With street parties, hole in the wall bars, and a synergy amongst the initiated, Poblacion is a place where people in Manila go for a new adventure weekend after weekend. It has rooftop bars, speakeasies, and clubs—the Philippine capital’s answer to London’s Shoreditch or Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong.
At least that’s how most remember it.
Today, as the Philippines struggles to contain the pandemic, beers are kept in unplugged freezers, neon signs are barely legible in the dark, chairs are stacked neatly over tables, doors are chained and locked, and posters that read “FOR RENT” are hung over beloved establishments. It’s even easy to find a parking spot.
“To be honest, I don’t walk around Poblacion anymore,” said Mike Hearn, owner of cocktail bar Run Rabbit Run. “That’s mainly because, to see remnants of places that were once there, full of life, reduced to an empty shell—it’s very sad. When you see those things, the thoughts of, ‘What about us? Are we next?’ come to mind.”
“To see remnants of places that were once there, full of life, reduced to an empty shell—it’s very sad.”
On Monday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte loosened restrictions in Metro Manila, declaring a “general community quarantine” starting Wednesday and at least until the end of the month, which will allow restaurants and bars to continue operating at limited capacity and under several safety and sanitation requirements. Curfews have also been shortened to 12 AM to 4 AM, as opposed to 10 PM to 4 AM.
Though this could benefit establishments, over a year of movement restrictions has changed people’s night out habits, leaving businesses and consumers alike no real clues on what’s to come.
“It’s quite dead,” said Isabel Cabal, a Poblacion regular who watched as her go-to spots shut down. “There was a time I passed by and it wasn’t the same. People were just walking home. That’s the saddest part. The neon has been reduced. People don’t even talk to each other while walking. They just look down or straight ahead, that’s it. I hated that.”
Hearn explained that a lot of other businesses in Poblacion have already closed, while those that have managed to stay open are still struggling to find their footing in a maze of operation restrictions.
Some establishments, like Run Rabbit Run, learned to pivot. In April 2020, about a month after a lockdown was declared, Hearn and his team launched a cocktail delivery service, followed by virtual cocktail making classes. These keep the business alive.
Other establishments have not been as lucky.
“I was so scared to go into these places knowing that some of the servers are gone,” said Cabal. “If there’s anyone who’s creating the atmosphere, it’s them.”
Many parts of Poblacion were former residential areas, physically just on the fringes of the Makati business district, but in another world in terms of vibe and energy. One street may smell of tacos, or it might smell of barbecued chicken intestines and liver. Further down might have the best cocktail bar in the country, or it can have cheap beers and drinks served in fish bowls with a bunch of straws. One place was an apartment turned bar, complete with a bed; several others were refurbished old houses.
It was a playground for artists, musicians, young professionals, and chefs. Establishments were small and authentic. The atmosphere was relaxed, raw, and real, in stark contrast to the polished tile floors and bright fluorescent lights of the city’s malls.
“You need to think of what made Poblacion. It’s the unpolished surroundings, it’s being on the fringe of the red light district, it’s the crowd of people shoulder to shoulder, music blasting, people dancing, people drinking on the road, laughing, hugging, kissing. [It’s the] different bars and restaurants, it’s going out without a plan, it’s the adventure, it’s the smell,” Hearn said.
“There’s so much that made it special, and it’s not something you can recreate; it sort of just happened very naturally. Everyone had a part in it, everyone brought something different, and that’s what helped make it as special as it was. Now, without all of those things, what is Poblacion?”
Many are worried that recent closures could change Poblacion forever.
“We see now a different kind of businessman coming into Poblacion,” said Rommel Marasigan, owner of Z Hostel.
Before the pandemic, their rooftop bar was packed with people virtually every weekend. Today, with no hostel guests, they’ve transformed the bar into an al fresco dining restaurant that operates at a fraction of its capacity.
“They’re willing to throw down big money right now to get spaces that are not even vacant,” he said. “I’m worried about that. The culture is different—cut-throat. Money is money and business is business, so I can see that it might change a bit for some areas.”
Marasigan said Poblacion was built and flourished on bayanihan (working together as a community). Losing that would mean losing what made the place special. He recalled how another bar once called Z Hostel in the middle of a busy night to borrow dozens of cases of cold beer after they ran out. In a matter of minutes, their bar crew was carrying the drinks down the street, customers greeting them with howls and cheers. This was not a one-off. Hearn remembered how bartenders from other establishments would tell their customers to get their next drink at Run Rabbit Run, and Run Rabbit Run’s bartenders doing the same. Today, working as a community is simultaneously harder and more important.
Hearn is hopeful that things can go back to how it used to be, while adapting to new lifestyles.
“It’s going to take a lot of thought and coordination between bar owners, and even the local government, to figure out how we get Poblacion back open, and how we do it in such a way that we make our customers feel safe,” he said.
For Marasigan, this time is a reset, to work on issues that plagued the area in the past—traffic, parking, and noise complaints from residents.
Cabal, meanwhile, is just excited to once again see the community she loves.
“Poblacion will light up again,” she said. “[It] will have all of its people coming back to it again.”
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