Crossing Katipunan

Manila jeepneys, fault lines, and political unrest were part of an idyllic childhood

One morning, I was almost run over by a jeepney plying the U.P. Campus route as I crossed Katipunan Avenue on my way to Asian History class. As a college freshman, I had not yet learned the lesson of avoiding 7:30am classes. Sleep-walking across the road, I was jolted awake by the screech of thin-gripped brakes, and looked up to see chunky metal and the glaring face of a driver who really didn’t need an injured 17-year-old on his hands. My life didn’t flash before my eyes until I crossed the remaining stretch of street and walked into Colayco Hall, where my friends took one look at me and turned off the music that was already blaring from a boom box.

Another friend came walking into the same room a few months later with a bewildered look on his face. On his commute to school, the jeepney he was riding fatally ran a mongrel over. A second jeepney skidded to a stop alongside, the driver jumping out and helping his colleague heave the dead dog onto the floor of Jeepney A’s front seat. He then said, gleefully, “Pare, pulutan na yan mamayang gabi!” (“Mate, this is our beer snack for tonight!”) as they waved to each other and carried on with the business of ferrying impressionable young passengers to school.

If that poor mutt and I had problems crossing Katipunan then, the negative press the 10-lane road generates today isn’t surprising. If you visit the official Wikipedia entry, Katipunan Avenue’s Internet persona is one of gory road accidents, unsolvable traffic, controversial mass-market condos, and frequent flooding, due to an infrastructure that is struggling to support the exponential growth of the student population and the community that educates, feeds, shelters, shuttles, and entertains them.

Some of this is doomsday-worthy. One reporter, having seen PHIVOLCS data that the Marikina Fault Line shifts every 200 to 400 years, has featured Katipunan Avenue as the starting point of a guided tour entitles The hidden, fractured earth under Metro Manila’s streets, complete with fault lines scratched like a red scar on Google Maps.

Left: The Marikina fault line drawn across Metro Manila. Right: The Marikina fault line running through my neighborhood.

The writer begins his tour at La Vista, and proceeds to highlight points of interest in the fault’s path, a list that exactly matches the places where my friends and I lived, the schools we attended, and Loyola Memorial Park, the cemetery where members of my family are (for now) resting in peace.

But let me dispel misconceptions right here: the Katipunan Avenue of today is a relatively recent construct that is post-C5 highway construction, post-building boom, post-population explosion.

When remembered through the right eyes — preferably those of someone who hasn’t spent any time there in the last decade, but lived in “the educational hub of Quezon City” during a quieter time — Katipunan need not be portrayed as a car-clogged concrete road where pedestrians play a real-life game of Frogger. Through a more forgiving lens, it is a straight-ruled strip anchoring an idyllic pocket of Quezon City where a child of the ’80s could do some growing up.

I refer, in particular, to the section flanked by Loyola Heights on the west and the Ateneo campus on the east. In this version of Katipunan, there was a languid rhythm to the neighborhood, broken only by the sound of tricycles plying the tree-lined asphalt slip road, flagged down by residents paying two pesos to get from Aurora Boulevard to Shoppersville. Along the way, they would pass small homes, mom-and-pop shops, and the occasional empty lot. A girl and her dog could, on a weekend morning, cross the road to play in the grassy fields around Rizal Library, bumping into nobody but a Jesuit out for a morning stroll.

This was the street where college students from U.P. Diliman and Ateneo could get a free ride around campus on a public transportation system called The Love Bus, the name scrolled in big flower-power font across its sky-blue body.

The Love Bus

We lived on Esteban Abada Street. My parents moved there immediately after getting married and spent the next two decades raising two daughters and a series of pet dogs. Because Loyola Heights was a closed circuit of streets, Katipunan was the artery through which our family travelled towards the world.

Despite having two convent schools a few blocks away, my father wanted his daughters to attend St. Theresa’s College like all the other women in the family, so each school day, we were on the road before 6am. Out the gate, left on Esteban Abada, left again on Rosa Alvero, then right onto Katipunan and into the larger realm of Quezon City: Aurora Boulevard, Project 4, Cubao, Timog Avenue, Quezon Avenue, until we were deposited at our school gates on D. Tuazon. In the afternoons we took the same route in reverse.

This was the routine for ten years, so I didn’t spend any time at all on Katipunan during the week. That’s why my Katipunan is all about play: weekends, Signal Number 2 days, and summer vacation.

On the north end was Santa Maria Della Strada, the round semi-open church at the corner of Katipunan and Pansol Road. Sunday was an event: morning mass led by long-serving and beloved parish priest Father Pat or a guest Jesuit, angelic singing by the Pansol Choir, and announcements by the various barangays. We have never been a religious family but we came because there was a collegial atmosphere, good music, and once a month, a flea market on the grounds. The length of Sunday mass depended on the length of the sermon, and that depended on who delivered it. If Father Pat: short, off the cuff, and actionable; if a Jesuit priest: long, typed out, and contemplative.

Della Strada would become the venue of my political awakening. One Sunday, Father Pat announced that Ninoy Aquino had been shot dead. I didn’t know who he was. My mother said she’d explain later as a wave of shock rippled through the church and the congregation stood up to sing Bayan Ko (My Country). From that moment, there was no more Love Bus to ride; college students put on yellow t-shirts, skipped class, and for three years, marched down Katipunan towards Mendiola and Crame and EDSA.

On 1983, opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was assassinated upon arrival at Manila International Airport. Three years of political unrest followed, culminating in the 4-day peaceful EDSA “People Power” revolution in 1986 that forced the Marcos family to leave the country.
From that moment, there was no more Love Bus to ride; college students put on yellow t-shirts, skipped class, and for three years, marched down Katipunan towards Mendiola and Crame and EDSA.

Having your parish priest announce political breaking news wasn’t that unusual. The religious groups in the area always had an independent streak about them. The nuns of the Monasterio de Santa Clara were one of the last hold-outs during the years of C-5 construction. They patiently refused to move until a suitable plot of land was found, earning both the respect and ire of a community in desperate need of decongestion. Finally a new location nearby was negotiated, allowing them to remain an area landmark.

To the 8-year-old me all this was some years away. After Sunday mass, the family piled into the car for the one-block drive to the local institution called Shoppersville. The entire neighborhood crammed into the simple brick structure after angling for parking outside, because who wanted to schlep to Queens Supermarket all the way out on Aurora Boulevard?

My sister and I made a beeline for the Stationery section on the second floor. It filled a gap in the market for strawberry-scented erasers, Trapper Keepers, and Figurine-Panini sticker collections. In the opinion of this long-time stationery collector, that space was rivalled only by the Sanrio store in Greenhills, which was too far away and reserved for acquiring birthday presents. Shoppersville was our weekend babysitter, where we roamed the aisles unattended until my mother came up the stairs to call us home, at which moment we had to make a split-second decision on which version of pink stationery to purchase.

When PAGASA’s head weatherman, Amado Pineda, declared school suspended during typhoon season, Katipunan was eerily shuttered and empty. It was time for another ritual: driving to Brainiac, the video rental shop in a strip mall just past the Blue Eagle Gym. It was TG Kintanar’s place. He was the first geek I ever met, and the store was designed around his hobbies: kits for T-Rex and bi-plane models, an Apple II running single-player games off floppy disks, and a large Betamax rental section. The day we got our first Sony video player, my sister and I followed our father through Brainiac’s door, and became regulars for years. TG took curatorial pride in his video library, keeping its content fresh via an unknown source in America. Through Brainiac, our binge-watching skills developed long before it became a thing as we sat for entire afternoons, the wind blowing outside, watching episodes of Growing Pains, Family Ties, Alf.

The late great Mr. Amado Pineda, my one and only weatherman

Most memorable of all was the Katipunan of summer vacations: little traffic and no rain. There were fewer faces, and they were more familiar. There was time to hover around the dirty ice cream cart, trying flavors like cheese and mango, on days when rolling brownouts made it too hot to stay indoors. There was time for posting letters to high school classmates and asking the party line to get off the phone because we were waiting for a call too.

For two summers I volunteered for a Della Strada program called Landas Ng Karunungan, where we tutored kids from Pansol and Balara in Math and English. A kind of puppy love developed between another volunteer and I, which we nurtured with daily note writing. A lifelong Atenean, he was skilled in crossing Katipunan, so he’d walk me home after our tutoring for the day was done. That romance was over before we could recognize it, as I was going to college in June and he had one more year in high school. It was a gap difficult to traverse.

Midway through college, it was decided I should learn to drive, so a summer was spent learning to use a stick-shift. I practiced on Quezon City streets of varying inclines and busyness. I never felt comfortable behind the wheel, but my parents got me a second-hand Isuzu jeep anyway.

It was crossing Katipunan that turned me off driving entirely. The street had been widened by this time. With my father in the passenger seat clutching the dashboard, as if willing the car forward, I gingerly rolled from Fabian de la Rosa across the avenue, aiming for Ateneo’s Gate 3 as those unforgiving UP Balara jeepneys barrelled towards us. I succeeded, but just. I never did get my driver’s license, and have had no interest in getting behind the wheel since.

The full extent of my driving experience

Last May, an electric jeepney plying the Katipunan Avenue route burst into flames in front of UP Town Center. It sent black smoke billowing into the sky and stopped traffic all the way to Tandang Sora. Nobody was hurt, although the Manny Pacquiao deodorant ad wrapped around the e-jeepney’s frame disintegrated into a heap of ashes.

On hearing the news, my mother remarked that I should really visit UP Town Center, the shiny new mall. For long-time residents like us who have seen 40 years of Katipunan’s organic expansion, it’s a much-awaited upgrade whose significance overrides any daily street dramas. The drama isn’t new anyway. My parents still talk about the time in the mid-70s when a welding shop along Katipunan caught fire, requiring young families to pile their babies and valuables into Volkswagen Kombis and drive to safety, all the while looking up into the sky, watching for flames they hoped they wouldn’t see. The fire was contained, nobody was hurt, and everyone made their way back home.

An electric jeepney bursts into flames along Katipunan Avenue. (Source: CNN Philippines)
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