This year has witnessed the demise of a few of Baguio’s oldest homegrown establishments. Star Cafe, known for its good food and as a cultural hub, decided to end its 74-year service last June. This December, Mandarin Restaurant, another old Chinese restaurant, once a home to the city’s country and folk musicians and a frequent meeting place among students, professionals and locals, will stopping operating by next year.
Having been in Baguio for the past six years, one of the things an ‘immigrant’ like me has noticed among those who were born, raised or have lived in the city for a considerable part of their lives is their tendency towards nostalgia. Facebook groups as such Baguio Nasa Puso Kita have became important popular places for sharing pictures and stories about ‘old Baguio.’ In the usual vein of the ‘good old days’ nostalgia trip, most of the users lament the degredation of the city from the renowned City on the Hill to to its current status as an urbanized, crime-laden and generally dirtier tourist destination. Baguio may be miles away from the armpit of a place which is Metro Manila, but most of the posts lament that it is definitely going there.
Yet as disappointment waxes to nostalgia and nostalgia fades to forgetting, it is also easy to lose perspective. Baguio’s transformation from a forested hill into a vacation-ville for Americans has also claimed a few important cultural and political spaces among the natives. The vacation-ville eventually became a tourist spot, attracting pilgrims and immigrants from the provinces, and slowly inched its way into urbanity.
But it would be myopic to see this path towards urbanity as a development from agricultural town center to city to metropolis. As with Metro Manila and other cities throughout the country, this urbanization has no industrial basis. Like Makati being founded on commercial establishments and call centers, Baguio’s economy is based on its current status as a ‘university city.’
Today, Baguio’s sprawling houses covering the hills, the pollution turning fog into smog, the population boom pushing its boundaries to the limit and even the deterioration of its tourist spots are indicators of this drastic change in urban orientation. More and more students are climbing up as Baguio grows and more and more spaces, just like Mandarin and the others, are cleared up for dormitories and other establishments for students. The 182 trees which SM cut were for more parking spaces. Minimum wage is not even attained by many workers who labor through contractual basis. Crime rate rises as standard of living plummets. Meanwhile, indigenous-themed coffee shops emerge here and there as call centers become more and more knowledgeable in the art of exploiting contractual cheap labor. This trajectory of ‘development’ is far from sustainable. Development? For whom?
It is necessary to locate Baguio City’s ills as something which is not specific to the place or its experience. It is part of the wider conditions of the country where privatization is justified and oriented towards satisfying the whims of the market. Rosy nostalgia or apocalyptic meanderings about the future will not change anything. What we need is a sober re-orientation, analysis, and mobilization against the root causes of these changes.