The 'I' Is for Irony

After more than 20 years, a new International Hotel is set to rise on the site where riot police evicted elderly tenants during one of the city's most famous protests

One day this summer, as early as July, construction will begin on an empty lot on the corner of Kearny and Jackson streets that has remained a fetid and fenced-off hole in the ground for 22 years. Out of the dust will rise a 104-unit, low-income apartment complex for seniors, to be called the International Hotel. Longtime San Francisco residents will recognize the bittersweet irony of the moment. It was on that very site nearly a quarter-century ago that 100 low-income tenants -- primarily elderly Chinese and Filipino men -- were forcibly evicted by police in full riot gear from the old International Hotel as thousands of protesters jeered. That ugly scene provoked a fight so bitter that to this day nothing has been built on the site -- one of the more expensive patches of real estate in the city -- where the old I Hotel, as it was known, was razed some two decades ago.

The dramatic evictions began on the night of Aug. 4, 1977, when the San Francisco police and sheriff's departments descended on the run-down, single-room-occupancy hotel to remove the elderly tenants. As word of the police action spread, more than 3,000 protesters arrived to link arms and create a human barricade around the building. The police broke through the human ring. Led by then-Sheriff Richard Hongisto -- who had initially refused to carry out the evictions -- authorities used axes to break down the doors to the 10-by-10-foot rooms and carried out the tenants, one by one, until early the next morning.

That night was a culmination of eight years of protest. Tenants had lived under the threat of eviction since 1969, under two successive owners who had each hoped to put the site -- located at the edge of the Financial District and Chinatown, in what used to be called "Manilatown" -- to a more lucrative use. The owners had the right to remove the tenants, but the evictions of poor, elderly men roused the sympathy of many in the city. "Even though [the evictions] legally held up, it just felt wrong," says tenant supporter Linda Wang, who served on a citizens' committee that brought the new I Hotel to the site.

The elderly tenants did not go quietly. They staged rallies outside the owners' offices and then filed a lawsuit in 1974 that made its way to the state Supreme Court, allowing them to stave off evictions for a few more years.

The tenants ultimately lost the suit, but the I Hotel has since become a symbol for Asian-American activism. "The struggle to save the I Hotel was a watershed in Asian-American history in general and San Francisco history in particular," says S.F. State Professor Helen Toribio.

In the years since, tenant supporters have fought to resurrect the I Hotel. A year after the evictions, the city promised that only low-income housing would be created on the site of the demolished hotel and formed a citizen advisory committee to find a suitable project. But for more than 20 years, every project the committee looked at either was rejected or fell through. The committee has finally teamed with the Archdiocese of San Francisco to develop the land. The new housing -- which should cost about $19 million -- will be funded by the city and a federal Housing and Urban Development grant.

But even with the promise of a new building, the evictions still leave a painful sting. "People ask me if rebuilding the I Hotel makes me feel vindicated," says former tenant and organizer Bill Sorro. "I tell them, "Hell, no.' A community was lost. Is there justice in a new building? A little. But the fact is that old people were disrespected and thrown out."

For many former residents, organizers, and city officials, the memories of the I Hotel are still fresh in recalling the protests, the evictions, and the legacy of the fight.


PETE YAMAMOTO

Former tenant

I was 22 years old, one of the youngest tenants. It was the first time that I had lived on my own. It was Manilatown, a fantastic place to cut your teeth on. All these single men who had immigrated here lived there. They had lonely, solitary lives. They had themselves as their families. They used to work on the ships, or on the waterfront.

There was a beauty to living there. There were all these eating places, the barbershops, the pool hall. There were so many good things there, like Kearny Street Workshop, which provided a place for Asian-American artists to participate, and Everybody's Bookstore downstairs.

There was a smell, an ambience, a humidity level of the I Hotel. You could cut the air like a knife. Like you're in Manila, in a place where brown people lived. It was a different world.

The [tenants] formed a community amongst themselves. There was a lot of kidding and joking in the hallways and in the community kitchen. Someone would have a pot of rice cooking on one, another guy would have stir-fry going, and they were all sitting around, smoking their pipes, in their slippers. I can't emphasize enough the feeling of extended family there.

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