Calle Real without cars

By Julie Ann Mae B. Silvederio and Hazel P. Villa, VERA Files

Photos by Jonathan Japitana and JP Sarsoza

Iloilo City – Imagine a major city closing off its busiest downtown streets on a late Saturday afternoon till evening so that an orchestra can perform, photographers can hold a photo exhibit, poets can do open mike readings, book lovers can read as acoustic bands, solo performers and dance groups do their own thing.

Imagine early Sunday morning in a carless street where people jog and do physical fitness activities, followed by henna tattoo live sketching, with an open reading space available for anyone who would like to temporarily free himself from the consuming world of social networking. Come late afternoon, a street fashion show with elegant designs unfolds --- adding to the boulevard’s classic ambiance while cosplayers, fire and carnival dancers suffuse the streets with a festal vibe.

That is not a figment of one’s imagination.

Iloilo City Councilor Jason Gonzales initiated a three-month “Carless Weekend” experiment on Calle Real, or “Royal Street,” in Iloilo City’s downtown area that began last December.

“The pedestrianization of streets has proven to give various benefits to the people living in the area,” Gonzales said in a statement. “It has decreased air pollution, improved health since people are encouraged to walk and it has increased economic activity since higher foot traffic insinuates higher sales.”

The experiment calls for the closure of Calle Real from 5 p.m. of Saturday until midnight of Sunday, starting mid-December of 2013 to mid-March of 2014, to give space and opportunity for different forms of entertainment.

According to architect Regina Gregorio of the Iloilo City Engineers’ Office, the experiment closes off JM Basa Street--- from Socorro Drugstore and Plazoleta Gay all the way to Regent Theater beside Freedom Grandstand---which is approximately 400 meters, or a five-minute walk.

This is to test the viability of the 2011-2020 Iloilo Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) that seeks, among other things, to restore the structural heritage of what was then known as the Queen City of the South.

Through the passage of time, Calle Real endured the hustle and bustle of Iloilo City’s business life. Progress had taken its toll on the European-type heritage structures lining both sides of the street – some of which Dr. Jose Rizal saw when he disembarked from the steamer Espana on his way to Dapitan in the mid-1890s.

According to the official website of the Iloilo City government, Dr. Rizal seemed to have been impressed by the appearance of the city, which he described as follows: “The entrance to Iloilo is beautiful. From afar can be seen the white city set in water, a nymph of galvanized iron, a modern creation, poetic in spirit of its iron uniform… The liveliness of the Escolta (referring to Calle Real) pleased me.”

Councilor Gonzales tapped Joeboy Agriam, president of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Iloilo, who then formed the Iloilo Calle Real Unified Stakeholders (iCRUiSe). Comprising iCRUiSe are organizations that share the common vision of reviving the cultural heritage of the boulevard namely Photo Artist League of Iloilo (PALI), City Mayor’s Office, Office of Councilor Jason Gonzales, City Tourism Office, Panay Amateur Radio Club, Chamber of Commerce and Industry Iloilo, Tarangban Literary Guild, Cinematheque Iloilo and Iloilo Folding Bike Riders (iFOLD).

“We like the idea and regard the heritage value of Calle Real,” according to Erna Foerster, founder of PALI, which is in-charge of the project’s documentation.

Last Dec. 28, the experiment’s program started with PALI’s photo exhibit at 5 p.m., featuring Iloilo City’s heritage sites, followed by a performance by the Iloilo Baptist Church’s orchestra and Tarangban Literary Guild’s poetry reading at 6 p.m. At 8 p.m., Iloilo Prima Galaw entertained the passersby of Aldeguer Street. The succeeding hours saw performances of acoustic bands, solo performers and dance groups.

Models of Jay-Em Gonzales and Nicnic Mandercio did the catwalk along the boulevard that same Saturday evening and the following Sunday at 4 p.m. in a street fashion show.

On Dec. 29, a Sunday, iFOLD members and joggers participated in physical fitness activities at 6 a.m., followed by live sketching using henna tattoo at 8 a.m. on Aldeguer Street.

Marcel Milliam of Tarangban Literary Guild said the group’s Open Reading Space with its project, “Read: Iloilo,” welcomed anyone interested to occupy a space at the Freedom Grandstand, read an available book, or bring one for themselves and read it on their own or with a friend. He said that in an open space that “is carless and without internet connection,” people can enjoy reading their books while relishing the classic ambiance of Calle Real.

Cosplayers tapped by Steve Francis Quiatchon, fire dancers and carnival costume dancers tapped by Joeboy Agriam wrapped up that carless weekend in December with their festive, fiery and multihued performances.

“It’s good to know that we can bring our kids here every weekend to watch different performances. This can be our recreational activity every Sunday,” Leonisa B. Frias, 57, said as she passed by Calle Real. She was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected transformation of a bustling street into one that has a heart for heritage, culture, and the arts.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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