The new Book from Underground with owner Aj Labirinto. Photo from Department of Tourism, Culture and Arts of Manila

Photos of the renovated hole-in-the-wall underground bookstore, Books from Underground, circulated online following the unveiling of a newly designed Lagusnilad Pass last August 24.

It can be recalled that last July 2019, Book from Underground had to close together with the resident stalls of the underpass following the clearing operation led by Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domogoso who then remarked “Huwag kayong mag-alala. Ang kanyang existence ay iaayos natin kung paano sila magiging legitimate businessmen”.

True to his promise, Mayor Isko inaugurated the renovated Lagusnilad Underpass and Books from Underground a year later. Reports, however, indicated that the Manila City Hall only gave permit to Books from Underground while the rest of the previous stalls in the underpass will not return to the area.

Photo from Department of Tourism, Culture and Arts of Manila

The once dilapidated bookstore is famous for catering to the book needs of students in nearby universities and of urban book geeks of Manila. “Sayang nga walang pasok siguro matutuwa at maninibago and mga estudyante na muling madadaan dito” Aj Laberinto, the bookstore’s proprietor, in an interview said.  

Aj Laberinto started Books from Underground last 2010, and since then it became a mini-book hub located at the center of the country’s capitol.

The question of gentrification

While many lauded the efforts of Mayor Isko Moreno to develop Manila as a heritage city, some expressed concerns that such actions if not thoroughly planned and executed may lead to gentrification in the guise of development.

PolitiXXX Today’s very own Chief Content Officer, Emil Samaniego, also a cultural worker and cultural educator, cautioned that Mayor Isko Moreno’s aggressive approach to the city’s cultural redevelopment might overlook its urban stakeholders.

“It is imperative to ask whether the LGU of Manila had plans to the previous stalls that were displaced due to the clearing operation. I used to pass by Lagusnilad underpass on my way to work in the NCCA office in Intramuros, while I welcomed this renovation, I wonder what happened to the previous stores inside the underpass. We need to hear their stories. More than the design or aesthetics of Lagusnilad Pass, the stories of these “little” ordinary people should prominently figure in the policy narrative of cultural redevelopment in Manila.” Samaniego said.

Samaniego also pointed out the case of redevelopment of Escolta as an example of an initiative that borders to artist-led gentrification.

“While I laud the renewal of Escolta through the initiatives of various artists and art collectives, it is essential that the arts community should be reflexive on whether they are being complicit with gentrification. The harm of gentrification is that it displaces and alienates urban informal dwellers in the development process. A true culture-based urban development program should be a bottom-up approach where the arts and heritage sector will serve as support that will capacitate the urban community in taking the lead in the redevelopment through the use of arts and heritage. Culture-based urban development should not be a case wherein a cultural space is transformed as a new hub for artists and aesthetes to migrate or relocate into.” Samaniego [PxxxT] added.     

Meanwhile, from a heritage conservation perspective, Mark Dela Cruz, a cultural worker from the National Commisison for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), welcomed the redevelopment of Lagusnilad underpass. “Sa akin, okay iyon to promote culture, history, art. Hindi naman nasira ang kung ano mang significance mayroon iyong Lagusnilad” he said.

However, Dela Cruz made reservation on the proposed new design of the Manila City Hall. “Iyong proposal na baguhin ang structure ng Manila City Hall, iyon ang medyo questionable para sa akin. Ang proposal na ito ay dapat subject sa conservation management para hindi masira ang cultural integrity nito.”

In an interview with CNN Philippines last March 2010, Mayor Isko Moreno stated that he wants a new City Hall. “City hall ang ganda architecturally… but you know, it cannot accommodate anymore the demands of our time.”

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