Luneta, alternately called Bagumbayan (in Tagalog new town") was an ancient Tagal town set upon marshy land and located 1.5 kilometer south of Manila. Roughly it confines cover what is now Roxas Blvd. Extension in front of old Luneta, P. Burgos St. to Pasig River down to San Luis St. (now T.M. Kalaw), to the beach which is now Roxas Blvd.
It was overlooked by the Spanish conquistadores in favor of Rajah Sulaymans large barangay settlement until its strategic importance was discovered. In 1574, Chinese army led by Lim Ah Hong attacked Maynila, and Bagumbayan provided a natural barrier for the defense of the palisaded city.
In 1601, Bagumbayan was mentioned in the records of the Supreme Court of Spain under the Spanish appellation, Nuevo barrio. The name was later change to Luneta, which in Spain means a detached, crescent-shaped fort.
Bagumbayan had a church, the Church of San Juan, which was promptly demolished after the British invasion in 1762 as it provided too much cover for the attacking forces.
Later the Spaniards were to develop its northern portion into the district of Parian where the local Chinese were quartered.
The marshy grounds remained a strategic no mans land until 1820 when the Paseo de Luneta was built adjacent to the beach.
The Spanish Luneta was rectangular one hundred meters wide and 300 meters long with semi ends and a fine, broad carriage drive called La Calzada were Manilas elite would meet after vespers to enjoy the bracing evening air.
The promenade had a bandstand, a glorieta at the center and two circular fountains. The Governors military band played in the early evenings and all of Manila elite came to see and be seen.
A band plays on the La Calzada once or twice a week; on which occasions caballeros may be seen lunging amongst the carriages that have halted near the music, talking soft non-sense and whispering, naughty fibs to the senoritas, their bewitching occupants, braving alike the brilliant fire of their dark, lustrous eyes and the all enchanting coquetries of the fan, in the mysterious uses of which, no ladies in the world are better versed than the daughters of Spain and her colonies.
Bagumbayan Park gracefully hosted flirtations among Manila elite as well as callousedly witnessed the deaths of the disloyal citizenry. For 74 years, the Spaniards used the site as an execution ground for rebels and mutineers.
No piece of land is probably as sacred and hallowed. Between 1823 and 1897, 158 patriots and martyrs were felled on the square by Spanish infantrymen, including the three priests; Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora. The morning of December 30, 1896 was considered a most memorable day. It was the time when Dr. Jose P. Rizal was executed by the Spanish friars. It is said that the blood they shed served as a spiritual fertilizer which invigorated the Filipino peoples yearning for liberty.
In 1902, during the American occupation of the island, Daniel Burnham, architect and city planner, chose the Bagumbayan field as the site of the proposed American Government center. Spanish Luneta was lengthened towards San Louis St. and westward towards Manila Bay.
Burnham designed a U-shape composition of buildings but only three were actually erected-the Congress, Finance and Agriculture (now housing the Department of Tourism) buildings.
Then the Americans set about building a memorial to honor Dr. Jose P. Rizal, the national hero. The monument was built with money raised by popular subscription and with the cooperation of Governor-General William Howard Taft. The memorial is the work of Swiss sculptor Richard Kissling who cast the bronze figure in Switzerland. It was completed in 1913, fully 17 years after the hero's execution. Today, it remains the most revered of the numerous monuments honoring Rizal. Here, his entered remains are guarded night and day.
The park area east of the Rizal Monument was renamed Wallance Field. The area where the memorial stood was called Old Luneta and the part reclaimed from the sea, where the Quirino Grandstand and New Luneta are now, was known as Burnham Green.
Wallance Field had an athletic field, often used for rodeo events and as military parade grounds. For years, it was leased as the site of the gay Philippine Carnivals, the countrys much awaited social event. In 1953, Wallance Field was the site of the first Philippine International Fair. After the event, the site was abandoned and the whole area generally neglected.
In the late 50s, the late President Ramon Magsaysay reserved the Luneta Park exclusively for park purposes and had trouble resisting persistent official pressure from groups who wished to exploit the park for their own pet projects. One group strongly lobbied to use the site for a National Culture Center and envisioned the construction of a National Library, National Museum and National Theater.
Not a few persons decried the plans to mark the huge, open park, prompting a newspaper columnist to comment that Luneta has been ruthlessly butchered, cut up to small, useless areas assigned for incongruous uses.
The arguments went on, silenced only by the death of the major protagonists. For a long time the park was bare and unkept. The peoples hearts sank everytime they passed Luneta which, by that time had turned into a seatbed of crime and immorality. In the daytime, the park was visibly a wild and unruly tract of land. At night, the whole place was shrouded in complete darkness except for some scattered lights. The park was a disgrace to Rizal whose own monument had been totally neglected; muddy in the rain and surrounded with tall cogon in the summer.
The idea to develop Luneta into a national park was started when Mrs. Eva Macapagal was still the First Lady in Malacanang. A committee headed by her was formed and started to plan out and develop the park.
In the late 1961, there was an attempt to improve Luneta by modernizing Rizal Monument. A pylon was added to make the statue look tall. This was bitterly attacked by Teodoro Valencia, a well-known newpaper columnist who had always successfully used the written word in crusading for what were originally lost causes.
Valencia asserted that one never tampers with a monument because it is a work of art. By 1962, the infamous pylon had been removed. There arose a clamor for improving the monument then disfigured by the disposal of its artificial top hat. It was at this point that the original beautification efforts started.
Valencia announced publicly that he would try to give the monument and the surrounding area facelift, The original plan was to clean the monument itself, put it in a few flower pots to give it some respectability, he said, But and money started flowing in. it was totally unexpected. In one weeks time, P30,000 was easily collected from the civic-spirited.
Valencia and a handful of fellow sympathizers were struck. They had to go ahead and spend the amount accumulated. The approach to the monument was cemented, lights were installed and a few trees were planted. Valencia got the Philippine Armys approval to put an honor guard.
Then came official support. National Parks Development Committee was organized and there was no more stopping for the mobilization of the project. First came the beautification of the sea wall. Then the grandstand was improved and completed. The development of the raised portion facing the grandstand was rushed.
When the First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos took over as chairman of the committee (Valencia was designated as vice-chairman), the heart of the project was in earnest. The area behind the Rizal Monument started to shape up. It was as if the last few pieces had been found to complete the beautiful giant jigsaw puzzle.
By 1966, the pace of the work was fever pitch. Some half a million pesos was being eaten up by the project every month. News about whatever little improvement being done spread quickly until the whole nation stirred with the desire to see the park improved. Cash donations continued to pour in until it finally, P60 million had been spent for the beautification of the entire park.
The money that went into the development of Rizal Park came from government corporations, private business houses, individual donors, taxi drivers, cocheros, students and plain citizens.
What was apparently obvious was that an empty, dusty wasteland had metamorphosed into a beautiful park. But the sweeter success was the fact that Mrs. Marcos and Valencia had rekindled a dormant bayanihan spirit. The spirit which holds up rural life was successfully transplanted to the city. Rizal Park dispelled beliefs that the city folks were selfish urbanities.
Many professionals and businessmen continued to volunteer their free services and private contributors continued to chip in. The park was helped by budgetary appropriations from the National Government. The City Government of Manila shouldered the electric bills, provided a 42-men security detail and helped with the maintenance costs. Various sector were still galvanized into one and the spirit of civic concern had not flickered.
Rizal Park, as we see it today is the product of years of dedicated and painstaking efforts by thousands of known and unknown citizens who gave of their time and their labors to create something of beauty where there was nothing but yawning wilderness in the very heart of our premier city. Its continued cleanliness and order is a tribute to the use it, more than to those who tend to it. Here is a park that is used, loved and nurtured by the people who saw it shape up from nothing.
Now, Rizal Park is administered by the National Parks Development Committee an attached agency of the Department of Tourism. Funds for the improvements of parks are generated from government appropriations and donations from government and non government sectors.