The History of Bel-Air: How This Pilots' Village Became One of Makati's Most Coveted Addresses
Bel-Air is one of the most enviable addresses in the city, known for its cozy, family-friendly atmosphere and proximity to Rockwell, the Makati Central Business District, and Poblacion. It’s a place where people from various walks of life freely mingle, be they businessmen or creatives, prominent or middle-class families.
The Pilots’ Nest
As its name implies, the birth of this exclusive subdivision has its roots in Philippine aviation history. Ricardo S. Tomacruz writes in his essay Bel-Air Village, Makati City—Pilot’s Lair that the land the village stands on was once part of Nielsen Airport—the country’s first and only commercial airport. Established in 1937 by Laurie Reuben Nielson, a British businessman who hailed from New Zealand, it was considered “the biggest and best-equipped airport in Asia.”
It was the home of Philippine Airlines from the time the company was established in 1941 until the carrier moved its operations to Manila International Airport, Pasay in 1948. The 42 hectares comprising Nielson Airfield were once part of the Hacienda San Pedro de Makati and were leased from Ayala y Cia until that year.
When the land was returned to the Ayalas, Col. Joseph McMicking—the husband of Doña Mercedes Zobel de Ayala—envisioned a master plan for urban development, which included the Makati Central Business District, Forbes Park, and San Lorenzo village. After the two subdivisions were built in 1949 and 1954 respectively, the Philippine Airlines Pilots’ Union (ALPAP) asked the Ayalas for their own village. Thus, in 1957, Bel-Air was born. Its name came from the pilots themselves, who wanted to include the word “air.”
Bel-Air’s First Residents
According to Jaime C. Laya in Bel Air’s First Golden Years: 1957-2007, the village was developed in four phases for specific groups: Phase I for pilots, Phase II for Ayala Corporation managers, and Phase III for Insular Life and FGU [Insurance] managers.
The very first house to be built was that of Captain Charlie Deen and his wife, Judy, at No. 2 Polaris corner Mars Street. In her essay It’s a Woman’s World, Alya B. Honasan describes the strong friendships the pilots’ wives developed as they kept each other company during their husbands’ flights. “Judy [Deen] recalls how she and close friend Nelly Manzano, wife of pilot and one-time PAL executive Jaime Manzano, would end up driving each other to the hospital when their pregnancies were due.”
Colleagues from the Central Bank’s Department of Economic Research moved to Phases III and IV as well. Friends and families began to move in next to each other, adding to the village’s convivial, neighborly atmosphere. As Laya writes, a number of Batangueños took up residence in Phase III, along with Spanish-speaking families who made their homes on Hercules and Orbit Street. Notable residents included lawyers, diplomats, businessmen, politicians, artists, and designers.
Ben Hur Gomez—founder of flying school Omni Aviation and Island Aviation, which ferries members to and from Amanpulo—lived in Phase I. Housewives and teenage boys alike flocked to Ambassador Carlos Tan’s rose garden for bouquets. Ambassador Narciso Ramos—DFA secretary during the first Marcos administration and father of President Fidel V. Ramos—moved into Phase III. In Phase IV, there were ACCRA Law partner Teddy Regala and renowned concert pianist Carminda de Leon.
Other long-time residents included couturier and Dean of Philippine fashion Ben Farrales and Travel Time host and producer Susan Calo-Medina, who eventually became president of the Women of Bel-Air foundation. Sigrid Sophia Agatha von Giese, better known as Paraluman, served as Barangay Captain followed by Constancia “Nene” Lichauco, a pillar of the community who has held her post since 1989.
A Close-Knit Community
Laya writes that in those early days, “Living in Bel-Air was like living in a small town. People could leave their doors open, let their children run around unattended. There were not too many cars, and traffic was light. Till the 1970s, Bel-Air was ungated.”
In fact, students from Assumption and La Salle could go home for lunch thanks to Bel-Air’s proximity and lack of traffic. Those who grew up in Bel-Air fondly recall playing and forming lifelong friendships at the park, where it was safe to play even at night. The only thing they feared was “Mama Weng” or Nene Lichauco, who lived across the street from the park and frequently chased down children who flouted park safety rules.
A historical landmark, St. Andrew the Apostle Parish was constructed in 1965 upon the request of Bel-Air and San Miguel village residents, and named by Don Andres Soriano Jr. in honor of his father. National Artist for Architecture Leandro V. Locsin designed the church, while National Artist Vicente Manansala designed the cross above the altar.
The fearsome young mom has since played an integral role in fostering and preserving the charming community spirit Bel-Air is known for today. She joined the Board of Governors of Bel-Air Village Association (BAVA) in 1983, and was elected president of the association in 1986 and 1989-1991. Laya notes the “excellent relations between the Barangay and BAVA... everyone acknowledges that Nene Lichauco deserves much of the credit for such close working relations.” He adds that the cooperation between the Barangay, BAVA, the Women of Bel-Air Foundation, and the Parish Pastoral Council continues to bear fruit in the form of activities and events that foster community spirit.
In December 1973, the Rockwell Power Generating Plant exploded, setting several houses in Bel-Air Phase III on fire. The power plant was decommissioned in 1994, and converted into Power Plant Mall in 2000.
A Vibrant Culture
Bel-Air’s most well-known activities are undoubtedly the Pasinaya—a town fiesta so famous it has been listed by the Department of Tourism—and the ever-popular Salcedo Market. The first Pasinaya was mounted in May 1995. As Francine Medina Marquez writes in Pasinaya: Bel-Air’s Heart and Soul, the festival was planned by Kagawad Jun Gomez and Barangay Captain Nene Lichauco. Back in 1993, they enlisted the help of Susan Calo-Medina in producing a town fiesta. Concert pianist Carminda Regala brought in the International School Choir to perform Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. “In 1995, the third year of the celebration, Kapitana Lichauco and Kagawad Gomez were inspired to present the different cultures of the Philippines. Medina suggested that the celebration carry a Filipino-themed title. After consulting with cultural historian Den Medina, they settled on ‘Pasinaya,’ which means thanksgiving.”
Today, the Pasinaya has evolved into a three-day celebration starring the residents themselves. Nene Lichauco continues to tap the talents of her neighbors in mounting their impressive performances. According to Honasan, Lichauco didn’t hesitate to tap new resident Apples Aberin to mount a fashion show for the Pasinaya. Aberin observes, “Even if you’re young, people here are very welcoming of new blood. They’re not jaded and are very open to new ideas, so you’re immediately comfortable.”
Salcedo Market is another event that was initially mounted to foster neighborly bond. It’s a little-known fact that this iconic market is organized by the Women of Bel-Air Foundation and the Bel-Air Juniors, who carefully screen concessionaires in order to provide the best products to discerning shoppers. In November 2005, Lisa Periquet and Trickie Lopa had the idea of holding a Sunday market, and the Barangay Council saw it as an excellent way of making the residents of Salcedo Village feel more included. As Nancy Reyes recalls in See you at the Saturday Market!, “The first months were the most exciting and the toughest. They were hardly surviving, business-wise, relying on the softdrinks and rental income alone. The first customers were the Bel-Air families themselves, then friends follow, condo-dwellers, bachelors, one-meal foodies, and more friends. In time, the Saturday crowd had familiar faces, and many were on a first-name basis with their suki. It had become a community!”
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More than its prime location between a thriving business district and the posh Rockwell Center, the charm of Bel-Air lies in its reputation as a place where neighbors welcome and look out for each other. Through the years, this exclusive enclave has maintained its status as a family-friendly village rich in culture and community spirit.