Manilatown: An SF neighborhood that disappeared 

click to enlarge Manilatown
  • Courtesy of Nancy Wong
  • Fred Basconcillo shows pictures of the once-thriving Manilatown community on Kearny Street.

Some of Fred Basconcillo’s earliest memories of San Francisco involve downtown. The pool halls. People dancing in the street. Creative types gathering at the Kearny Street Workshop. Cafes serving stews over piles of steaming rice.

“That’s what Kearny Street was for me. Unfortunately, it’s gone,” Basconcillo said.

A five-block stretch of Kearny Street from Bush Street to Jackson Street was once dubbed Manilatown, serving as a home for a lively Filipino community of about 10,000 that was slowly pushed out of its own neighborhood.

THE ‘MANONG GENERATION’

Basconcillo’s father, who arrived in The City as part of a large wave of Filipino immigrants dubbed the “manong generation” in the 1920s, owned a three-chair barber shop a few doors down from the famous International Hotel. Next door was a small restaurant where Basconcillo’s mother cooked his favorite stews of adobo and afritada.

But behind his mother’s lunch counter, down a flight of stairs that led to a door in the pantry that people could pass only if they knew the secret knock, Basconcillo’s father ran a gambling hall where some of San Francisco’s elite would come to play.

“His clients were many of the movers and shakers of the time,” Basconcillo said.

When Filipinos moved to The City, it was Basconcillo’s father who served as a catalyst between the top dogs of San Francisco society and Filipinos who found jobs at hotels and restaurants.

CHANGES

Over the years, urban renewal and redevelopment for the “Wall Street of the West” slowly pushed Filipinos out of downtown. The end of the community came one summer morning in the late 1970s.

On Aug. 4, 1977, police physically evicted the final 55 tenants of the International Hotel, home to Asian farmworkers, mostly single male Filipinos who worked as seasonal harvesters and merchant marines. In total, 196 residents were evicted.

The I-Hotel was the last hurdle for Justin Herman, former head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, who also led the eviction efforts of low-income black residents from the Fillmore district in the early 1960s.

“This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it,” Herman said of the I-Hotel in a statement in 1970.

In the middle of the I-Hotel eviction effort, which lasted from 1968-77, the Transamerica Pyramid added the pinnacle touch to San Francisco’s skyline, towering over the red-brick shoulders of the hotel building.

“At a time when renters didn’t have many protections, the I-Hotel tenants fighting the eviction really energized that activism to get rent control passed,” said Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union advocacy group.

The high-profile fight over the evictions led to rent-control laws being implemented two years later, in 1979.

ALMOST FORGOTTEN

Today, it’s hard to find traces of Filipino history on Kearny Street. No pool halls. No ethnic diners. No creative types howling at the moon.

The neighborhood is now an overlay of Chinatown, while the Financial District continues to seep in.

“It’s a graveyard,” said Emil De Guzman, an operations manager for the I-Hotel during the eviction years. “The eviction of the I-Hotel crystallized the eviction of … not just the building, but the thousands that lived on Kearny.”

For more than 20 years, the lot where the I-Hotel once existed sat undeveloped. In 2005, a new I-Hotel was built as senior housing. At the base of the building is the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, serving as the last vestige of the dismantled Filipino community. In the center, old red bricks from the original I-Hotel hang upon the wall among photos of everyday Filipino life in the old Manilatown.

“This building is a symbol of the perseverance and commitment of the anti-eviction movements in Manilatown,” said Evelyn Luluquisen, executive director of the center. “The center symbolizes that the community will always have a presence here.”

STILL ACTIVE

The Filipino community remains vocal and active in the modern-day fight over tenants’ rights.

In late October, for instance, the Manilatown Heritage Foundation declined an award from Mayor Ed Lee to celebrate Filipino American History Month, citing concerns about the increase in senior evictions in San Francisco, particularly among Filipinos.

Foundation board member Tony Robles said it would be wrong of his organization to accept such an award in the current housing landscape.

“Given that and given our history, we would be betraying our own values,” Robles said. “We wouldn’t be true to what the I-Hotel meant to us. That whole fight was for elders.”

SIMPLE PLEASURES

Besides coming to events at the Heritage Foundation’s center, Basconcillo said it’s difficult to be in the neighborhood.

“There’s not much there for me anymore,” he said.

After the evictions, while doing research into Filipino history in San Francisco, Basconcillo was reminded of the festive traits of his people. During World War II, air raid warnings would go off and The City would fall dark, he said. After the warnings passed and lights came back on, crowds of Filipinos would turn to the streets in celebration, singing and dancing to the air raids that didn’t arrive.

“Naturally, a sigh of relief would come over them,” Basconcillio said. “That’s the Manilatown I’d like to remember.”


Remembering the I-Hotel

Carmencita Choy grew up in what is called Manilatown’s “first family,” as it was uncommon to see anyone except single males living in the neighborhood.

“Being part of the first family, I consider myself royalty,” Choy said.

Her parents managed the Casa Playa, where they also lived. As a child, Choy frequented the shops and pool halls, and she knew everyone by their first names.

A young adult during the I-Hotel evictions, Choy rallied with hundreds in the streets, above, linked arm in arm and shouting, “People united will never be defeated!”

Emil de Guzman was an operations manager for the I-Hotel during the evictions. He maintained the building and helped care for the residents, who became his family.

“They taught me about my history and the difficulties they faced when moving here,” he said.

De Guzman says no alternative housing was offered to tenants. Months before the final eviction, de Guzman said during a news conference that if the city wanted the tenants to leave, police would have to physically remove them from the building. That would happen Aug. 4, 1977.

“Everything was broken up — this was their home, they lived with their people,” de Guzman said. “I can say that many people died with a broken heart.”

James Walsh was one of few white people living in the I-Hotel during the evictions. A Baltimore native and avid artist who worked in advertising throughout the 1960s, he lived in the hotel off and on, traveling and drawing pen sketches of the places he visited. Walsh left during the first wave of evictions in 1968. When the new I-Hotel was built in 2005, He was among the first to move in.

“I owe it to other people that I’ve been able to return,” Walsh said.

Walsh pays $214 a month to live in his studio.

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Bio:
Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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