City of Manila

Revisiting Santa Mesa (A 10th Anniversary Piece)

Ten years ago, I’ve started on this journey of chronicling the sights, sounds, and stories of this urban jungle called Metropolitan Manila and even beyond the borders of the metropolis on occasion. Despite the doubts I had when I started this endeavor, here I am 10 years later, still continuing the journey as an Urban Roamer.

So what does the Urban Roamer do on his 10th year? The Urban Roamer has figured it would be appropriate to return to the place where the journey began, right in Manila’s Santa Mesa district, and see how things have changed since then.

This parking lot was formerly a gas station

Firstly, I must disclose that I no longer live in Santa Mesa for many years now. I’ve rarely ventured in that part of the city these days given that my new home is far off in the east and going there these days would be major effort on my part. But on those rare times I’ve passed by the area, I get surprised by how much the district has changed since I left.

A building used to stand where this structure is now, and that building was the former Fernando’s Supermarket office where my mom worked. The supermarket is still there though, but now is a Mightee Mart supermarket

Mind you though that the changes happening in Santa Mesa have been going since the late 2000s. By the time I first wrote about the district in 2009, it was already undergoing quite a number of changes already. By then, the former wet market became a Puregold supermarket branch and a SaveMore branch opened near the corner of Magsaysay Boulevard and Nagtahan.

New landmarks and towering structures

The intervening years saw even more changes in the area as more residential and commercial development came in. One particular example is the building which used to be the head office of the Philippine Statistics Authority (formerly the National Statistics Office), part of which has now been opened to commercial operations and is now a site of a Chinabank branch. Nearby is a building of photocopy stalls and mini sari-sari stores but are now the sites of two popular restaurants.

A Chinabank branch at the former head office of the PSA
The former photocopy stalls gave way to these fastfood chains
Located near the street I grew up in, this used to be a two-storey house with a carinderia and sari-sari store at the ground floor

Continuing to the corner of Magsaysay Boulevard and Hippodromo Street, the once playground/park at the corner was converted into a basketball court with a roof on top of it. Which not only deprived a haven for children to play but also a possible place for a monument or something to honor its history.

The most visible sign of Santa Mesa’s development are the residential high-rises that have sprouted in the area. Joining the fray now along with the independent developers and the giants such as DMCI and Filinvest are the likes of Dataland, Empire East, and Ayala Land building their own skyrises in different parts of the district. In particular, the projects of Dataland and Empire East along Magsaysay Boulevard now dominate the skyline in that part of the city, overtaking J&T Building which used to be the tallest building in the area. That does not even include the residential tower already standing a few meters ahead, just behind the Boulevard. Meanwhile, Ayala Land’s Amaia Skies project has overshadowed the entire neighborhood, literally and figuratively at its V. Mapa location, radically changing the formerly quiet and low-key residential and commercial activity in that part of the district.

While technically located in Sampaloc, Dataland’s Silk Residences is one of the new developments transforming the Santa Mesa skyline
Empire East’s Covent Garden, right beside J&T Building
Ayala’s Amaia Skies Sta. Mesa, built on the former Baltao Building

As someone who grew up in the neighborhood, seeing such unprecedented development brought not only nostalgia but a realization that the Santa Mesa I knew before was slowly fading away. Sure, the area visually looks mostly the same as I remembered it the last time. However, the case was clear that the understated charm it had before was no longer there.

Rediscovering heritage

In the midst of these changes, there were some longtime places that I only got to appreciate more now than I did when I frequent the area before. Thanks to the knowledge of appreciating built heritage, I was able to appreciate more the structures that remain standing in this evolving district to remind us of what Santa Mesa was like before in the olden days. By my estimate, these structures have been around since the postwar period at the latest (around 1950s).

The Santa Mesa Fire Station, probably built around the 1940s-1950s
Clinica del Dr. Estrada, which the sign says opened in 1929. The house though may have been sometime after that
An old house located along Old Santa Mesa Road, probably built before World War II

One frustration though is I was unable to get inside the Regina Apostolorum School, whose school building was actually an ancestral house of the family of actor Eddie Gutierrez. It’s said to be more than a hundred years old, and because of the high walls, I haven’t been able to see it up close which is a shame as judging by the photos, it is a grandiose structure, despite the age and some wear and tear.

With these changes happening in Santa Mesa, I have to wonder how this district evolve 10 years from now. Will the old structures still standing today remain standing by then? Will we see more towers in the district’s skyline? It is my hope that Santa Mesa somehow finds a way to retain a semblance of understated charm that I’ve come to know as someone who was raised in this district in Manila.

Until then, here’s to more roaming stories and travels in the metropolis and beyond.

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