometimes I catch the fleeting shadow of something--or someone--that seems to have just crossed the marbled floor to hide behind another pillar. Inside the building, you could almost hear the reverberating echoes of Gregorian chants being mouthed off by an all-boys choir. All the rooms inside the building have been utterly and totally looted of all window grilles, and bathroom fixtures. Nothing is left inside this building that is made of anything else but concrete. All wood, iron and glass have been removed, stolen by looters.
     I felt a tinge of sadness about this, because I remember the ornate sashwork in these five-foot tall windows. The wrought iron was heated, hammered and brazed to form elaborate depictions of scenes from the bible. For one, the Holy Spirit dove was always at the top form of each window grille, and the cruficix was always built into the motif of every piece of sashwork. They were classical pieces of metal art, invaluable to any art curator today. How could looters only see the value of these ironworks in their actual weight as mere scrap metal?

A glint of Baguio sunset silhouettes the main seminary
building, momentarily concealing its derelict state.
Someday, this place will be revived as a world-class
bible college. God didn't seem to approve its use as a
hotel nor as a host to a high-stakes casino.

     If you study its layout, the building is a squarish ring with an inner courtyard dominated by two round cascading fountains. They must have been a thing of beauty, because every corridor opened to large windows so you could see these fountains with anywhere inside the building. The rooms ring the inner courtyard on three flanks--the front was where the grand main door opened into a panoramic overview of the whole city of Baguio below it.
     These once-stately rooms have seen a string of transformations, from elegant bedrooms of the mostly-Belgian friars of the Dominican order who pioneered its construction in the early 1950s, to classrooms of the seminary years until the late 70s, to 5-star hotel suite when the whole place was converted into the posh but ill-starred Diplomat Hotel, to storage places of debris. Today, they are a mute statement of demise and neglect.
     If you stand in the main hall and close your eyes, you can still imagine how it must have looked like in its prime. Long flowing white stately curtains behind delicately-embroidered heavy drapes, bright glow of its 100-bulb Victorian chandelier, and in the background a warm fire by the hearth as the red cinderblock fireplace burned aromatic pine wood.

The narrow one-lane road leading up to Dominican Hill
looked before like a "highway to heaven" because the
seminary was the only man-made structure atop this
hill. Over the last few years, a telecom antenna farm
has sprouted near its main gate, adding a quaint coun-
terpoint to the traditional "temple-like" atmosphere
of the old Dominican Hill.

     But you open your eyes and all you see is a skeleton of a once theatrical circular stairway going up--now slippery with moss. The windows are bare openings, the hallways are empty labyrinths leading to no place of any real significance.
     In other countries, landmarks are preserved, their aura of mystery carefully nurtured, their saga propagated. I think about the French monastery of Le Mont Saint Michel--today the stuff of legends. It attracts tourists in droves, who want to imbibe the mystery of the place.
     Will this ever happen to Dominican Hill? I have compelling doubts--even though tourists are, for the first time, now free to roam around the place. But the sense of mystery and adventure is quick to fade, once they realize its nothing but an old crumbling building. As propagating legends and nurturing mystery goes, Dominican Hill fared much better when I was a little boy. I could walk up to the compound (there was not even a gate then, there is one now) and actually hear the seminarians singing hymns. But I couldn’t see them. No one was allowed to enter and disturb the cloistered monks.
By most reckoning, it's stil a very beautiful place, espe-
cially for less mundane pursuits like prayerful meditation.
In fact, from a distance, if you defocus your eyes a little,
you would forget that all you are seeing now is just the
empty shell of a once-stately and historic monastery.
     The city government had actually approved legislation declaring Dominican Hill a "heritage site." What they meant to accomplish by that, I’m not so sure. The law didn’t come with any funding to accomplish anything. Instead, it just opened the flood gate for culture vultures to try to find any way of transforming the awareness into measurable gain. More proposals for hotel conversion have been received. Certainly, improvements in transportation, communication and marketing now make this an attractive buy for developers.
     Unofficially, several evangelical Christian ministries have "ordained" the hill as a "prayer mountain." One local ministry dominated by South Koreans is talking about claiming the hill as an inheritance from God--although God would not give them a title or deed. Perhaps the heavens would open and pour out resources to enable them to acquire the property. It would not be the first significant asset that these well-funded Koreans would acquire in the city--nor the last.
     All this is attended by a lot of talk about privatizing the sprawling estate to pave the way for a private purchase. Technically, on record, it is owned by the government--although nobody seems quite sure which government: local or national.
     When Dominican Hill was commercialized and turned into a losing hotel business, it was financed by loans from a national bank, which soon foreclosed on the mortgage. But the inactivity left local taxes unpaid, entitling the local government to a lien over the same asset. The stalemate keeps Dominican Hill in limbo.

Just a strong stone's throw away from Dominican Hill is
its "sister shrine" the Grotto of the Lady of Lourdes. This
too is about to go the same way of neglect and derelic-
tion--unless a serious conservation effort gets underway
soon. The decline in Roman Catholicism under the sur-
ging popularity of evangelical revivalism is a shameful
excuse to simply let once-famous Baguio landmarks
like these fade into oblivion. 

     The high place, the high wind and the cool November afternoon sun can play tricks in your mind. As I continued to walk around and shoot pictures, I see vignettes of the past, and faint forebodings of the future. Only the present looks bleak. Someday, this place will throb with anointed activity once more. History had already shown that God did not prefer to see this place become a brothel or a gambling den (it hosted a casino in the 1980s)--maybe He wants it to be re-dedicated to a nobler pursuit.
     It’s enough to set one’s dreams in motion. One day, if I woke up and I was Bill Gates--if I had a hundred million dollars to throw away--I would lose no time buying this unpromising derelict building and build something out of it. If it were up to me, I would rebuild this place as a bible college, and redeem its proud history as a beacon of spiritual influence to the city it overlooks. Is it at all feasible? Who knows. In the movie Field of Dreams, a man built a baseball park in the middle of a corn field to invite the departed heros of the game to play one last great game. The driving force that compelled him was this admonition: If you build it, they will come...*** jrd

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The vision of Benjamin Salvosa, UC Founder

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

The former Baguio colleges Foundation (BCF) is now a uni-
versity. The old main building at right is dwarfed by the new
EDS bulding at left. I took this photo from the balcony of SM.
     The first college established in Baguio City was the Baguio Colleges. The year was 1947, the city was virtually still smoldering from the fire and smoke of the Allied carpet-bombing of Baguio in World War II. Baguio was carpet-bombed by the Americans to flush out Japanese Imperial Army holdouts, and force them to surrender. It was a terrible miscalculation based on horrible intelligence-gathering. Their quarry, General Tomoyuki Yamashita who led the retreating Japanese soldiers was ultimately captured in Hapaw, Hungduan, Ifugao--some 500 kilometers away. Talk about missing a "target."
     That mindless Allied strategy--the true forerunner of the Pentagon's "shock and awe" concept--left Baguio City utterly levelled to the ground.
     Shortly before that,  around 1946, a young Manila lawyer named Benjamin Salvosa was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis and given six months to live. Upon his doctor’s advise, he packed all his books and belongings and migrated to Baguio City, known for its healthful climate.

This is where it all started for Baguio Colleges Foundation
(BCF) which has been renamed University of the Cordilleras
(UC). This is Antipolo Building which now houses the Rural
Bank of Baguio and the famous Teahouse
     When he arrived, he looked around,  saw the utter destruction, and said  "This place will become the Educational Capital of the North." How he came to that absurd prediction is truly amazing. But he set out and established a teachers college in four or five rented rooms in Antipolo Building (now Teahouse) and later on went across the block to rent the Lopez Building (now Mandarin Restaurant). He went on to produce some of the finest local teachers, some of them went on to establish their own schools-- Fernando Bautista, Sr. who started the Baguio Tech (later University of Baguio) and a small diminutive man named Galo Weygan. He established the Baguio School of Business and Technology (BSBT).

     As his hair turned grey, Benjamin Salvosa thought of another absurd idea---he dis-inherited all of his six children and donated all of his assets (meaning the entire school) to a foundation, called Baguio Colleges Foundation (BCF). That way he was assured that even after he died, the school would continue to exist in perpetuity rather than be split apart in what could have been a tense competition among heirs  for inheritance.
     BCF produced some of the finest lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants, journalists, criminologists, computer techies and, of course, teachers. But Benjamin Salvosa’s most cherished dream was to someday see a college of nursing and medicine added to the school. Tragically, he died before the dream came to pass. He was ahead of his time, but his vision was even farther ahead of him.
     Fighting sentimental melancholy all the way, the name BCF was eventually retired. Benjamin Salvosa's baby was all grown up. It is now known as the University of the Cordilleras (UC), with an annex in Legarda Road that houses its Hotel and Restaurant Management and Tourism (HRMT) school. The department  is fondly referred to as the UC Legarda Annex or "UCLA."
     Beside the original main building now stands the modern 10-storey EDS Building (named after Benjamin Salvosa’s wife, Evangeline Domingo). It houses the College of Nursing--the one department the old man wanted to see in his lifetime. It is also the home of the College of Law.
     One of his children once remarked, "I wish Daddy Ben were here today so he could see all of this," referring to the now sprawling modern campus. I’m a close friend of the Salvosa family, and I remarked back, "Actually, Daddy Ben saw all of this before anyone else---way back in 1947."
     Benjamin Salvosa did not die within six months, as decreed by his doctors in 1946. This amused him no end, as he sat in his favorite leather swivel chair, looking out at a typical Baguio sunset from his penthouse (which has since been converted into a Research Center).
     "No doctor's diagnosis  can scare me, I am a collector of incurable diseases," he boasted as he pushed past 70,"the only incurable disease I still don't have is AIDS--but give me time...!" He predicted he would outlive all his doctors. As true as that is, that  prediction is probably his most inaccurate. It was way off.
     He did not only outlive his doctors, he outlived himself. Many years after he died, the legacy of this great man continues to live and breathe in every lawyer, engineer, architect, accountant, teacher and nurse that graduates from the University of the Cordilleras.  They all caught a "pioneering virus" from him. When they go home to their hometowns and see another bleak unpromising frontier, they will see a bright future for these towns as Benjamin Salvosa did for Baguio City in 1947.

The rise and fall of Dominican Hill

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
This is all that remains today of the once majestic Dominican Seminary
that produced some of the finest priests of the Philippine Roman Church
including, it is believed, two or three who eventually rose to become
bishops. Church records are tightly-guarded as to identities.

     Dominican Hill was named after the Roman Catholic friars of the Dominican Order who built this imposing all-white building on top of one of the highest peaks within Baguio City. The place was always wrapped in mystery because few people were ever allowed inside this seminary built sometime in the 1950s.
     Once or twice a year, the young priests attending this seminary school were let out to interact with the local community--doing mostly cathechismal work. They were notable for their excellent all-male choir. But for the most part, they kept to themselves and cloistered behind the tall wrought-iron gate that guarded this sprawling 5-hectare estate. It fell into disrepair in the late 70s, a victim of the economic depression and diminishing interest in the catholic priesthood. It was sold for an unknown sum to a local millionaire and faith healer Tony Agpaoa. He refurbished the 50-room mansion into an inn and called it the Diplomat Hotel. It slowly foundered into dereliction and by the end of 1981, accumulating taxes on the property remained unpaid. 

Dominican Hill offers the most picturesque bird's-eye-view
of the sprawling city that once looked up to it as beacon
of Roman catholic influence...and the most colorful giant
Christmas light display visible for several kilometers.

Finally, the Government escheated the estate in 1985. It has sat as a veritable white elephant ever since, too expensive for any practical buyer. Looters soon cannibalized the building, reducing it into little more than a crumbling shell of its once glorious self. The huge cross at the top of the building is still visible for kilometers around. In happy Christmases past, it used to hold the largest yuletide display of lights and lanterns.  A giant "Star of Bethlehem"  measuring almost 25 feet across mounted by seminarians in 1978 still holds the local record for the biggest Christmas lantern ever made in the city, unchallenged to this day.

The prayer garden of the black St. Martin de Porres used
to be ringed by tall pine trees. Now a different kind of
"forest" has sprung up behind it---a forest of telecom
antennas that now power the thousands of cellular
phones in the hands of Baguio residents.

     A nearby prayer garden featured the statue of the black Saint Martin de Porres. Several rows of stone pews were once a favorite site for outdoor sacraments, even an occasional garden wedding. Today, the site has been declared a "Heritage Site" by the city government. It’s all just words. In reality, the whole place lies in total ruin. Everytime I come to this place today, my eyes tear up with a profound sadness at how such an iconic place that was so much a part of Baguio City’s history has now become a deathly and mute testimony to the ultimate fate that awaits all men and their institutions---from the height of beauty and splendor to the oblivion of death and destruction.
     Indeed, death and decay comes to us all....

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't blink, you may never see the same Baguio city again...!

- by Joel R. Dizon

     If you left Baguio City earlier than 2005, some of the images here will be new. You need to connect these places in your rmemory with these photos to realize that Baguio City is, indeed, changing right before your very eyes.
    Right at the very gateway  to the city, BGH Circle, there is now a two-lane flyover that allows inbound vehicles  to "fly" above the usual traffic bottleneck that builds up in front of the hospital garden. 
     Don't look for the hill where Gasera restaurant used to sit--it has been excavated, flattened and is now the site of the biggest filling station in Baguio, Petron-BGH with 24-pumps. The Treats  convenience store behind it has become a favorite hangout of Baguio motorists, for its excellent coffee and sandwiches. It is open 24-7.
     A few steps above it is a Pancake House outlet, also doing well.
     There is even a 24-hour 7-11 convenience store in this corner now, in the lobby floor of the Starwood Hotel. If you're wondering what keeps business brisk for these establishments, cross over to the expended Baguio General Hospital complex and you'll see the answer. 
     From a cramped 50-room facility, the new BGH with its new annexes constructed on the hill going toward Fil-Am compound now boasts of better than a 500-bed capacity.  The Emergency Room has been transferred from its old site across the Under Five clinic to the  now-bustling West Wing.
     It is not only rooms that have been added to BGH. It has also acquired more modern diagnostics equipment, it is now considered one of the best-equipped hospitals in the entire Philippines.
     The old BGH building is still superbly preserved. The main hall still houses the different major wards (Pediatrics, Medical, Orthopedics, Coronary Care, Surgery and ICU units, Hemodialysis clinic, OB-Gynecology, and others).
     But the most modern operating theaters are now in the Annex building, along with the high-capacity trauma receiving unit. Gone are the days when even emergency cases had to queue for available surgery rooms. In recent major incidents, BGH has had to cope with situations where emergency patients rushed to the ER numbered in the hundreds, just like  the tragic Typhoon Pepeng calamity of 2009.  BGH passed that test with flying colors.  Today, even if a fully-loaded bus fell off a ravine in Kennon or Naguilian Road, BGH doctors and nurses are up to the task both in their number and rising skills.
     On Session road, the most dramatic change is the lower corner where the old DBP building stood for years. In has been replaced by a new six-storey modern office building now dwarfing the adjacent Pines Theater--which, by the way, is no longer a moviehouse but has been converted into a mini shopping arcade.

     Along Harrison Road, the newly-renovated Tion San Harrison Supestore is, perhaps, the only general merchandising establishment in Baguio that is able to cope with the entry of giant SM Supermall. It used to be split into two lots, with the historic Rose Bowl Cafe in between. Fortunately a swapping deal among the adjoining lot owners enabled Tiong San to expand its store to a contiguous area beside it--Rose Bowl restaurant was "bumped off" a few meters to one side to give way to the Tiong San supermarket--and three floors of dazzling electronic appliance displays above it.

Perhaps the most commentable and observable effect of all these new developments is the worsening traffic.  Previously unheard of in Baguio, experiences of getting trapped in gridlock for as long as 30 minutes or even longer during rush hour are now becoming commonplace.  
     Recently, the City government installed new traffic lights--featuring the newest  LED technology.  The changeover cycle is controlled by a computer and right now the jury's still out whether that was a step forward or backward.
    The average commute seems to have lengthened, although gridlocks now  occur "less often" because adjacent traffic lights can now actually coordinate electronically. But it only takes one moron to beat one red light one time--and the limited carrying capacity of Baguio's narrow city streets can get hopelessly clogged..again.