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In This Housing Project, Every Floor Is a Stage

Each weekend, apartment hallways in Manila’s Tondo district teem with life, hope, and a sense of community.

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In a housing project in the Philippines, near Manila’s shuttered Smokey Mountain dump, children and grandchildren of former workers frolic in hallways and stairwells. Most housing in this area is flimsy, but this structure is sturdy and permanent.
This story appears in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The paint is peeling. The floors are grimy. The basketball nets are frayed. And no one seems to mind.

Children laugh and play games. Men take siestas. Roosters strut down the hallway. In one of the world’s most densely populated cities, life’s rich pageant plays out on every floor.

That’s what Polish photographer Mariusz Janiszewski found last year when he visited a government housing project in Barangay 128, a section of Manila’s Tondo district. Built in the 1990s near Smokey Mountain—an internationally infamous dump that once housed more than two million tons of trash—it’s still home to many of the site’s former workers.

Janiszewski says he’d shot in the Philippines before but always in a “typical documentary” style. This time he had something else in mind.

“I wanted to show how daily life looks in an overpopulated place like Manila,” he says, “and how it’s lived in semi-open spaces and stairwells.” To do that, he “chose not to take pictures from a variety of perspectives” but to “stay in one place and wait for the surprising and unpredictable.”

Each floor “looked like an identically designed stage,” he says, but soon revealed a distinct milieu: women cooking, men gambling, children playing cards. Janiszewski returned each weekend to document these living tableaux, capturing scenes of family, friends, and neighbors bonding.

Mary Racelis, a social anthropologist at Ateneo de Manila University, says that sense of community is key in a place like Tondo. Many residents are informal settlers, once called squatters. Long considered second-class citizens, they’ve often been denied jobs, housing, and basic services.

“Over the years these people have formed networks that have enabled them to survive and find new opportunities,” she says. With the help of NGOs and leftist political groups, they’ve been able to organize effectively, raise their voices, and demand better living conditions.

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What matters here, she adds, as anywhere else, is “location, location, location … The city is where jobs are … Those who have been moved by the government to distant relocation sites have found that they cannot survive there.”

Many of the available jobs today are in the informal sector, which includes Manila’s thriving drug cartels. For other employment opportunities, completing high school or college is crucial.

Regardless of education level, the residents of Barangay 128 have no shortage of two precious commodities: hope and resilience.

The most important thing that flows from these pictures, suggests Janiszewski, is that “despite the odds, people here can enjoy life, and they often have a smile on their faces. I’ve always admired that.”



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