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

But the entire time, we lived under the threat of evictions. We never knew when they would come.

On August 4, 1977, at 6 p.m., we had word that the police were getting ready to come down and start the evictions. We called all the people who supported us to come and ring the building.

The feeling was incredible, it felt like a war was going to be fought. I was carried out of the hotel. There were old people in their rooms, and there were younger people with them. They carried us down the stairs and onto the street. It's something that is still so vivid, even though it's been so long.

I think it's great that there's going to be a new I Hotel. The sad and infuriating thing is that the old people did die already. No one can defend what happened at the I Hotel because they kept it a vacant lot, past the life expectancy of the tenants. They should have just let them stay there.


EMIL DE GUZMAN

De Guzman was president of the hotel's Tenants' Union. He sits on the board of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, which will open a museum and cultural center in the new I Hotel. He works as a fair-housing investigator for the city's Human Rights Commission.

It's hard to explain what an exciting time it was, how people were drawn to the issue because it was exemplary of an Asian-American issue. There's the stereotype of Asians being submissive and quiet, and this was just the opposite.

It was a combination of the young people fighting along with the elderly. It was beautiful because during the day there would be picketing, and college students would be putting pressure in the public eye.

But there was another side. Did the manongs [elderly Filipinos] ever laugh! There was Tino's barbershop. There was so much splendor and music there. A haircut could last two hours, because he'd talk to everybody that came through the door. And there was Sam, this Hawaiian guy. He was one of the characters. Sam, the Flower Man. He was always stealing flowers from the Financial District and decorating the hotel with them. You had to inch into his room because he was a pack rat.

The night of the eviction was an awesome scene, very scary. I could see that everything we were about was about that one night. We were trying to prevent people from being removed from their home.

Everyone was evicted; you had to pick up with just the clothes on your back. There were all kinds of reactions. The anger was so pronounced. These American citizens, some of whom had fought in World War II, had a right to stay in their homes and live a life with dignity, and instead they were put out on the street. And the city was complicit.


RICHARD HONGISTO

The sheriff at the time, Hongisto initially opposed the evictions and postponed them for several months. As a result, he was sent to jail for five days, fined $500, and was later sued by the building owner.

In the case of court-ordered evictions, the sheriff has the responsibility of carrying it out. I didn't want to do it, and I opposed it as long as I could.

To block the evictions, I was sent to jail, sued, and nearly removed from office. I did the evictions because I was one of the foremost jail reformers at the time. We were doing exciting things at the county jail and I didn't want to lose all of that.

We started the evictions late in the evening and we weren't finished until 4 a.m. We gained access by climbing the ladder to the fire escapes and going in a window. We were going room to room. Some didn't want to leave, and they would lay down on the floor and refuse to cooperate. We had to put them on a stretcher and wheel them out.

It was really a bittersweet feeling. I was pleased that I had done it without anyone getting shot, and the tenants weren't hurt. But I was disgusted that I had to do it.


QUENTIN KOPP

Kopp, a former state senator, was a city supervisor during the I Hotel eviction fight. Tenant supporters were critical of the board for its lack of action.

What occurred was a lawsuit by the owners to evict the tenants. It was outside our purview as the Board of Supervisors. Occasionally someone on the board would refer to the sad prospect of elderly tenants being evicted. And I knew the background of many of the tenants, some of whom had fought at Bataan and with the U.S. Army [during World War II]. There was sympathy, but there was no legislation to act.

The board could, if the city could find a public purpose to do so, buy the property. And there may have been some suggestion by one or more supervisors to do that, but the funds were not available.

After the owner won a judgment, it was up to the sheriff to serve a writ of possession, which meant eviction. And the antics of the sheriff, who first dragged his heels. It was political pressure that then persuaded him to wade into that building. There was this picture of him busting down doors with an ax -- it was exaggerated. A sheriff can just give notice to the tenants.

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