The pedestrian-filled streets of San Nicolás in Manila's Chinatown are narrow and noisy with jeepneys, pushcarts, calesas, tricycles, sidewalk vendors, garbage. Decaying old structures housing dozens of families and nondescript newer buildings stand side by side, festooned with dangling electricity and telephone lines.
Beneath the squalor remain traces of what Manila planners and engineers once envisioned - the faded elegance of Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz (formerly Plaza de Binondo and later Plaza Calderón de la Barca) and C.M. Recto Street (formerly Calle Azcárraga and before that the connecting Calle de Gral. Izquierdo, Paseo de Azcárraga and Calle de Iris), a tree-lined semi-circle around central Manila. Also, there are chipped ceramic tiles on the occasional wall, announcing street names - a practical and classy contrast to the flimsy and often kitschy metal signs we now endure.
Barely recognized are the street corners of San Nicolas. The few times that I've been there, I always noticed how homes at street intersections had been beveled or chamfered (chaflanado), with a missing right-triangle-shaped section.
In effect, each street corner had become a little eight-sided plaza (plazoleta) with four streets and four chaflanes, thereby neatly reducing traffic accidents, creating more space for loading and unloading, and adding charm to the cityscape. The logic sank in only when I saw how Barcelona's much larger corner buildings (along much wider streets, too) were similarly built with a chaflán.
Regrettably, our plazoletas are barely noticeable now, smaller with encroaching construction, informal settlers, permanently parked pushcarts, barangay quarters, and police outposts.
They must once have been something to see with structures like the three-story home built in 1892 by Don Lorenzo del Rosario at the corner of Madrid and Peñarubia Streets. Designed by Arquitecto Municipál Juan Hervas y Arizmendi, the ground floor was store space and the upper two floors residential. With arches above the large front door and the narrow windows on the third floor, engaged columns and appliquéd carvings, the house came to be known as Casa Bizantina or ''Byzantine House.'' A mirador crowned the roof, making the interior's main feature - wide stairs with turned balusters -even more stunning.
Over the past century, the house became home to a succession of tenants. It was the first home of the University of Manila (then Instituto de Manila) that held classes there in 1914-1918.
The neighborhood steadily went downhill and like many of its neighbors, Casa Bizantina was in sad state by 2000. Its rusted roof was riddled with holes; windows askew, broken or gone, carved decorative details and balusters pried off; the interior partitioned into dark little cubicles. Make-do toilets announced their location olfactorily. The teeming multi-level community was declared structurally unsound in 2008.
More than 20 families were still in occupancy in 2009 when the building was sold, dismantled and brought to Bagac, Bataan. There at ''Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar,'' Casa Bizantina triumphantly stands again, restored to its old glory - a lonely survivor perhaps thinking of old friends, three vanished neighbors around an octagonal plazoleta that they once shared.
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