Rescuing Baguio’s Session Road from fastfood obscurity
BAGUIO CITY – The date when Session Road was built has been a matter of debate for businessmen who have been pining for the golden years of Baguio enterprises since the summer capital celebrated its centennial in 2009.
But everyone agrees that no one is happy about downtown Session Road’s evolution from a row of vintage small-town shops in the early 1900s to today’s strip of fastfood joints.
The dirt road that is now Session was used by the Second Philippine Commission of 1904 to travel to the original Baden Powell Hall (now Baden Powell Inn) for its first session on April 22 to June 11, 1904.
The commission (made up of Governor General Luke E. Wright and Commissioners Henry Clay Ide, Dean C. Worcester, Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, Benito Legarda, Jose de Luzuriaga, James Smith and William Cameron Forbes) functioned as the Philippines’ legislature under the American colonial government and initiated Baguio’s conversion into the summer capital.
The new status gave Session Road relevance as the fledgling city’s commercial center.
The street began hosting pioneer enterprises, such as the Japanese Bazaar in the 1920s that supplied a growing community of expatriates and migrant Filipinos.
Soon, enterprises built by Americans, Chinese, Indians and Filipinos took over the sloping stretch that begins at the present site of Malcolm Square and ends at Luneta Hill (where the old Pines Hotel stood, replaced since by SM City Baguio).
Many of the businesses lasted well into the 1960s and 1970s.
But as of this year, the only “old Baguio” establishments that continue to operate are Star Cafe (built in 1940); the CID bookstores (1945); Sunshine Lunch (1950s); Luisa’s Cafe (1970s); Mandarin Restaurant (1975); Sizzling Plate (1970s) and the hardware Northlander (1960s).
According to Moises Cating, the Ibaloi owner of Solibao Restaurant, a future where homegrown businesses have been displaced, is a future that needs fixing.
“Maybe changing the landscape of Session Road could be undertaken. It’s time to reinvent Session Road,” Cating says.
Many businessmen have revisited a plan endorsed by former Mayors Braulio Yaranon and Reinaldo Bautista Jr. to convert the stretch of downtown Session into a pedestrian mall, filled with trees and outfitted with coffee tables, chairs and park benches.
Cating is vice president of the Session Road Business Association, which earned its spurs as an activist group when it lobbied against the entry of a shopping mall chain.
Failing that, the group marshaled public opinion to prevent the mall from building a pedestrian overpass over a section of Session Road.
But it was also credited for obstructing the proposed “pedestrianization” of Session.
Cating says he had changed his mind after taking note of the way traffic has altered this busy commercial district.
People, especially students and families, used to stroll there, but foot traffic has been directed toward Luneta Hill, where SM City Baguio is, he says.
Cating says the absence of meanderers might explain the low conversion of many shops into eateries.
More than 100 enterprises are currently registered along downtown Session Road, with over 60 street-level stores. Many serve food and nine are part of fast-food franchises.
Businessmen first noted the changing Session landscape in 1992 when a government inventory of establishments indicated that the Chinese-Filipino community dominated three quarters of the commercial center.
The changes may have eased out some of the Indian dry goods enterprises that had been around since the 1950s.
The vacuum it opened up was filled by home-grown businesses, particularly from indigenous Filipinos, Cating says.
Jack’s Restaurant, a franchise that Ifugao entrepreneur Jack Dulnuan opened in neighboring La Trinidad town in Benguet, now has a Session Road branch.
Ibay’s Silver Shop also became part of it. Don Henrico’s, a pizza parlor, was born on Session Road before it opened branches in Metro Manila.
Cating is the only Baguio Ibaloi businessman operating. His Solibao is a Burnham Park restaurant which opened a branch on Session in the 1990s.
But even the Chinese-Filipino merchants have difficulty coping with increasing rent, as well as the drawing power of SM City Baguio, he says.
Government assessors have always billed Session as one of the city’s most expensive property zones. For example, the old Pines Theater property has been valued at P105 million by an online real estate site, www.islandsproperties.com.
Cating says fastfood stores and other franchise-controlled enterprises are taking over “because these are the companies which can afford the increasing rent.”
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