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By Virgil S. Villanueva and Agbayani P. Pingol II

Cubao: A culture of transience

Posted on July 09, 2015

“Ito ang Cubao na unang sumibol dito may kalahati nang dantaon -- dahan-dahang tumanda, naging luma, natabingan ng lahat ng bago.” -- Tony Perez, Cubao Midnight Express

Throng of people at the Cubao provincial bus terminal; view of the MRT and the footbridge at the intersection of EDSA and Aurora Blvd.
It was in 2009 when Grace V. Olinares marched out of the confines of her Bicol home to head out to Metro Manila to attend college. Just an 8-hour bus ride away from Manila, her first glimpse of the metropolis is Cubao -- a bustling and busy transportation hub for its denizens.

“When I first arrived at Cubao from the province, I remember that I got scared. Mainly because there were so many people walking. All of them were in a hurry. And the simultaneous honks of the buses made so much noise. It was just really noisy in general,” she said in an interview with BusinessWorld.

“Traffic, humid, and dirty,” was how she described what she first saw and felt upon arrival at the Cubao bus station.

“Because in the bus station, it’s where the quarters of the vendors are located -- where they replenish their goods. So the area was really hectic and noisy,” she added.

But even before setting foot in Cubao, Ms. Olinares, an economics graduate from the University of Asia and the Pacific, has received warnings from her townsmen in Bicol to be wary of pickpockets and crooks who would offer help in carrying your luggage and once you accede to their offer, they will quickly run away with your belongings. Though she admits that she has not experienced any heinous incident with thieves and the like, she has become more cautious whenever she passes by the area.

For Ms. Olinares -- now a young professional, Cubao merely serves transportation hub for her to get around the city.

For writer and chronicler Tony Perez, who has resided in Cubao since 1995, “the real Cubao can be found in its bus stations,” he told BusinessWorld via e-mail. “Cubao is a culture of transients, since the people whom we see as its ‘denizens’ actually come from four directions,” Mr. Perez added.

Outside the Araneta Center and a few minutes away from its bus and train stations, Cubao is a remnant of the night that passed -- a mere residue of wasted beer sessions and hundreds of one-night stands courtesy of its red light district. At night, it becomes the spiritual successor to Quiapo and Binondo -- but not in the way that the Aranetas wanted -- as it transforms to the stage of the bizarre where thrill seekers would go to numb the senses.

CUBAO IN THE ’60s AND ’70s

But before it was strangulated by urban woes, Cubao was the center of business activity in the metropolis. The completion of the Araneta Coliseum in late 1959 transformed it into such, turning the once barren 35-hectare lot -- which was then merely occupied by two radio towers owned by the Radio Corporation of America -- into a vital business and entertainment mecca.

J. Amado Araneta, a sugar mogul from Negros, quickly saw the lot’s potential as it stood between the crossroads of the West-to-East and the North-to-South pass, placing it at the dead center where city dwellers would constantly traverse -- providing a robust environment for trade and commerce. After buying it in 1952, the Araneta Coliseum’s construction started in 1957 and was finished two years later.

On March 16, 1960, the Big Dome finally opened to the public when it hosted the world super featherweight title fight between Filipino boxing great, Gabriel “Flash” Elorde and American pugilist Harold Gomes.

The boxing match was only the beginning as more illustrious sports and entertainment spectacles followed it and soon after, establishments quickly mushroomed around the dome, immediately transforming it into a commercial hub. Some of these, which have stood firmly up until today are Farmers Market, Ali Mall, Stella Maris College, Bellini’s, and Cubao Expo formerly known as the Marikina Shoe Expo. These, among other remaining establishments, according to Mr. Perez, embody the “real” Cubao.

Among other iconic establishments was A&W, a drive-in restaurant for the hip crowd where servers wheeled around in roller skates, giving its customers a taste of the American-diner experience. Aristocrat restaurant and Eugene’s were also premier diners along with Chinese restaurant Hong Ning. The New Frontier Cinema, too, which showed first-run films, was a staple hang out spot among students and the working class during that time. Beside the cinema were smart cafes Cup and Saucer and Chocolate House where barkadas gathered for a few cups of brew amid conversations that deepened with the night.


Cubao’s gleaming catwalk started around 1966 up until 1975. This was way before Makati City and Taguig City overtook it. Way before infamous criminal gangs like the “Bakal Boys” and the immoral sex-trade pervaded the area. This was way before citizens outside Luzon like Ms. Olinares who, even before gracing Cubao’s pavements, have become cautious and circumspect of the death knell that has reverberated around it.

For renowned Filipino journalist and biographer Nelson A. Navarro, Cubao’s downfall can be attributed to a confluence of factors -- chief among them was the small land relative to Makati City, some 15 kilometers south of Cubao. The 1,000-hectare Zobel de Ayala property in its nascent stage was already being developed for residential and commercial purposes by Joseph R. McMicking -- who would later on embed his visionary thrust and play a vital role in the Ayala conglomerate.

“Don Amading Araneta was first to the dream, but his problem was that he had very little land,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview with BusinessWorld.
“And then you see, very early by 1970s it was surrounded by urban blight. The Aranetas only had 35 hectares. In contrast, Makati had 1,000 hectares and they had big avenues like Ayala [Avenue], Paseo de Roxas, Makati Avenue.”

“They could separate the business area from the residential and the poor were very far away -- they were hidden. In Cubao, they were only 35 hectares. They were easily surrounded by urban blight,” Mr. Navarro pointed out.

He added that Makati City’s comparative advantage in land coupled with the Mr. McMicking’s business acumen and Don Amading Araneta’s lack of entrepreneurial vigor quickly resulted to Cubao’s descent as the primal business district of the Metro.

“Because Amading Araneta is really more of a showman than an entrepreneur and he had no vision beyond the immediate. In fact the first project was the linchpin Araneta Coliseum. His reign was that he already had the location primed when Makati was basically nothing but wilderness,” Mr. Navarro said.

“As he grew and prospered, the signs of decay and downfall were already there and he did nothing about it. And so it enabled Makati which had a lot more land area, and a lot more vision under McMicking,” he pointed out.

The main cause of this urban blight, according to Mr. Navarro, can be traced to the burgeoning sex-trade, prevailing criminal gangs, and the Araneta family’s inability to foster good relations with the city hall.

“In Cubao, the Aranetas, they never controlled city hall. They didn’t have the vision with city hall to contain the urban blight because of Bakal Boys, prostitution, drugs, and everything,” he said.

“They’re (the Araneta family) just there. Then Alibangbang and Salagubang (tacky beer joints in Cubao) were in the fringes. And those things drove the middle class out. You don’t want to raise your children in that kind of atmosphere. So they moved away to Provident Village in Marikina,” he added.

“It was really the inability to control urban blight. They could not because they didn’t have the political clout, nor the land, the resources. Lahat.”


Affected by this urban blight is Felenya Carolina, a sidewalk vendor stationed right outside Cubao Expo. Simply known as Manang Felly, she has been selling cigarettes, candies, mangoes, and other goods since 1967.

“Noon, nung nag-umpisa ako, mabili ang paninda. Ngayon matumal na. Mas mahirap.” she said in an interview with BusinessWorld.

Manang Felly -- who starts setting up her shop at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and wraps up around 7 o’clock in the evening regularly -- admits that her cart empties before dusk during her first several years in Cubao.
“Dati madaling maubos yung mga paninda. Ngayon may natitira, mga one-third,” she said.

But the struggle to make ends meet is not exclusive to Cubao, according to Manang Felly.

“Kahit saan naman matumal. Hindi lang dito sa Cubao. Mahirap ang pera ngayon,” she said.


At present, several key developments are in the pipeline in order to revitalize the sprawling commercial hub that Cubao once was. The Araneta group, in partnership with real estate developer Megaworld Corp., has infused a multibillion-peso investment with the hopes of turning it into a central business district like that of Makati and Taguig.

Among infrastructures in the pipeline are 18 high-rise residential towers -- which comprise of about 8,500 apartment units and 30,000 square meters of prime ground retail spaces, all of which are strategically linked to Gateway Mall and its adjacent railway lines.

Gateway Mall will also undergo expansion towards the west side of the Araneta Coliseum, together with a hotel on top of the expanded section. The Araneta Group, too, is reconfiguring the New Frontier Theater to accommodate over 2,000 people and is primed to be the destination for various live entertainment and performing arts extravaganzas.

For Jorge L. Araneta, son of the late Don Amading, chief executive officer and president of the Araneta Group, these grand plans to transform Cubao all began with his father’s mission.

“In his mind’s eye, he saw towering edifices and landmarks that would become home to a thriving community of commerce, leisure, entertainment and residential enclaves for generations to come,” Mr. Araneta said.

Indeed, Cubao will go through a massive reconfiguration over the next several years. Time will tell if the downers have spoken too soon about Cubao’s disparaging state. At present, Cubao Expo -- which has been home to foodies, boozers, artists, skaters, and the hipster -- has attracted the young and hip crowd. Cubao Expo provides a nostalgic view of what Cubao once was -- a flourishing and lively commercial hub free from the miasma that almost crippled it.

But one day, maybe just one day, Cubao will be populated not by people who just rush past it, but by people who are willing to stay.