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A Postmodern Sociocultural Phenomenon
University of Sto. Tomas
rom precolonial times, bridges have been built by natives for the same
fundamental reasons that they are being created today: whether to
connect one place to another, to bring people from one place to another (or
together). A bridge usually connotes a “link” or, metaphorically, something
which brings two things together; serving as the intermediary between two
places, objects, or people. What all these signify is that a bridge is meant to
However, a bridge could separate or perhaps, “isolate” a space,
person, or community from others, through the act of leaving them behind.
It has been an overlooked fact that bridges might also serve as a means of
separation, in that a) not everyone has the capability of using a bridge (be it
physically–handicapped–or socially–a clash of classes–when there seems to
be a spatial stratification, or financially, even), and b) not everyone is entitled
to use a bridge. Although there might be no specific case study which might
uphold such notions, it still remains that a bridge is capable of becoming a
tool in which a person or place (or a group) might be isolated.
Bridges have evolved from intricate rope bridges to grand colonial
ones which are now considered as cultural heritages to today’s pedestrian
bridges. The emphasize functionality – to facilitate greater ease in mobility,
through “carrying” the urban excesses – from pedestrians crossing hazardous
streets to a simple way of solving pedestrian traffic to making way for the
overflow of transportations. Indeed, bridges have become, in a way, society’s
The embodied city is a common notion upheld by several theorists/
writers. The street, like the highway, for example, becomes part of the city/
body’s organs. Where the latter might be referred to as an artery, the street
might be referred to as the city/body’s veins. Bridges, as used in this paper
on the other hand, may be likened to capillaries, which exchanges oxygen
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 23
and carbon dioxide (serving as a healthy exchange). As will be argued further
in this paper, bridges have the capability to create spatial stratification, in
the guise of good intentions (separating the pedestrians—or those who have
no cars—from the dangers transportations might bring, raises the question
whether these pedestrian bridges are for the sake of the pedestrians or for
the transport owners.) And as will be seen, people have managed to resist
such separation (and transformation); creating an excess from this ‘text’.
The movement that a bridge supposedly symbolizes can only reflect,
emphasize and complement social life. In fact, bridges might serve as a
conduit for the cadence of society. In carrying the urban excesses, bridges
may be seen as aiding in the harmonious over-all choreography of society’s
players or, to borrow de Certeau’s term, “walkers”. In this, one can easily see
the function or role that a bridge plays in the theatrical street. Streets have
a performative quality, in that people are seen to be “playing a role” or
“performing” their movements in public places. Open to the view of others,
people might be self-conscious, or simply playing by the “unspoken rules”
of the street (such as avoiding bumping into other people while walking,
walking briskly to avoid getting into the way of others’, to avoid their stares,
and so on).
As argued, bridges do more than connect a place to another. Instead
of merely transporting people, bridges have become sites of communication
and exchange in contemporary urban living. A bridge “houses” a number of
different people—vendors, homeless, blind singers, beggars, rugby boys, and
even thieves (especially for the covered overpasses and underpasses).
Thus, bridges present a paradox. Metaphorically, bridges are
supposedly symbols of movement. Being on a bridge simply means being
transported from one place to another; suspending one momentarily, making
it, to use Auge’s (1995) term, a non-place—the breakdown or disappearance
of place, replaced by the undefined space of information technology (e-mails,
fax machines, etc. which ‘compresses’ space and time [Jameson 1991; Massey
1994]). In the postmodern urban landscape, bridges serve to be concrete
forms of this non-place. If movement in bridges is continuous, then it is not
a site in itself, since its only purpose is to connect one place/site to another.
In this, a bridge always exists metaphorically, despite its being a concrete
structure; people should only refer to it as a means of transport, and nothing
more. Such is the imaginary nature of a bridge.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, people who are “housed” on or under
the bridge, using it as a shelter or a site of exchange, in a way, resist this
continuous mobility, freezing a moment in these bridges, disrupting
transport. At such, they are the ones who create the bridge as a “site,”
therefore making the bridge lose its capacity to effectively harmonize the
A brief look at the different people inhabiting the bridge illustrate
this “disruption” which, interestingly, contrasts with the pedestrians’
Though pedestrians’ behaviors may vary, this paper assumes or
views them as ordinary walkers in the streets, seen as a collective whole.
This generalization would allow a perspective of the crowd in the street, and
whose primary purpose is to contrast them from the transient inhabitants
on and under the bridge.
Also, the crowd’s use of the bridge is primarily for transport.
However, their encounters with the different types of people on the bridge
change their own movement, as well as their attitude and behavior. Such
changes are what this paper will focus on.
One of the usual goods which are laid out on a bridge is the umbrella,
which is indicative of how people often use the bridge as a temporary shelter
(mostly from the weather). When it rains, for instance, people might rush to
an overpass to take shelter, and in the case of having forgotten to bring an
umbrella, expect to be able to purchase one there.
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 25
Another indication of this temporary stop is the small, makeshift
food stalls, and the small table filled with candies, cigarettes, biscuits,
crackers, and other small items to snack on. These products show how a
bridge serves as a temporary “pit stop” for people “on the go.” Other items
sold range from shirts, bags, novelty items, to pirated DVDs, again perhaps
serving as an indication of a “pit stop” for people coming home from work,
school, etc., who do not have the time to go to other places, but who frequent
bridges, as it is an unavoidable way, which is most often the case. Thinking
of a break, or perhaps even as “pasalubong,” people might opt to purchase
these products. Hence the mini department store on and under bridges.
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 27
In a crowded area, right in front of a bridge is a DVD stand (under the
umbrella). Beside it is a pick-up truck. Is this an old, dilapidated truck that
no longer works and is stuck there, or is it a get-away vehicle, as soon as the
The homeless and the blind singers
The rising poverty rate in the metropolis alone pushes people to
the edge of urbanity—to find shelters wherever they can, and to make do
with what they have. The transient cariton dweller might choose to stay
permanently on a bridge—that is, until someone drives him away, be it the
cops, or maybe even another street dweller.
As an unavoidable passageway, the bridge becomes more sufficient
as well for begging. Whereas the transient dweller might be traveling from
place to place, looking for peopled places to beg, the bridge-dweller may
stay there everyday, and expect people to pass by daily. For those living or
staying under the bridge, the advantage is a secluded spot that is (usually)
completely hidden from public view. In a way, these people have become a
“part” of the street itself; people no longer take notice of them, even if they
are indeed exposed to the public. Yet another reason is their “colonization”
of space; taking it as their own, there will be a tendency to drive people
away, especially ordinary pedestrians, thus assuring them a “private place
of their own.”
In the middle of a bridge often sits a “blind” person with a karaoke
beside him or her, singing into a microphone and strumming a guitar; a box
or a tin can for donation right beside his or her feet. Some of these people
may only be pretending to be blind, in order to capture the sympathy of
pedestrians. Though this might seemingly not show anything about the
pedestrians, except perhaps for their sympathetic nature, it reinforces the
performativity of, in this case, the bridge on the street; that is, creating the
bridge as a site for performance. This way of courting the pedestrians then
becomes part of street performativity; of the cadence of urbanity. Even the
“blindness” of the performers can thus be seen as a performance, should
they merely be faking it.
Another observation about beggars on bridges is their position on
the steps leading up to (or down) the bridge. More than anything, they are
perhaps the best examples of the contrast between the bridge’s symbolic
movement, and their own stasis. The pedestrian, while climbing up or going
down the steps, is arrested by the sight of a person whose hand is
outstretched. Their strategic position lets one view them as “token collectors.”
People who wish to pass by the bridge are requested to give a small amount
or a token of payment. Acting as a potential “harm” (their hands are
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 29
outstretched, the pedestrian close enough to be touched or pulled), or a
literal block (pedestrians would gave to move out of their way to avoid them)
might be reasons for the effectiveness of begging on the bridge’s steps.
Rugby boys’ and thieves
Most often the case, these are boys or men (hence the title) who
sniff rugby inside a plastic, which produces a “high.” Again, women are also
seen to be using such.
Recalling the notion of a rest stop, the bridge acts as such not only
for the pedestrians, but for the underprivileged as well, and not as long as a
dwelling place would be. Some children can be found loitering in the streets
(which is where they live, play, and do everything else) and on bridges, resting
and sniffing rugby. As a more potentially harmful individual (than the
beggars), the rugby boys scare off pedestrians, appropriating the space for
their own use (perhaps unknowingly or without even realizing it).
Moreover, covered bridges (overpasses and underpasses, mostly)
are often the target of thieves (snatchers, hold-uppers), with its poor lighting
and lack of security, rendering the pedestrian vulnerable, creating a spatial
concept of fear. Such, therefore, is a significant disruption of mobility;
pedestrians are held-up, literally stopped from moving, which might cause
them to refrain from using the bridge, if there is another way to get to the
other side at all. In their fear of being held-up (among other dangers),
pedestrians might choose to go the long way instead (provided that there is
another way; if for example the bridge serves as the fastest and easiest route
from one point to the next). This defeats the purpose of the bridge to carry
the urban excesses, in that they are now rendered useless. In their attempts
to create a “better” flow of people and transportation, the obvious neglect
shows how planners and/or engineers stop caring about the pedestrians as
soon as the bridge is installed, bringing us back to the question of for whom
the bridge really is. Especially in overpasses which are frequented by students,
these infrastructures become easy targets of thieves.
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 31
The bridge creating a spatial concept of fear as discussed above therefore
creates a kind of trauma, and the bridge’s paradoxical nature (the frozen
moment in a supposedly continuous rhythmic movement) also creates a
spatial trauma, both physically and metaphorically, in interrupting movement
and dislocating pedestrians in an effort to relocate them. Signs on bridges
are put up to warn people:
Pedestrians are literally re(dis)located in order to make way for moving
vehicles. Despite the seeming functionality that the bridges serve, and that
they may have been constructed for the general safety of the masses, a closer
look reveals the increasing disparity between classes, creating spatial
stratification. Most pedestrians who use the bridge are the lower-middle
class who do not use cars, whereas those who do drive normally below
without the needed extra effort. This raises the issue on whom the foot
bridges are really meant to be: the safety of the pedestrians, or the
convenience of the drivers? Although both may be true, one cannot help
but notice the necessary effort exerted by pedestrians alone.
Signs under the bridge act as forms of “surveillance” through the
seeming “urgency” of their message, emphasizing the danger, forcing the
pedestrian to cross the bridge instead.
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 33
“[T]he dimension of space should be considered as one of
the factors that determines the web of interrelationships
among economic activities. Particularly in the less
developed countries, such considerations are significant
because, as Johnson (1967) puts it, it is the poor and often
faulty spatial structuring that has strangled the
development efforts of most developing countries”
(Antipolo, 1992, p. 5).
This spatial dimension and structuring does not just oversee the
“interrelationships among economic activities,” but sociocultural activities
as well, since development has multidimensional aspects. Physically, bridges
are meant to be functional, whereas socioculturally, it is meant as a separating
structure, which precludes human interaction; dispersing individuals
altogether. Or does it?
Apparently, functionality does not work when it comes to these
pedestrian bridges. Even the new foot bridges installed by the Metro Manila
Development Authority (MMDA) are filled with vendors and beggars. Without
a roof, the bridge becomes a chore to use, as it is filled with puddles of water
when it rains. In an article in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, “MMDA officials
had announced that they were going to construct simple metal structures
to serve as overpasses. ‘Salubungan lang ang mangyayari (Pedestrians going
opposite directions will use the overpasses),’ said Vergel de Dios. ‘We want
to emphasize the functionality, not the attractiveness, of the footbridges.’”
He also emphasized that “vagrants and criminals were turning ‘pretty’
overpasses with roofs into homes. Vendors also use the overpasses to sell
their wares,” as reported by Ortiz (2003, 14 September).
Despite the functionality aimed for, people still continue to live on
and under these bridges, sell their wares, and do other things which are
beyond its “uses.”
The Postmodern Urban Landscape
Functionality is one of the traits of modernism. Aiming for an orderly
space, modernism has sought to create an organized, practical place, with a
utopian view of society as a whole. It might be that the modern period is
when the relationship of space and people (their identity, behavior) was
best exemplified. In wanting to create an orderly society, they sought to
construct space as they saw fit for an organized people. This is indicative of
their notion or belief that space affects the way people behave, and vice-
versa; establishing the signification of space, as well as its relevance.
Hence, functionality operates in a system of exclusion.
In the current scene, bridges are “swellings” in the urban landscape.
In contrast to the “flatness” of the city, these urban swellings, following
Tadiar’s discourse on flyovers,
may provide one with a “mental aerial map”
(see Neferti Xina M. Tadiar’s “Metropolitan Dreams,” a chapter in her book,
Fantasy-Production). Yet more interestingly, urban bridges, in a way,
overcome the functions of streets (as opposed to flyovers which can merely
accommodate vehicles. In fact, the opposite has happened, as people are
raised above the streets, where vehicles remain). This relocation might well
be the solution to “street problems” such as the lack of space, the
appropriation of sidewalks, the dangers of crossing, being held-up, etc. Yet
if one looks closely at the activities on bridges, it seems as if street life has
simply been duplicated in these infrastructures, creating some sort of a
simulation of the former. For Trevor Boddy (1992, 124), eliminating the
walkers would mean removing the “most fundamental of urban activities,”
creating a “simulation of urbanity”. Yet has this ‘fundamental urban activity’
been eliminated, or has it merely been restructured and relocated?
Jameson (1991, 39) speaks of postmodernity which has impelled
us to have an “imperative to grow organs, to expand our sensorium and
body to some new yet unimaginable (perhaps impossible) dimensions.” This
expansion, in a sense, causes one to face the challenge of diversity, of
excessiveness, and to adjust to these new alternatives. This new urban ‘logic’
attempts to make sense of the disparities inherent in society, as well as those
created by these new infrastructures. Thus, where infrastructures strive to
create order, they are also part of the cause of urban disorder. It enables the
individual to transcend, physically, urban life (down below), and yet grounds
him/her (perhaps metaphorically) in it through the insistence of urbanity to
exist, or simply through its insistence to claim a space of its own. Hence,
such transcendence may no longer be seen as a separation, but a relocation
of the individual, or urbanity as a whole.
Indeed, these bridges create the “schizophrenic” self, as Jameson
(1991) speaks of, after Lacan. Unable to unify time, that is, one’s past, present,
and future, the schizophrenic lives in “a series of pure and unregulated
presents in time,” the bridge serving as a symbol of this temporality: the two
points that the bridge connects are the Past and the Future—the former
being that where the individual is coming from, while the latter is the Future,
therefore making the presence on the bridge the Present. The permanence
of remaining on the bridge, appropriating it for other uses, exemplifies the
individual retaining his/her experience of the many “unrelated presents”
which produces even more ‘presents;’ in the case, of the pedestrians—in
momentary suspension and interaction.
Today’s foot bridges serve as prolonged departures and delayed
arrivals. Traumatically suspending people in a non-space, people have had
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 35
to deal with this kind of trauma through a “practical reconquest of a sense
of place and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble
which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map
and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories” (Jameson
1991, 51). However, such an act of reclamation might merely echo the sense
of depthlessness attributed to postmodernism; surely, one cannot remain
restructuring a space as one sees fit, for this would only lead to an endless
process of restructuring. Lyotard (2001), on the other hand, sees
postmodernism as a “posttraumatic stress disorder”, which one necessarily
has to “work through” in order to get through the past and get on with the
present. Such a view enables one to see postmodernity not as a reaction (or
even resistance) to modernity, but rather as a “careful” extension of the
latter. To sever one’s ties with the past completely holds the danger of
repeating it, whereas a careful working through of the past is to overcome
it. To completely shun modernity’s “functional structures” would be to
encourage the oversights of modernity, whereas a critical perspective would
enable one to own the space, to create the space, in that these bridges may
then be seen as structures which may invariably elaborate and enhance urban
living. On the one hand, bridge dwellers are social capital generators; on the
other, they serve as live performances of urbanity which stimulate interaction
among people. Viewed as a site of exchange, bridges do more than connect
places; they also, more importantly, connect people.
Such a stance inverts the notion of disconnectedness apparent in
bridge dwellers. ‘Home’ is displaced, transient, and diffused. It may be seen
as forever extended boundaries which, in turn, reorients corporeal mapping
as situated in an urban spatial organization—forcing individuals to reconsider
their private and public lives, not just through the spatial organization, but
as well as inter-corporeal coordination. The bridge as a site of cultural
exchanges becomes a breeding ground for a healthy interaction and vibrant
urban living. Always belonging in-between, the individual gains a better
appreciation of urban mobility, experiencing a profound disconnectedness
which liberates him/her from an overflow of urbanity.
The reciprocity goes beyond the physical, and well into the cultural.
Development and infrastructure must work together (although the latter
does not always conclude to the former), as do pedestrians and bridge
inhabitants. Albeit seen as a shallow relationship among the two, the
mutuality is had on a different level—individuals are taught to respect the
milieu, and to better appreciate the diversity of urban living.
The postmodern city is a product of capitalism; and to perceive the
city as a social space is to sense the urgency of it being a site of social
contradiction. One does not conclude that the separation of class is to be
understood as merely being a part of the multicultural city, for to do so is to
accept the “paradigm shift” blindly. Indeed, the city may no longer be ‘neatly’
divided into two categories—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—but is seen
to be inclusive of more diverse groups; that is, the necessity to tease out the
heterogeneity of the ‘citygroups’. Such ‘excessiveness’ litters the urban
landscape, and as the city refuses to adjust to such, there is an overflow that
cannot be contained in the city.
Recalling Jameson’s concept of “hyperspace”, it is a “mutation in
space” which the people have not kept pace with; unable to locate
themselves. On the one hand, foot bridges may be seen as such: spaces
have changed in order to adjust to human excesses, which people have only
appropriated for their own uses (or for what they have been previously
accustomed to doing, and yet unable to ‘place’ themselves within, being
transient inhabitants or (ab)users of it, throwing away any sense of locality),
yet on the other hand, it may be the exact opposite: the explosion of diversity,
humanity, which the space refuses to acknowledge; playing on ‘functionality’
and ‘order’. Both reasons may be the cause of the devastating state of the
city, space, and humanity. For as long as this discrepancy is not addressed,
the solution that underdevelopment warrants shall remain unseen. Liberating
spaces release people from constricting spaces which prevent a holistic
existence, yet more importantly, may set the stage for more open thinking.
Experiencing the postmodern city as that of a sequence of several
overlapping images gives the effect of a disorderly city. In showing the
intersection of cultural practices and spatial constructions, this study regards
the different (cultural) groups and social meanings, and their coalescence.
This heterogeneity paves the way for a city with no clear boundaries and
one that is commonly shared, as opposed to a disorderly city which needs to
Jaimee T. Siao: Spatial Trauma/Desire 37
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