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a tale of two cities

A bird’s eye view of Manila offers a fascinating glimpse of life in this city. Open up Google Earth and zoom in on the Philippine capital, and you’ll see a warren of densely populated construction – a telltale sign of a crowded metropolis. In fact, Manila proper – with an estimated population of just under two million – is the world’s most densely populated city. There are more than 41,000 inhabitants for each square kilometer of Manila, which easily dwarfs the population density of Mumbai and Dhaka – the next two cities on the list – each of which boasts just over 28,000 residents per square kilometer.

Zoom out a little and a similar landscape unfolds in every direction. The population of Metro Manila, which encompasses fifteen neighboring cities, is just under 13 million according to the 2015 census, and many of these municipalities are similarly strained. Caloocan, for example, comes in at number four on the global population density list, just behind Dhaka. And yet, if one looks closely at the map, there are also pockets of greenery amidst the urban sprawl – exclusive villages, golf courses, and country clubs, as well as the American memorial cemetery in Bonifacio Global City (BGC), which has the largest number of graves of U.S. personnel killed during World War II anywhere in the world.

S quickly got a taste of both sides of Manila. She and the kids spent their first couple of weeks at post in temporary housing on a U.S. residential compound near the Embassy, which is located on Manila Bay, before moving to our permanent residence in a BGC high-rise. Although the two locations could not be more different from one another, both bear the marks of America’s long history in the Philippines.

The Embassy sits on land that was occupied by the U.S. High Commission during colonial times, and the chancery building predates the Philippines’ independence, which the United States granted in 1946. The site famously served as the courthouse where the Japanese war crimes tribunal presided after the war, and the flagpole on the compound still retains the bullet holes sustained during WWII. There is a lot of history, but both the compound and the surrounding neighborhood have seen better days.

BGC, by comparison, is almost surreally slick. The neighborhood sprung up virtually overnight a decade or so ago – until 1995 the land belonged to the military, first as Fort McKinley during the American colonial period and then as Fort Bonifacio after independence. Although not as exclusive as the villages in neighboring Makati, BGC was designed as a financial and lifestyle hub. The Philippine Stock Exchange moved its headquarters to BGC, as did many international corporations, which previously had their offices in Makati. There is a pedestrian street with boutiques, a plethora of excellent restaurants, and numerous high-rise condominiums. It’s a comfortable bubble to live in, but it feels like a world apart from the rest of the Metro Manila area.

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