The Mayor’s City

  • Sep
  • 20


All eyes on Davao.

Story by Nina Unlay
Photography by Fruhlein Econar
Video by Lyka Gonzalez

Davao City borders Davao del Sur, which is bounded by other provinces: Davao del Norte, Occidental, and Oriental. But once you step into Davao City, you will hear in the way the people talk that it is its own land entirely, distinguished by rules, ordinances and regulations that mark them and their experiences.

Life is quieter, slower. “Life is here,” reads the tagline of Davao City, it welcomes you at the airport gates. These are the less obvious things, almost boring things to listen to—but there is a ferocity in the way Davaoeños talk about Davao City, their voices adamant.

And again and again the stories tend to spark a question: But what is so great about Davao?

The Agdao market is bustling with life—stacks of fruits, lanes of people, and the energy that comes in the early morning dragged on to late afternoon. Davao City feels alive, that much is certain. The atmosphere can almost be described as homey; to me, it’s at least familiar. My senses are picking up on subtle tones of my childhood, the Davao from my past, and there is comfort: the smell of ripe pomelo in the air, the wide, dustier roads, and the warm disposition radiating off the passersby calling to each other in Bisaya. They easily identify me as a “taga-Maynila,” and let me know that I don’t need to grip my bag or phone quite so tight, a common habit for city girls. Safe diri. Safe dito, they say.


This place used to be a ghost town. There are stories about it, and the few I hear are in reference to its old, infamous nickname, “Nicaragdao,” with the light brush of a hand that usually accompanies a funny memory. One story begins with an ex-soldier. It was his first assignment, he said, and Davao is where he met his wife three years after. “[Her family] had a gasoline station [here], which became a war area during the 80s. The partisan units killed people, an average of five civilians per day. Our neighbors were killed. Mindanao was not safe. Not for so long.”

He tells me this story while standing in a cold, dark room, in front of a white wall that projects a video stream of Davao today; the Agdao Market, the same streets that I had walked earlier that day, so familiar, are all projected on a screen behind him. One hundred and seventy-three cameras worth of real-time footage.

I can see close enough to know what a stranger is currently having for his lunch. These units can zoom in up to one kilometer. Davao is under a careful, watchful eye. But not for long. I catch General Francisco Villaroman on his last day as head of the City Public Safety Command Center.

“We have to use technology in a developing country like [ours]. But I think Davao will be okay,” he says, and his tone is confident, steady. “Everything is in good hands. Everybody is trained. We expect more of this will be set-up in the rest of the country. I may be of help soon.”

The wall is staring back at me—I can see faces, plate numbers, sandwiches. Sitting stagnant behind a long gray desk, video operators are rapidly zooming in and out, moving right and left, screening for anything in their city that is out of place. Gen. Villaroman adds, “This is very important. Peace and order; the safety and security of our people.” Peace and order, the words echo wherever in Davao City you go. Safe dito.

– Excerpt from The Mayor’s City in GRID Issue 14

One hundred and seventy threes cameras worth of real-time footage. I can see close enough to know what a stranger is currently having for his lunch.

The Mayor's City

“It is near impossible to go to Davao City without escaping Duterte’s presence, almost as difficult as it is to tell the story of its history without a mention of his name.”

WE ALL WANT TO PROTECT Davao, says Olive Puentespina. During a conversation over cheese and a bottle of red wine, she talks about what she considers life’s pleasures, and it seems that we are simultaneously enjoying them. In these moments, time almost crawls to a stop, and I’m suddenly aware that the habits and nuisances of city life I’ve hardened myself to are gone.

At times, Olive precedes the word Davao with “my”. My Davao, followed by a laugh. When she’s prodded to explain, she answers that it’s alright by her that others don’t seem to want to understand so she doesn’t have to share her Davao. Olive is a farmer, a cheese maker, and an artisan. The cheeses we are enjoying are her labor of love. Her family is responsible for Malagos Agriventures, a business renowned internationally for their world-class, single-origin chocolates, which has turned “Malagos” into a household name. Aside from their award-winning chocolates, they are also known for their flowers and cheeses, all organically tended to on their farm. Years earlier, they set up the Malagos Garden Resort, a boutique resort that replicates what they call a “farm environment.” It has put them as one of the frontrunners for eco-tourism. “Oh, to be one with nature” is their mantra.

Agriculture makes up the largest economic sector in Davao, which is known as the fruit basket of the Philippines. And while this can be attributed to the idyllic weather conditions and its climate type, Olive claims it also has a lot to with the significance of place, in a different sense: “Giving milk, giving eggs, meat… [anything] to do with agriculture, you cannot do if there is fear. Peace and order is being taken care of. I don’t think I can make my animals healthy and [they won’t] give milk if there is gulo. I don’t think I can do this in other places. Kung ang lugar na tinitirihan mo ay binibigay sa ‘yo ang opportunidad na kailangan mo, mamahalin mo siya. And you would want it to stay that way.”


In GRID Issue 14 we look at Davao through the eyes of some of its most eminent locals, all of whom have a story about their city and of the changes they’ve seen in their lifetime.


₱195.00 Buy Now