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A Work in Progress

A look at Space 1851: a coworking hub with the goal of returning the glory days of its home turf, Malate.


Space 1851 and its community manager Gizelle Hidalgo.
Just recently, in Manila, a new coworking hub did what it thought was the right thing to do for its business: it turned down a potential client.

The venue is called Space 1851, a 300-square meter property located in a mostly residential portion of Malate. The business it turned down, meanwhile, was a start-up, a logistics firm looking for a base of operations. And, at the place on a weekday, surrounded by the vacant chairs and empty rooms that resulted from this decision, I learned exactly why.

The business was “OK,” said Gizelle Hidalgo, the space’s community manager. But, while she had no issues with the company itself, she did have misgivings about the attendants of its operation. “For the kind of community that we’re building, hindi kasi possible na maraming nag-iin and out na drivers [For the kind of community we’re building, it’s just not possible to have a lot of drivers coming in and out.”] She added that the company also wanted to turn part of the space into a warehouse and, according to her, such an environment simply did not align with what they wanted to achieve—a vision established alongside its conceptualization.

Following its soft launch late last year, Space 1851 has been trying to be more than just another coworking place. Behind the bright yellow doors that serve as its entrance, one would find non-abrasive tones afforded by mostly wooden furnishings: minimalist chairs and tables so new that their hinges still greatly resist forces trying to get them to function. There are also corners occupied by wholesome quotes on productivity while some are left vacant, waiting to be covered with murals and paintings courtesy of local artists. And then there are the plants, various touches of greenery with laminated cards detailing their encyclopedic facts and health benefits. But the most significant occupant of the place was an idea—one that envisions it as a melting pot for creative minds and those that support them: from artists, to students, to visionaries.

“That’s always been our goal,” Hidalgo said. And it’s mostly for the sake of its neighborhood.

When she was a college student studying at St. Paul University Manila, Hidalgo thought of Malate as merely a place for “pubs and foreigners.” It’s not an entirely baseless assumption. The United States, after all, annexed the Philippines during the end of the 19th century and, when its urban planners did a makeover of Manila, they transformed Malate into a high-end community, one that was eventually occupied by businesses and prominent families including those from America. Over the years, however, Malate fell out of favor.

Due to the development of other areas–like Makati, the Ortigas Center and Bonifacio Global City–Malate suffered a slow but significant decline.  These days, the place is a far cry from what it used to be. Roads that used to be the stomping grounds for the who’s who of high society became a network populated by shadows of old buildings, illegal vendors and the urban poor. Walk its streets at night and you might–as I did–run into people occupying sidewalks, sleeping on makeshift mats made of cardboard and newspapers. You may also encounter drunken misdemeanors spilling out from some of its bars. Search online and you may also find blog entries and tourist reviews telling stories about some of Malate’s residents, anecdotes about alleged sex workers that serve as testimonies to the longstanding belief that the place has become one of the Metro’s unofficial red light districts.

But there’s more to Malate than that. Commenters on websites like Trip Advisor may have called “dirty,” “filthy” and “dangerous” but there are also people who call it home. Here, there are ancient landmarks and old houses acting as the blurbs of its rich history. Here, there are also prominent figures; residents like fashion heavyweight Ben Farrales who continue to do meaningful work. This is also the base for hopeful endeavors. There are galleries here that continue to patronize exciting art, bars that book bands who can draw in discerning crowds, and dining establishments that can whet the appetite of people from across the globe.

Yes; Malate is not what it used to be but elements that accounted for its popularity back in its heyday still remain. And to one local business owner, a woman by the name Diane C. Ong, that’s enough of a reason to hope for its resurgence.

“She grew up here,” Hidalgo said. And now that she is older, she wants to bring back the Malate she knew. In order to do that, however, Ong thought that she needed to create a place that can serve a dual purpose: one that can showcase of how clean, organized and stylish Malate can be while being a venue where inventive minds can gather, share ideas and influence their immediate surroundings. Ultimately, this led to the creation of her brainchild: Space 1851.

Designed by Uo2 Architects (with some intervention from Ong herself) Space 1851, according to its website, was created to help “you” “find your space.” And it does so by providing a variety of options.

At its current state, it has several rooms that can serve as private offices and conference areas. It also has a number of public work stations and a pantry that provides free-flowing coffee and filtered water. Such facilities can be accessed through different payment terms: the 300php Space Pass (which allows people to use the venue’s facilities for one whole day,) the 2000php Unli Space promo (which is valid for one month,) and the 2,600php Flexi Space package (which affords people 30 visits valid for 3 months.) According to Hidalgo, the Flexi Space package is very popular among freelancers since they don’t always work in the same place. “Hindi naman every day they have to work here [They don’t have to work here every day,]” she said. “They also do client meetings, fieldwork.” And this, apparently, makes the Flexi Space package seem practical to them.

Currently, Space 1851 can comfortably sit around 70 people. And through two affiliated businesses also owned by Ong, it can also house them and give them a place to unwind. Just above Space 1851, for starters, is “Stay at Space,” a housing area that members of the Space 1851 community can avail of. Below it meanwhile is Latitude, a coffee shop described by Hidalgo as a neighborhood café with specialty drinks. All these combined turn Space 1851’s building into a haven of sorts, a breather from the chaos that Manila can be. And people are starting to take notice.

Among the current clients of the place are students courtesy of nearby schools like De La Salle University Manila and the University of the Philippines Manila. As mentioned above, there have also been inquiries from a number of start-ups with one company already occupying one of its private offices. This, according to Hidalgo was unexpected.

“[The reception] has been overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve worked in a coworking space around Makati and BGC and I know na parang yun yung mga target for co-working talaga [I’ve worked in a coworking space around Makati and BGC and I know that these are really the target locations for coworking.]” And yet these people are now coming to Malate. Why? Because of traffic; traffic caused by the popularity of other commercial areas. Manila itself is filled with congested roads but compared to other centers of business in the Metro, the traffic here can be lighter.

This is an ironic turn of events, I thought. Because of the rise of now popular locales, the once proud Malate suffered losses. But now, because of the urban density in these popular areas, more people are starting to consider the district again. And Space 1851 wants to give them more reasons to do so.

This can be seen in the venue’s events. Last November, for example, it hosted a street photography workshop manned by lensman Rommel Bundalian and it involved a photo walk that toured people around Malate. Efforts to promote the district can also be seen in the group’s Instagram account. Alongside photos of the facility, and content to entice people into coworking, the account also has images of the sights that can be found in Malate. It also has posts alluding to its vision. Just recently, for example, it shared a photo of the nearest coast. 

“Dreaming of a cleaner Manila Bay,” its caption states. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a stroll at the bay side after work to see the famous Manila sunset without the stench [?]”

I think it would. But then again, considering the damages done to the bay by nearby establishments and informal settlers, I also think that it will take much time and effort for such a dream to be realized. I can say the same about dreams for a Malate revival. I don’t think that it can happen overnight. If I can hazard a guess, I’d even go so far as to say that it might take years for the district’s glory days to return. But if Space 1851 stays true to its proclaimed vision, then there is at least one more space in the district where people can keep working on it.

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