A Community Lost, A Movement Born

Friday, August 11, 2017
Brandon Yu
San Francisco Chronicle

As Pete Yamamoto recalls the events of Aug. 4, 1977 — the infamous eviction night at Kearny Street’s old International Hotel — his eyes are closed.

For several minutes, he seems to be trying to concentrate as he recounts what occurred 40 years ago. But after a while, he pauses, bows his head and trembles silently.

Yamamoto is sitting in the International Hotel Manilatown Center on a recent Sunday afternoon. The center is on the bottom floor of the new International Hotel building, serving as a gallery space and community center commemorating the original hotel and the battle over its survival as the last vestige of San Francisco’s once prospering Manilatown. The new I-Hotel, providing subsidized senior housing on its upper 15 floors since it opened in 2005, sits on the same block of Kearny Street at the edge of Chinatown where the original was located.

Yamamoto is, in fact, sitting in a reconstruction of his own unit from the original hotel, one of 184 rooms in the mostly single-room-occupancy building that primarily housed elderly Filipino and Chinese bachelors for decades into the late 1970s. When he was 20 in 1974, Yamamoto became one of the few younger residents among the collection of retired migrant farmworkers, merchant marines, and restaurant and hotel service workers renting units for $45 a month with their Social Security checks.

Their living quarters were small but had touches of home. In Yamamoto’s re-created room are a bed, a small radiator, an alarm clock and ashtray atop a nightstand, vinyl records on shelves, a sack of rice next to a set of drawers. Yamamoto can’t remember his room number, but everything else — the elderly tenants and the food they cooked, their warmth and eventual heartbreak — is still fresh in his mind.

It is here, four decades earlier, that members of the Filipino community took a final stand in a long battle against eviction of the hotel’s senior residents.

The historic fray between law enforcement and protesters still resonates today, both as a singular moment in the city’s history and for its connection to the struggles to preserve San Francisco neighborhoods. The evictions and later destruction of the I-Hotel dispersed Manilatown’s last residents, but the events are uppermost in the minds of Filipino Americans who are working to establish and protect a Filipino cultural district South of Market, where pressures for new development are among the highest in the city.

Starting in 1968, a nearly decade-long battle over the fate of the I-Hotel took place between the building’s corporate owners (first Milton Meyer & Co., then Thailand’s Four Seas Investment Corp.) and a large coalition of community activists fighting for nearly 150 mostly elderly residents. The building’s owners wanted to demolish the hotel initially for a parking lot and, later, for a commercial high-rise.

At the time of the first eviction notice, the block where the hotel stood was all that remained of a 10-block stretch on Kearny Street known as Manilatown. At its height, decades earlier, the enclave contained up to 30,000 transient Filipino laborers. But beginning in the 1950s, San Francisco underwent a “Manhattanization” redevelopment effort, expanding the Financial District and, in the process, slowly razing buildings in the bordering Manilatown.

“The vision behind urban renewal was to [develop] areas that were considered ‘blighted,’ and that’s a very loaded term now,” says Christine Johnson, the San Francisco director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. “They were considered overcrowded. They were considered ‘dirty.’ And the idea was to improve the environment for those populations. But due to obviously institutional racism and lack of involvement of those communities, the vision went awry.”

“We were the expendable ones,” says Estella Habal, an I-Hotel activist and author of the book “San Francisco’s International Hotel.” “So it’s the broader context of not just class, but also race. You can’t really separate it. It’s like, who gets targeted, which ones are ‘blighted communities’ — when for us, generally for the minority communities, that was a bustling area.”

As antimiscegenation laws and immigration restrictions kept many of the aging generation of manongs — a deferential Filipino designation for an older male — from starting families, they found comfort among each other on that final Manilatown block and parts of Chinatown across the street. Many had lived at the I-Hotel and patronized its bottom-floor storefronts for years, Yamamoto says. They’d spend their paychecks on chic zoot suits and taxi dancers who provided brief companionship on club floors for the price of a ticket.

In their retired years, the manongs would hang out at Tino’s Barber Shop and shoot pool at Lucky M Pool Hall. They’d eat at Bataan Lunch and celebrate in the I-Hotel basement, where potlucks were held and the famous hungry i nightclub was located. Yamamoto remembers the aroma of fish, chicken adobo and pork chops in the hotel’s communal kitchen, from manongs who cooked incessantly on old electric burners.

But the manong community was not insular. During the years of the antieviction struggle, other groups joined the fight — college students, grassroots activists, unions, churches, the Bay Area Gay Liberation Front and even Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. The building became a symbol of other displacement pressures that threatened vulnerable communities.

“It was about power,” says Curtis Choy, who documented the movement in his film, “The Fall of the I-Hotel.” “It was about who was going to live where.”

Within the movement, there was a convergence among young, radical Asian Americans inspired by the political efforts of the antiwar movement and the Third World Liberation cause. On Manilatown’s final island, they formed familial bonds with manongs who enlightened them about unrecorded aspects of Asian American history.

“They were looking for identity at that time, and they weren’t comfortable with just assimilating,” says Caroline Cabading, the executive director of the Manilatown Center. The I-Hotel became a moment for activists to determine their own fate as Asian Americans in a country that saw them as model minority populations.

But nine years of resolve on the streets and in the courts culminated in a night of violent confrontation on Aug. 4, 1977.

Then-Sheriff Richard Hongisto, who was jailed for five days after initially refusing to enforce the California Supreme Court’s eviction order, eventually led 300 riot-geared police officers, horse patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies on a raid of the building in the dead of night. Law enforcement clashed with a 3,000-person, nonviolent human barricade that had formed around the building, and dragged protesters onto the street from inside the hotel.

“They backed their horses into the crowd,” Yamamoto says, his voice breaking. “And they came again and again.”

Footage of the struggle outside captures a chaos of people desperately holding on to one another as officers jabbed batons into the crowd. Inside the hotel, demonstrators carried rags dipped in vinegar in case tear gas was used. Beds and furniture bolstered the doors against incoming officers.

“San Francisco really became, at that moment, a police state,” says Emil De Guzman, a young tenant then who served as president of the I-Hotel Tenants Association.

Eventually, the police overtook the roof, where more protesters stood, and broke through the windows of the rooms. By dawn, each of the remaining 50 or so mostly elderly tenants were removed.

In the wake of the eviction, the elders scattered. The city had no formal plan to relocate them, Yamamoto says, and while the remaining activists struggled to find homes for those who were evicted, many were on their own. Some found places in the shrinking number of residential hotels, while others were forced to leave the city.

The night of the eviction for many meant a permanent loss of home. The manongs soon began to die off, many of broken hearts and spirits, De Guzman and Habal say. Today, none of the old-timers remains.

For those in the movement, the outcome was a loss of community and of an entire ethos, as the bubble of Bay Area grassroots activism that had thrived during the ’60s and ’70s seemed to burst with resounding finality.

In the years after 1979, when the building was finally demolished and Manilatown was officially gone, nothing happened. A large hole in the ground remained as the corporate owner battled a city-backed Citizens Advisory Committee over what would become of the space. The dogged determination of the remaining I-Hotel advocates eventually forced the sale of the site and the development of the new hotel that now houses primarily elderly Chinese residents.

The new building’s existence is bittersweet — a testament to the survival of the I-Hotel name but a reminder that the elderly manongs lost the right to live the rest of their years in peace in the old hotel.

“They gave us a back a building, but if you look at it, it was a 10-block community,” De Guzman says. “How much did we lose? How many people were thrown out?”

On the roof of the new hotel one can see both a figurative and literal depiction of a city that has in the years since the eviction struggled with issues of displacement and gentrification. The sprawling view of San Francisco contains a striking juxtaposition of what constitutes survival for marginal communities. On one side: the Transamerica Pyramid and the metropolitan sheen of the Financial District that swallowed a neighborhood. On the other: Chinatown, where the commercial encroachment ended. Between the two sits the new I-Hotel, an echoing remnant of Manilatown.

“We knew that Chinatown was next,” says Norman Fong, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, an organizational giant for housing and community advocacy. The center was founded just four months before the eviction night and would go on to spearhead the building of the new I-Hotel.

The lessons of August 1977 have been passed down over the decades, as community activists saw what it took, and what failed, to protect vulnerable enclaves. “Chinatown pretty much exists today because we fought not only for neighborhood preservation, but we had to learn the planning smarts in many ways,” says Fong, who was present during the protests on the night of the eviction.

De Guzman notes that the I-Hotel movement — which became a national emblem for housing rights — forced a fundamental change around eviction enforcements and helped foster the growth of nonprofit housing developers. But in place of 1977’s militant raid is wholesale displacement through the use of the Ellis Act, the state law that enables the eviction of an entire building of tenants, without the typical just-cause procedure, for owners to retire from rental housing. In many cases, the law is invoked to convert the building to high-priced condominium spaces.

“Seniors are getting preyed on in this city, being evicted left and right,” says Tony Robles, a housing organizer at Senior and Disability Action and nephew of the now deceased I-Hotel leader Al Robles. While the Chinatown Community Development Center secured an exemption for single-room-occupancy buildings from the Ellis Act, individual units are often bought and flipped for Airbnb rentals, pricing out low-income and senior residents.

As a new wave of development continues to engulf the South of Market neighborhood, where the city’s Filipino population is now primarily situated, the community is taking early action this time around. Since April, the Filipino American Development Foundation received approval from the city’s Board of Supervisors and the California Arts Council for designation of a cultural heritage district in SoMa. Dubbed SoMa Pilipinas, the district’s noncontiguous borderlines will extend to include sites such as the new I-Hotel.

The designation is the first step in gathering political clout to protect the Filipino community from gentrification, says Supervisor Jane Kim, a major proponent of the district and a former community organizer at the development center. The district will host a large-scale monthly night market to foster Filipino businesses, while a small-site acquisition fund has been started to buy properties to protect residents, many of them Filipino, from Ellis Act evictions and other displacement efforts.

Anticipated growth of the community, along with the city and state recognition. means that “you’re now at the table for any development in the neighborhood,” says MC Canlas, a community strategy consultant at the Filipino American Development Foundation.

But efforts to preserve what’s here now cannot restore what was lost.

In the Manilatown Center, slabs of brick retrieved from the rubble of the demolished hotel hang from the walls. The weathered chair of Joe Diones, the old hotel manager, sits in a corner next to photos of Al Robles. Across from Yamamoto’s re-created room, where a portrait of tenant and activist Bill Sorro hangs, large banners cover the windows, depicting images of the resistance. Elsewhere are paintings and photos of manongs and youthful Asian Americans dancing together, of a neighborhood in motion.

During a recent creative writing class at the center, Robles stages a small poetry reading. Yamamoto reads a poem he wrote, “I-Hotel,” a collage of drafty hallways, student protesters and sleepy-eyed manongs cooking.

“How long does an ember last?” Robles asks afterward. “These fleeting moments, if you don’t catch it,” the memories dissipate, like ashes from a fire.

“Keep it warm, catch it. It’s our job to make sure we keep it so that it doesn’t disappear.”

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