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.

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.

[Rebuilding the I Hotel] is a just result. The same exact people won't be able to live there -- it's 20 years later -- but at least the same concept is being implemented. Yes, it's very ironic.


BILL SORRO

Bill Sorro was a young organizer of the eviction fights. He is on the city's advisory committee and the board of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. He is a housing organizer with the Mission Housing Development Corp.

I was looking at the newspaper and saw, in 1969, these old tenants out there picketing on the street against eviction. I looked at 'em and I thought, "This is wrong, old people put out on the street like that." By early 1970 I had moved in. I was part of the workers' collective. My room was $45 a month, and I worked on the hotel six or seven days a week.

There was constant organizing. There were never periods where there was not an anxiety about the eviction. But in 1973 when the tenants understood that we had exhausted the political process, the only thing left was to get in their face. So there were demonstrations in City Hall.

There was also a scheme to find a way for the tenants to buy the building. But that was for naught because Four Seas [the owners], they are not philanthropists. They wanted so much for that building -- $1.5 million in the 1970s. The kicker was that they wanted us to pay it back in a year and a half. There was no way we could raise that much.

So we just continued pushing the legal fight and trying to engage the city as much as we could. We didn't think we were going to lose, there was so much momentum.

What's important, though, is the vigilance of the people protecting the land [since then] ... that nothing would go there unless there was affordable housing on it.

I think the city knew they had fucked up royally. They were embarrassed, and it had such a legacy attached to it, how violent the evictions of the tenants really were. In compensation for this guilt, they set aside money for rebuilding of new senior housing.

We [the advisory committee] saw a number of development schemes. Countless schemes of these goddamn fat pigs who wanted to come in there and score. The only one I got involved in was the latest one, the partnership with the archdiocese.

It was a long, bitter fight to save the I Hotel, and the way we were put out, it left scars. To honor the old Asian tenants, these wonderful men, it is our responsibility to see that only the most admirable things happen to that site in their name. That's why we do it.

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