Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Parks Time Forgot

Did you know that we used to have a lot of parks aside from the ones we know and visit once in a while? Know the story behind the lost parks of Cebu.

People congregating in front of Plaza de Recoletos

The Lost Landmarks of Cebu is an article series that features prominent buildings and monuments in Cebu that no longer exist. If you have suggestions or want to contribute, please feel free to message us on our Facebook page.

As with any major city and urban center in the Philippines, Cebu City has become a congested mess with a conflicting network of narrow roads, broken pavements, overpasses, and under-utilized pedestrian walkways while high-rise office buildings, apartments, and condominiums. There are not a lot of open spaces left for people to relax and unwind while enjoying the fresh air. Most people nowadays prefer to go to airconditioned mega shopping malls that go to parks these days. Sure there is still Fuente Osmeña, Plaza Independencia, and some privately-owned open areas at IT Park, SRP Baywalk, Cebu Business Park, and D'Family Park but there was a time way back when Cebu was littered with parks. Now, these old ones are nowhere to be seen. But before we examine what happened to these lost landmarks, we should know why most Filipinos don't to parks anymore.

From Parks to Shopping Malls

In the Spanish colonial era, wide-open spaces were a necessity for townspeople to gather, discuss public issues, and celebrate significant events. Normally, parks and other open areas are situated around the Poblacion (the town center) where the church and Municipio (town hall) are located. Like any major city in the colony, Cebu has been segregated the old inner city has a grand boulevard and parks at Calle de Serrano and Fort San Pedro for the Spanish, mestizo, and foreign expatriate community, the Chinese side of the Barrio del Parian has their own one, and the native population have a wide-open area around Barrio de San Nicolas and Ermita. The primary means of conveyancing was still horse-drawn caruajes or caritelas while most people walked on mostly dirt roads.

The inner part of the city has a better infrastructure with paved stone streets and a spacious plaza
as compared to the people living on the outskirts of the Colegio de San Jose in 1877

By the time the Americans took over the country, serious infrastructure work had been introduced as they expanded the city and paved the streets so that cars could go everywhere. By then, the downtown area had become a bustling economic hub so more people came to the city to work. Street traffic grew and the city's population increased. Eventually, the uptown area was developed with new public buildings and residential developments grew. Similar to what American architect Daniel Burnham did in Manila, Cebu has adopted a grand plan of "grand scale, wide radial boulevards, landscaped parks, and pleasant vistas" with Jones Avenue (now, Osmeña Boulevard), Fuente Osmeña, and the Provincial Capitol.

There were wide-open spaces for people to see a military parade then

The lasting legacy of American education has virtually transformed Filipino culture but the real culprit for this is consumerism and materialism. Although the mall boom in the US started in the 1950s, the Philippines had its own as early as 1932 with its first enclosed shopping establishment, the Crystal Arcade, which was built in Manila. Cebu, later on, had its own share of shopping establishments, mostly owned by Chinese, and Japanese 'bazaars' along Calle Magallanes. Despite the promising economic growth, the Filipino mall culture is a paradox. Many say that the growth of shopping malls is the best indicator of the rise of private consumption. However, it is the glaring view of continued wealth inequality in the country.

After the war, the city was devastated by all the bombing and fighting and most of the old parts of the city were in ruins. Many of the old structures were left in a state of disrepair while erstwhile parks and open spaces were eventually built on. Fast forward to the present day, there is a lot of development in Cebu City as mega shopping malls, boutique stores, high-rise residential complexes, and other modern structures were built in and around the metropolis.

So why build more of these when we need open spaces for fresh air?

Many shopping malls and commercial spaces have become the modern-day version of the Poblacion back in the day people went to the Mercado or Tiangue to buy food, stopped by the Municipio to get their cedula or went to church to pray. Incredibly, we only have to visit these airconditioned spaces to do the same thing. Everything is contained and compartmentalized so you don't have to go out anymore as everything is in there.

The truth of the matter is that many cities have suffered urban decay due to bad infrastructure and city planning as well as the lack of investment in it. As the Philippines has a demand-driven economy dependent on export labor and business outsourcing, the economy tends to go up and down along that line. As a result, developments are also dependent on it, particularly on high-rise residential buildings, malls, and gated communities. Oftentimes, local and national officials tend to focus more on building impractical infrastructure projects centered around flyovers, pedestrian walkways, basketball courts, and other "pet projects" often tied to their controversial pork barrel funds. Unlike other countries, we don't have our own park service, which is separate from the auspices of the DOT and DENR, which takes care of the national and public parks.

It's sad to see that a cultural shift has seen more people ending up in shopping centers instead of parks. From the safety and aesthetic perspective, some people avoid parks because of the bad perception that the homeless, vagrants and even petty criminals prey on people looking to enjoy the fresh air and wonderful views with friends and family.

That cultural shift is called 'malling,' the act of going to a shopping mall and whiling away the hours. A developing country with most of the population below the middle class and barely above the poverty level, the Philippines has the world's top 25 largest malls including the city's SM City Cebu, SM Seaside City, Ayala Center Cebu, and a whole host of Gaisano malls and other third-party operators. According to Nielsen Media Research, about 80% of Filipinos go to shopping centers and about 36 million people visit shopping plazas once or twice a month.

As public spaces diminish, privatisation and social segregation are increased further as the city has become more fragmented and divided. Malls have reinvented public space as private property, anyone can enjoy the mall but certain people are allowed to go in. It has already outnumbered parks throughout the country. The lack of these open spaces not only limits communal resources for relaxation, socializing, and appreciating nature but also exacerbates air pollution. We don't have our own Central Park like that of New York or the Botanic Gardens like that of Singapore. Malls may have embraced green and eco-friendly architecture with their beautiful upscaled open spaces, but it alienates the lower-income class.

The Lost Parks

One of the most recognisable old maps of Cebu City was made by Domingo de Escondrillas. If you look at it closely, you will see some prominent public spaces. While some still exist one way or the other, there are those that no longer exist.

The Plano de la Ciudad de Cebu - 1873 shows the location of the prominent parks

Plaza de Recoletos

This wide-open space in front of the old Recollect church used to be the venue for public gatherings and events during Spanish rule. When the Americans ruled the islands, it was renamed Plaza Washington. It served as a training ground for the occupying army where parades, drills, and military inspections with the military band playing Sousa's rousing military marches. Tents were scattered everywhere and later on, the soldiers were billeted at the Warwick Barracks (formerly the Spanish Cuartel de Ynfanteria).

Taken during the visit to Cebu of Governor-General William Cameron Forbes in 1906.
American soldiers lining up near the Warwick Barracks (foreground) during a parade-in-review in the spacious Plaza Washington.

Freedom Park as seen now

Later on, as it was known as Freedom Park, students and religious groups tended to host debates and political demonstrations in that area. However, it went through a period of decline and by the 1960s, it slowly became a trade center for vendors where it was eventually absorbed by the growing Carbon Market nearby. Gone is the green grassy field where soldiers used to march and you can a throng of people going about their business as the space is now occupied by all sorts of vehicles and ramshackle structures with rusty corrugated roofing.

Plaza de Amadeo I

Named after Amadeo I, King of Spain from 1870 to 1873, the Plaza de Amadeo I was dedicated to him and it appeared on the 1873 Escondrillas map. Amadeo was actually an Italian prince as he was from the line of the Dukes of Aosta where his father's line was a descendant of King Philip II.

King Amadeo I (left); General Francisco Loño (right)

When the Spanish Revolution deposed Queen Isabella II, the Cortes decided to reinstate the monarchy with him as the new king on November 16, 1870. Just as he was about to assume his role, his close supporter General Juan Prim was assassinated. He has to deal with unstable Spanish politics, republican conspiracies, Carlist uprisings, Cuban separatisms, and assassination attempts. It didn't help either that he was a foreigner ruling Spain. By 1873, he abdicated as king and Spain became a republic.

Plaza de General Loño

After his abdication, it was renamed Plaza de General Loño, after the Spanish war hero and Minister of War Francisco Loño y Perez. From April 1888 to June 1891, he was the political-military governor of the Visayas Islands.

The plaza was as large as the Plaza de Recoletos a few blocks away. Since the port is just a few meters away, space likely serves as an area where the Spanish prepare before they disembark or where most of them go after their arrival in Cebu. It is interesting to note that Nicasio Chiong Veloso owned a lot of property near that area even though the Chinese were supposed to do their business around their enclave in Barrio de Parian.

As more structures were built around that area and spaces were needed for new buildings, the space decreased in size to roughly the size of Plaza Rizal. If you analyze the old map superimposed in today's satellite image, the location of that park has moved further inland.

Plaza Rizal

Although the space between City Hall and the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño complex remains a public plaza with all the interesting sites tourists and locals alike will enjoy, it was a totally different place in the past. It reached a relative decline as most of the buildings and establishments in the area were in a state of decay and disrepair. 

It is interesting to note that Cebu City doesn't have a street or public space named after Rizal

Since the 1950s, the plaza has been renovated as the fountains were removed while the statuary was scattered. Dr. Jose Rizal's statue eventually gave way as the plaza was renamed Plaza Sugbo. In the late 1980s, the surrounding area was already an urban blight as people would warn you about petty criminals in the street when you go downtown and the Carbon market.

The Santo Niño side of the plaza underwent extensive renovations where it was then converted as an open-air extension to the church itself. Eventually, the former separate sides of the city hall and the Santo Niño-Magellan's Cross spaces were consolidated into one contiguous plaza. However, there are still improvements that have to be made as there is a lack of connection between Plaza Sugbo and the Seniors' Park behind the city hall.

Plaza de Armas

Also known as Plaza Mayor, this was and remains Cebu City's biggest and main public square in its modern name Plaza Independencia. Before it got that designation, it was just a large vacant space (as seen on older maps predating the Escondrillas) where the Guardia Civil and Spanish soldiers made their usual formation as Fort San Pedro and the quarters for soldiers and sailors are nearby.

That vacant space near the fort has remained relatively unchanged since the 1600s and was intentionally kept largely open as it allows easy deployment of troops sent to quash rebellions in the Visayas and Mindanao. The fort was initially built as wooden palisades before it was fortified into stone, later on, to protect the city from pirates and other would-be invaders.

The Plaza de Armas is strategically located between Fort San Pedro and the Gobierno Provincial in downtown Cebu so it serves as an important entry point for those going in and out of the city.

Plaza Mayor

It is safe to assume that by the 1870s, the formation of the Plaza Mayor became apparent as details of the park became visible in the Escondrillas and later maps. With the opening of Cebu to global trade, the population has increased and the demand for a civic area became apparent. The plaza has become a popular hangout for many living or working around the area. There was one huge garden filled with trees, ornamental plants and flowers.

In 1855, the obelisk was built at the heart of the plaza as a dedication to the memory of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the first Spanish governor-general of the Philippines.

This space has undergone a lot of transformation throughout its lifetime

Plaza Maria Cristina

In less than 40 years, the Plaza Armas, where military boots made it a muddy mess, was transformed into a grand public space befitting a grand city. With decorated bushes and trees with a trimmed grass field, the space has become the preeminent place for society figures to be. The civic space was later referred to as the Plaza Maria Cristina, in honor of the Queen of Two Sicilies (who was the queen consort of King Ferdinand VII of Spain from 1829 to 1833 and queen regent from 1833 to 1840).

The ascension of Queen Maria Cristina may have prompted the local authorities to 'beautify' that space

Plaza Libertad

By the time the Americans took over, it was renamed Plaza Libertad to emphasize their manifest destiny to liberate the country from the Spanish oppressors. After the war, it was called Plaza Independencia.

Plaza de Palacio

It is the open space in front of the Palacio Obispal (residence of the bishop of Cebu) and the Catedral Metropolitana y Parroquia de San Vital y la Inmaculada Concepción (now, Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral) as seen on the Escondillas map. Some of the buildings nearby didn't exist at that time as it was much bigger than it was today. It's not really a park more like a gathering place for parishioners, especially during important religious events and processions.

The red outline roughly estimates the area occupied by the old Plaza de Palacio

Given the fact that it took a long time to finish the construction of the cathedral, the open space may have provided an ideal work area to move the heavy blocks of stones to the construction site. More importantly, there is a road going directly straight to Barrio de Parian, where the most experienced craftsmen reside. Frequent interruptions such as lack of funds and other unexpected events, like the typhoon that destroyed the initial build, marred the entire building's progress. In fact, the initial funds were even diverted to the Moro Wars.

The architecture of the church is typical of Spanish colonial churches in the country, namely, squat and with thick walls to withstand typhoons and other natural calamities. The facade features a trefoil-shaped pediment, which is decorated with carved relieves of floral motifs, an IHS inscription and a pair of griffins. The Spanish Royal Coat of Arms is emblazoned in low relief above the main entrance, reflecting perhaps the contribution of the Spanish monarch to its construction.

If we superimpose the old map with that of the satellite image, we can see what changed. It may have a lot more decorative pavements and trees around it nowadays, it looks more like a glorified parking lot from above.

Although the present-day Archbishop's residence (now in D. Jakosalem Street) is no longer there, the Archdiocese of Cebu maintains its office there.

Plaza de Parian

As mentioned above, Cebu City is a highly segregated city as the Spaniards, mestizos, and other foreign expatriates are separated from the Chinese and local inhabitants. The Chinese residences have their own enclave at the Barrio de Parian, Cebu's Chinatown. It was founded in 1590 after the arrival of Chinese traders and was supervised by the Jesuits. It evolved into a market and trading center as the city briefly participated in the Galleon Trade.

The Jesuits baptized the community of traders and artisans and then taught reading, writing, arithmetic and Christian doctrine to their families. By October 22, 1614, Bishop Pedro de Arca separated the port area into two parishes: one for the Christian Chinese and Filipinos who lived in the areas bordering the city and the other was set aside for the local people (naturales, Indios) in San Nicolas. Parian remained a parish administered under the secular clergy until 1828 when the bishop of Cebu abolished and placed it under his jurisdiction.

However, hard times were coming to the Chinese community in the 1780s as Governor-General Simon de Anda expelled a lot of Chinese from the country. By that time, the area became a community of Chinese mestizos and ceased becoming a trading area and more like a suburban residential district.

The triangular-shaped open space remains visible to this day

Apart from the expulsions, the change in the community's character can be attributed to ecological change as the small Rio de Parian started to silt up rendering it unnavigable for small boats bringing goods to and from the sea. Later Chinese immigrants tend to gravitate towards the Ermita-Lutao area, where the current Carbon market is located. As a result, Parian ceased to become a Chinese enclave and opened up to more mestizo and Indio residents.

Unlike that of Binondo in Manila, the Barrio de Parian in Cebu never became the same vibrant community in the capital.

Despite the relative decline, the Chinese and Chinese mestizos became the most influential and richest people in the city as Cebu opened to world trade by the 1860s. They owned coastal vessels, collected goods in the provinces and forwarded them to Manila. They aggressively protected this monopoly by urging restrictions on the activities of the Chinese in Manila and the provinces.

When the advent of foreign houses and the new cabecilla wholesale system broke this monopoly in the mid-nineteenth century, the mestizos shifted their interests from commerce to agriculture. They farmed out to the countryside and acquired estates in Talamban, Talisay, Naga, and Carcar, and were in a position to accumulate wealth with the boom in cash crops in the late nineteenth century.  This was the basis of Parian's reputation as "the richest and most productive" district, the "center of commerce" in Cebu.

The triangular shape area remains visible from above

Their newly-acquired wealth and status enabled them to build stately homes and even beautify the erstwhile crowded enclave. The Plaza de Parian was built out of this success.

Plaza San Nicolas

The local inhabitants, or Indios, have the Plaza San Nicolas as the main public space. Located in front of the San Nicolas de Tolentino Church and the old bahay na bato of rich sugar trader Don Isidro Enriquez y Bracamonte.

San Nicolas is said to be the first Spanish settlement in Cebu

Barrio de San Nicolas is considered as Cebu El Viejo or Old Sugbu as it is believed that the Holy Image of the Santo Niño, brought by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, was recovered by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi's men 44 years later. Legends took root over time and it is widely believed that Tupas, the principal leader of Sugbu in 1565 and heir apparent of Humabon, had his settlement site at San Nicolas or more specifically Pasil. It is said that he found a burnt tree root floating in the sea, which he then made into an anting-anting or balahala. Some believed that this was the miraculous item to have been found by Legazpi's expedition and venerated as a black Holy Child.

The church built over the said location of the said image bore greater significance as it competes with the other Santo Niño narrative.

The plaza features a circular ground at the center with ornamental flowers and motifs.
It has benches all around and gaslight posts to illuminate the night.

Often underappreciated, the church is as old as the more famous Basilica del Santo Niño (built in 1565) as it was built in 1584 on the site of the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines. It is located just across the Pasil Fish Market and a block away from Tabo-an. It is separated from the city by the Pahina Creek and El Pardo. The church itself was a victim of war during the Spanish-American War where it was burned to the ground when the Spanish recaptured Cebu after the Battle of Tres de Abril in 1898. It even survived World War 2 but was eventually demolished by the 1950s. Only the perimeter fence is left.

Final Thoughts

Although most of the parks mentioned here remain, it is important to understand the historical significance that these public spaces played in the growth of our city. It is time for our towns and cities to maintain proper parks, plazas, and open spaces that encourage people to go out and enjoy the beauty of the outside. Not only do we protect our precious historical heritage but we're also protecting everyone's well-being and the environment as well. It should be readily accessible and be enjoyed by the masses and not just by the privileged few.

What are other lost parks of Cebu that time forgot?

"Mall culture and consumerism in the Philippines," by Jore-Annie Rico and Kim Robert de Leon
"Parian in Cebu," by Madrilena de la Cerna
"Parks: The lungs of Cebu City," by Victor Anthony Silva



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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Parks Time Forgot
Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Parks Time Forgot
Did you know that we used to have a lot of parks aside from the ones we know and visit once in a while? Know the story behind the lost parks of Cebu.
Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger
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