LEISURE

The pandemic killed Poblacion nightlife, but community spirit is keeping it alive

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The new wave of COVID-19 has brought the nightlife further away from our reach. What does that leave for those who remain — how are they surviving? Poblacion’s proprietors find their own ways to remain present in the communities that know them best. Illustration by JL JAVIER

As news of government-implemented closures of food and beverage spaces swirled across Metro Manila these past few months, the nightlife operators of Poblacion are starting to realize that perhaps indeed, they are left to subsist away from the radars of government aid.

A stroll along Kalayaan Avenue at night used to inspire a whole different feeling charged by the energy of the people who dwell and work in the area. But the absence of nightlife during the pandemic has profoundly altered the neighborhood, with its narrow streets agape and its once glaring lights dimmed.

Dripping in historical references, Barangay Poblacion, the first settlement in Makati City during the Spanish colonial era, has over the last six years embraced modernity with youthful establishments, most of which are social in nature. By the time the weekend crept in, people would descend on Don Pedro and Enriquez to end their week (or start their weekend).

The absence of nightlife during the pandemic has profoundly altered Barangay Poblacion in Makati City. Photo by JL Javier

When the pandemic began, the shift proved challenging. Poblacion was left immobile, with the exception of hostels and hospitality spaces, who repositioned themselves as quarantine quarters for the remaining work force stuck in the area.

Z Hostel, one of the well-known spots of the area, began taking local employees in. Cao Ocampo, one of the hostel’s partners explains, “Throughout this whole situation, the first thing we really prioritized was our staff. As much as possible we wanted to hold onto most of our staff.”

For OTO co-owner David Ong managing multiple ventures in F&B is not ideal for lockdown conditions. Photo from OTO/INSTAGRAM

OTO co-owner David Ong shares similar sentiments, having described the struggle to remain open as being complicated. For Ong, managing multiple ventures (as the co-founder of EDSA Beverage Design Group and The Curator) in F&B is not ideal for lockdown conditions. “We operate in a way where we're able to afford it — to break even. It's to be comfortable, but at the same time, [we struggle] to earn enough to give back to our staff.”

Ong has cited difficulties in providing enough for his staff, but emphasized the particular struggle in keeping his physical spaces intact. As the increasingly unpredictable restrictions continued, many more obstacles emerged to plague ongoing operations, nonetheless, government aid remains insufficient. For Futur:st co-founder Samantha Nicole, the support is “neither sustained nor proactive,” sentiments she shares with Ocampo and Ong.

As the increasingly unpredictable restrictions continued, many more obstacles emerged to plague ongoing operations of Poblacion's establishments, nonetheless, government aid remains insufficient. Photo by JL Javier

Apart from that, while there exists a Viber group for Poblacion nightlife proprietors, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the influx of news and messages in the thread. According to Samantha, the process of information dissemination is faulty and reaching out to officials has not been made easy. “I don't think it is good enough [because] we're always the one chasing it. [It’s] not meet us halfway or ‘do you want to have a dialogue?’.”

For small-businesses such as OTO, Z Hostel, and Futur:st, there is always the need to proactively get creative as information is neither available nor sufficient — leading management to operate in instability. But for an experiential stage such as Poblacion, the space is holy ground and the vacancy has been hard on those who struggle to maintain it. With a fresh set of lockdown regulations, Metro Manila first eased into GCQ status by June of last year. However, things had yet to switch to normal. The Makati City government implemented a citywide liquor ban by July, a practice that was also adopted by cities in neighboring areas. With that, Poblacion had to work around yet another batch of restrictions. “There is that stigma that [consuming] alcohol transmits COVID-19,” says Ong, who is also a renowned bartender. He believes that this isn’t the time to look for cocktails, but rather, readjustment.

For Ocampo, the Z Hostel rooftop bar, frequented not just by hostel guests, turned into a restaurant. “After we were able to [manage quarantine accommodations], we adjusted operations and opened our roof deck and then focused on our food.” Since re-establishing their rooftop space, Z Hostel has been concentrating on improving their food selections, however, having live musicians play for guests was still a grey area.

On Samantha's side of Poblacion, it’s about cultivating a community they were already familiar with. When talking about their recent pursuit into the creative community, she claims, “[w]e've always wanted that because the credo has always been wanting to branch out Future when we open in 2019.” Futur:st, the Poblacion counterpart of Cubao’s beloved Today x Future (which was closed the previous year), had turned into a haven for creatives since the pandemic ensued.

READ: How a bar in Cubao became home for a generation of Filipino creatives

“I guess that took a bit of a slow burn, just because Poblacion is usually more anchored towards nightlife. Actually, a lot of these spaces wanted to anchor towards art, but it's more popular for the nightlife, drinking, and bar hopping. So even when we were doing [these things] pre-pandemic, we would have art shows and noise music fests in there and collaborations and whatnot. People never really noticed it.”

In Poblacion, the misdeed of one turns sour for all and businesses regularly face a “damn if you do, damn if you don’t” predicament. As such, there is a brewing community spirit being forged in the silence and the readjustment of the establishments has granted them the opportunity to nudge Poblacion into a new sphere. Communities that sprouted during the pandemic such as Manila Community Radio and Built Cycles can be directly tied to the Poblacion locality, with the latter being physically present in the area. For Sai Villafuerte, one of Manila Community Radio’s DJs, the neighboring establishments of the area have since become institutions in its evolving fabric.

Since the pandemic began, there has been a wave of support to strengthen the Poblacion spirit, composed of proprietors, friends, and regulars. “Before the pandemic, there were [different] circles in the nightlife [scene],” said Samantha. “One thing I could say is I think people are starting to erase that line and actually understand that we're all in this together. At the end of the day, we all just want to reactivate one way or another.”

The spectre of the Poblacion nightlife remains very vivid in our minds, but perhaps it has evolved into something new entirely. It’s no longer about drunkenly sharing an intimate proximity with people you don't know, or tracks mixed by a DJ across the room, but rather, sharing a collective experience, separately. Contrary to popular belief, the night remains very much alive.