Taking Care of Business: Calle Real’s Role in Local Commerce

By Harren Fegarido

Imagine living in the city during the Spanish-American era, where Ilonggos wore suits and bowler hats while they strolled the dusty street of Calle Real. Businesses like banks, textiles and lending services flourished during that time, but the area also played host to merchandise sellers who sold everything from pins and anchors to suits. It was told that Jose Rizal once passed by Calle Real—still in its unpaved state, but was decent and clean enough that it was frequented by people from all classes of society—to buy a hat from an Indian merchant. The old buildings speak of the street’s history, and the intricate details of the columns and arches tell of the beauty and royalty of the once-and-still Queen’s City of the South.

Calle Real (also known as J.M. Basa Street), along with the other streets composing the old central business district, are creased with buildings dating back from the 1910s to the 1930s. Fast-forward to the year 2015: though some of the buildings were restored (or repainted) to bring back its architectural beauty, all the soot coming from the jeepneys have left an indelible mark on the buildings’ columns and arches that serve to highlight their deteriorating façade.

Calle Real - Project Iloilo

It seems like Calle Real has been left out of the modernization happening throughout the rest of the city. You can find no high-end shops, expensive coffee shops, air-conditioned malls, or first-class restaurants there. It has become a haven for cheap goods and merchandise—newspapers and school uniforms to old coins and eye glasses, just to mention a few among the many wares sold there—which are sold vendors lining the sidewalks at cheap prices. Calle Real is a dirty and noisy street, true. Yet it is this crazy atmosphere that makes it beautiful.

Yes, I adore the colorful and loud nature of Calle Real. The pungent smell and hodge-podge atmosphere of the old business district gives the place a sense of rawness and natural beauty. Despite all of these, the aroma of the old world still lingers in its busy walls and sidewalks

Calle Real - Project Iloilo

A friend told me once, “When buildings start to sprout in the new central business district in Mandurriao, Calle Real will be left behind”. That was the day I realized the danger threatening the existence of Calle Real. Just imagine this: there may come a time when Ilonggos would not have any reason to go downtown anymore, and that would also mean the sidewalks will have less footsteps, vendors would be selling less merchandise, and the only sounds of life anyone would hear from the street are the unheard screams of buildings drowning in oblivion.

Calle Real - Project IloiloWhat is happening to the city now feels like our own diaspora. More and more Ilonggos are consumed with the modern world that many of them forget the history of how the local shopping districts got its start. Since only a few Ilonggos, especially those of this young generation, venture downtown, it only furthers the unmentioned separation between the classes of society where only the well-off can afford to go to the malls and try new restaurants while the urban poor and locals from the rural areas are left walking the old streets of Calle Real to buy cheap goods and eat in restaurants with menus unchanged for several decades.

There is no problem with having a new central business district in Iloilo; it’s a part of progress, and progress should be good. However, if progress comes with the deterioration of the old business districts, then that is a steep price to pay. Besides, there is a reason why the old business district still remains relevant: this has become the alternative to the pricier places where anyone can have his or her shoes repaired, where garments and textiles can be bought in bulk, and where school and office uniforms are sold in cheaper sets. If Calle Real has just become a place where only tourists and people curious about our city are willing to traipse its sidewalks, then it probably would not have survived today.

I cannot call on all Ilonggos to go to Calle Real and buy, say, Christmas decors and gifts for your loved ones. Instead, I call for our fellow Ilonggos to have a renewed appreciation of the old district, for all Ilonggos to stroll into downtown Iloilo every once in a while and just drop by Plaza Libertad. I call for all Ilonggos to taste the food being served there using the same ingredients they were being prepared in since the 1950s. See the arches and intricate columns of the buildings, be nostalgic with your own culture, and be proud of legacy left to us by the old world, because each one of these is the reflection of the city—the real Iloilo city.

It’s quite funny to think that the tourists and travelers walking the streets of Calle Real for the first time understand the history of our city more, while the rest of us crowd around the Next New Thing. In reality, it’s up to us to revive the legacy left by Calle Real and the old business district. It’s up to us longgos to rethink and recall the stories planted within the walls of these old buildings and in its worn sidewalks.

Progress is not a problem, but forgetting our own history and culture is. Now, I believe us Ilonggos can learn a thing or two from a song by Petula Clark that, appropriately enough, is still being played every Sunday morning in our local FM stations:

“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown.”

Photos by Martin Espino

Harren Fegarido is a wanderer