Philippine bridge dwellers gird for even harder times

The boy knelt gracefully atop a floating wooden door like a surfer poised to catch a wave. But this was no blue ocean.

He was paddling the putrid waters of the Malabon River, which stream through the dank factory lands and heartbroken shantytowns of metropolitan Manila like the discharge from an infected wound.

Shirtless, his hands thrusting into the sickish brown ooze, the boy eased past a gnawed ear of corn, a red high-heeled shoe, a blackened banana peel and a bobbing onion.

Finally, he reached his destination: a spindly shard of floating wood.

It was approaching eviction day at the place known as the C-4 bridge. The 13 families who have long made their wooden homes in the undergirding of the busy span were packing up their meager belongings, ready to face the inevitable.

Today, demolition crews from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority are scheduled to dismantle what is left of the makeshift bridge community in an effort to help clean the river and move residents to more sanitary housing.

In the days before the forced move, the families combed through the bamboo poles, driftwood and sheet metal they had salvaged over the years from among the flotsam and jetsam that flowed past on the poisoned river highway.

"We're tearing our homes apart, grabbing everything we can," said Rudy Valenzona, 38, hammer in hand, a tattoo of Christ in thorns on his shoulder.

No one here wants to go. For years, these soulless concrete girders and the wooden shacks beneath them have provided a roof and an iota of comfort, protecting the residents from predators, the glaring sun and the pounding tropical rains.

In a nation where half of the 90 million people are poor, this unlikely shelter is not the worst place to call home.

Those less fortunate live along the nearby Tondo garbage dump. Others sleep among the marble gravestones of an old cemetery, some in cardboard boxes. But for now, those homes are safe. Only the bridge people are being moved.

Across Manila, thousands of people populate bridge squatter towns. For years, officials have waged periodic efforts to clear the bridges. But the spans always fill with new residents.

Elena Gordon, a worker in the city's Community and Urban Poor office, said Monday that the city of Malabon, adjacent to Manila, will move the families for free to a vacant plot of land elsewhere in the city, albeit without housing, running water or services. There, they will be allowed to rebuild.

"It's grim work, uprooting these lives," said Gordon, who will move hundreds of families from three bridges.

Officials say the project is part of a flood control and beautification effort. The wrecking crews often come with armed soldiers and violence has occasionally erupted, housing advocates say.

A recent Metropolitan Manila Development Authority report estimated that one in three Manila residents are squatters -- at least 540,000 families. Some 70,000 families live in wood and metal huts along creeks and rivers, blocking water flow with their refuse, the report said.

In this harsh lifestyle, residents say, water is the enemy and it attacks from both above and below.

Rain pounds down, and sometimes, when typhoons hit, the swollen river rises to flood their rickety wooden huts, which are moored a few feet above the river water and stuck to the side of the bridge's concrete like barnacles.

During major storms, "it comes to our knees," said Avelino Cabral, 54, who has lived here four years. "Sometimes, we stand up all night. We cannot leave because the river might wash our homes away."

The Malabon also brings sickness. Many residents suffer skin lesions from contact with the unsanitary water. There's also dysentery and tuberculosis.

Ana Recto, an 8-year-old girl with large brown eyes, lay on a mat near her mother. She was throwing up and running a fever, but the family of eight had no money for medicine, even aspirin.

"She's sick from the water," said her mother, Evelyn Recto, 43. "All these children are inhaling bad things from the water."

Not long ago a baby here was delivered by a midwife. The whole community worries about its welfare.

Falling so deeply into poverty that you call the guts of a bridge your home is easy in the Philippines. Many families come to Manila from the countryside to encounter a city teeming with people but bereft of opportunity.

The Rectos have relatives in Malabon, but the family land has already been so subdivided there is no room for them. So father Mauricio Recto, 53, finally went in search of a bridge to live under. Most were full of squatters. But he kept looking, driven further into the unspeakable filth of Manila's industrial district.

That's where in 2004 he found his consolation prize -- the C-4 bridge.

Soon, 13 families -- all of them strangers -- collected here. They agreed to protect one another and appointed a board of elders to settle disputes.

They built at the elbow where the bridge meets the land, driving bamboo poles into the water as a frame -- adding whatever they could find to buttress the 13 separate structures from the water's destructive flow.

The river freely gave up its throwaway bounty. All they had to buy were nails.

"At first I thought it was a strange place to live," said Evelyn Recto. "But there was nowhere else."

Though lovingly built, their soon-to-be-demolished home has scraps of vinyl as flooring. Wooden matting is strung overhead to shield the family from chunks of concrete rattled loose from the bridge's underbelly by the big trucks lumbering across the span.

A painting of the Last Supper and a photo of a dashing Philippine actor hawking cellphones cover holes in the wall. A lone bulb strung to a post provides the only light. It's connected to a home nearby, a bootleg service for which the family pays 75 cents a day.

At the far end of the hovel, over the running water below, a hole in the flooring presumably serves as the family toilet. At all times, there is an overwhelming stench of industrial rot, raw sewage and human excrement.

Still, a tightknit family holds its own here.

On a wooden console are written in English the first names of the eight family members. Evelyn said she uses the letters to teach the children to read. None but Ana attend school. And now she is too sick to go.

The children, 2 to 17, laugh and play, as though unaware of the cruel hand that was dealt to them.

"I want to provide better for my family," Mauricio said. "Sometimes I blame myself. I can't blame anybody else for this life."

He and others here make $2 a day lugging mammoth chests of frozen fish at a local market. The women and children spend their days on the river's edge, fishing for plastic bags and recyclables.

The bridge families don't trust politicians. They come to the shantytowns looking for votes. When in office, they try to close down the communities of poor people with nowhere else left to go, family members say.

"They give us a handshake and nothing else," Mauricio said.

Now, the families have been given a vague promise of a better life. On Monday, city officials arrived to take a census and dole out macaroni and corned beef soup to the hungry families.

Today, they said, trucks will come to clear away the remaining wood that makes up their homes, and cart it off to the open land for reuse.

As he waited, Mauricio Recto rued leaving this cursed but beloved home. "There are those whose lives are worse than ours, just by a little bit," he said.

"At least we have a roof. But that will be gone tomorrow."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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