Located at the southeast end of Cubao’s commercial district are a couple of landmarks that seem to have some intertwined history of sorts, sharing a unique history in a place as ever-changing as this area called Cubao. Both have their start in a period that was known as Cubao’s golden age of sorts as it was then known as the premier commercial district in the metropolis, then faced a period of decline and are now going through an age of rejuvenation of sorts as is the area which they are located.
In the midst of all these, it is remarkable to note their resilience in the midst of these changes. Though in the process, both had to reinvent themselves to meet the challenges these changes brought to Cubao.
If these structures were siblings, Ali Mall would be the older brother. It was named such in honor of boxing legend Muhammad Ali himself, who a year earlier defeated his bitter rival Joe Frazier at Cubao’s Araneta Coliseum in the fight dubbed as the “Thrilla in Manila.” It was said that immediately after the October 1, 1975 fight, Jorge Araneta of the Araneta Center approached Ali of his idea of building a mall in the complex and it would be named after him. While this would have incurred millions of dollars at least Araneta would have to spend for royalties to use the Ali name, the tough but good-natured Ali allowed Araneta to do so without having the latter to pay anything. Ali enjoyed the idea reportedly, and thought it was a great honor to have the mall named after him.
Ali himself would grace the opening of the mall on June 30, 1976, being one of the few structures in the country named after a person who’s still alive when it was opened. It was indeed an honor, if not a eyebrow-raising moment for those who believe in “you-should-never-name-something-after-a-guy-who’s-not-dead-yet.” But perhaps more than that distinction, it is also part of the annals of Philippine retail history as being one of the pioneering shopping malls in the country, not to mention the first shopping mall that has air conditioning throughout its 4 levels.
That would naturally make its next door neighbor the younger brother, which would be SM Cubao. Back when shopping malls were still a dream in the mind of founder Henry Sy, SM Cubao was opened in 1980 as the 3rd department store outlet of SM, back then an emerging brand name but not yet a powerhouse as it is right now. And in a place where fierce competition among department stores was fierce, SM with its 4-leveled building was fortunate to have made its mark, rivalling that of its old Cubao rival C.O.D.
The 1990’s was a difficult period for Cubao as its place as a shopping mecca began to fade. As a number of retail establishments closed down or scaled down their operations, Ali Mall somehow managed to hang on. But the mall’s patrons began to dwindle as it was beginning to look like only just a shadow of its own self as its condition deteriorated.
The same is the case for SM Cubao, but under different and interesting circumstances. It shared the same fate of the other existing standalone SM Department Stores as founder Henry Sy began to focus his energies on a new passion, promoting a new retailing culture through the shopping mall. Building one mall after another throughout the metropolis during the 1990’s, SM’s shopping malls eventually became a factor in the decline of Cubao’s shopping culture, an irony considering SM’s presence there.
The following decade marked the start of an ambitious plan of revitalizing the Cubao commercial district. Ali Mall was among the first existing establishments to get a makeover which involved a massive change in the mall’s layout, renovation of the structure itself and other parts like the cinemas.
A recent touch in this ongoing makover is the installation of what is dubbed “Ali art” with artworks mostly about the man whom the mall was named. A nice touch I might say though somewhat kitschy as far as some of the art is concerned.
SM Cubao’s redevelopment did not come far behind eventually. Its redevelopment was patterned after that of SM Makati as SM Cubao sported a new modern exterior, a far cry from the old concrete box that was a subject of ridicule among some before. It also went into an expansion mode as well as it expanded to the former parking lot at the back of the department store, as it became an indoor multi-level parking area on the upper floors and the lower ground level converted into a supermarket, which it did not have before. More retail tenants were accommodated by the new SM Cubao, especially on the lower ground level that was designated into an electronics hub.
As part of the aforementioned revitalization campaign in Cubao, a bridgeway was constructed to connect these two establishments, thus strengthening a colorful and vibrant history these two landmarks of Cubao have shared.
Note: This entry has been updated on June 5, 2016 with a story from CNN on the occasion of the passing of Muhammad Ali the day before.