How SOMA Pilipinas Will Keep Filipinos in SoMa

The cultural district aims to stabilize and strengthen a neighborhood in flux. But Filipinos in S.F. have seen their community obliterated before.

Photo by Mogli Maureal

As grandiose inscriptions go, “Dedicated to the Supreme Architect of the Universe” almost can’t be beat. It sounds like a translation of something that might accompany the eye in a pyramid on the back of the one-dollar bill. Indeed, the phrase is Masonic in nature, but not the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Instead, it adorns the cornice of the pale-pink Gran Oriente Filipino Masonic Temple, a century-old building just below the Bostonian-looking green that is South Park and which Filipino Americans have used as a mutual-aid society for nearly 100 years. Just across the park is the Gran Oriente Hotel, another historic structure that a group of 40 Filipino men pooled $6,000 to buy in the 1920s.

Maybe the Supreme Architect took note, because that turned out to be a shrewd investment. Fast-forward nearly a century, and South Park remains one of the most beautiful micro-hoods in within SoMa, and in spite of two tech booms and a displacement emergency, its environs retain a strong Filipino character. The 24 units in the Gran Oriente Hotel undoubtedly helped dozens of people anchor themselves in the city, but then the building was set to be sold to a for-profit developer.

The Filipino-American community has deep ties to San Francisco, but it’s been uprooted before. On Aug. 4, 1977, riot police helped evict the final 55 low-income residents of the largely Filipino International Hotel after an almost decade-long struggle. The clearing out of the I-Hotel was among last spams of Justin Herman-era urban renewal, and it signaled the death of Manilatown, a thriving ethnic enclave that extended along Kearny Street near Chinatown — and which had been home to 10,000 people at its peak.

As recently as the 1990 census, some 30 percent of SoMa residents claimed Filipino heritage — a number that has since fallen. With housing costs showing no sign of dropping and a large section of Central SoMa approved for upzoning, the city has taken action to recognize and stabilize the 100-year history of Filipinos and Filipino Americans in South of Market.

Approved in 2016 and given state recognition the following year, the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District spans across most of the neighborhood, forming an almost-perfect rectangle from Market to Brannan streets and Second to 11th streets. Part of a new crop of cultural districts modeled on Japantown, it’s also larger its peers, like the Latino-centric Calle 24 in the Mission, as well as the still-developing Compton’s TLGB District and Leather Cultural District, both of which SOMA Pilipinas partially overlaps.

Stretching from the Palace Hotel to Costco, the district encompasses the SF Filipino Cultural Center and Filipino-owned businesses like Asia SF, Arkipelago Bookstore, and Little Skillet — as well as a regular haunt of the Señor Sisig food truck. It includes St. Patrick church, a Catholic parish that celebrates a Mass in Tagalog each month, and Victoria Manolo Draves Park, a rare green space in the neighborhood that’s named for the SoMa native who became first American woman of Asian descent to win a gold medal in the Olympics. The Filipino American Center and Filipina Women’s Network are just outside its boundaries, and the Philippine Consulate is blocks away.

This designation does more than simply preserve what’s left of a community whose members have fallen by half, as people have moved to the Excelsior, Daly City, and beyond. SOMA Pilipinas wants to draw people back — to live or to play. Between the near-inexorable grind of capitalism and the roll-out of transit improvements like the Transbay Terminal, the Central Subway, and the eventual Caltrain extension, SoMa is set to change immensely. But the district is not a NIMBYite reaction against redevelopment (and 2,500 of the eventual 7,500 units in the pipeline are designated as affordable in some fashion). Rather, it’s a way of cementing the existing neighborhood’s demographics and giving current residents a greater say as stakeholders in SoMa’s future.

The best place to see the contrast between the present and the future might be the corner of Fourth and Brannan streets. Although the well-regarded restaurant Marlowe moved to that low-slung intersection a few years ago, two of its other corners are each home to a one-story bank branch — yet it’s designated as the site for a station on the forthcoming Central Subway.

The Supreme Architect deserves input on the blueprints.

 

Of the roughly 3.5 million Americans of Filipino descent, about a million and a half call California home, making them the largest Asian subgroup in the state, ahead of Chinese Americans. Most live in Southern California, but approximately 400,000 Filipinos reside in the nine-county greater Bay Area, and 40,000 or so in San Francisco proper. In other words, about 1 percent of the nation’s Filipino population lives right here.

A $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts will make their presence all the more visible. Announced just before Labor Day, the funds will go toward signage and crosswalks on Sixth Street at Folsom and Howard streets, along with murals and other public art. That may sound cosmetic in scope — although even cosmetic changes to parts of Sixth Street can go a long way — but the investment can be a springboard to more substantial achievements, such as attracting small businesses or keeping economically vulnerable residents in their homes.

“SoMa is transforming before our very eyes,” says Raquel R. Recondiez, SOMA Pilipinas’ director. “There’s all this redevelopment, but how do we mitigate potential harm as well as take advantage of any opportunity? Right now, one of our biggest challenges is that we don’t have a lot of Filipino-owned businesses. In Chinatown and even Little Saigon, they serve as an economic anchor. Here, they were wiped out in the first dotcom boom.”

One of the best strategies to build a commercial base is not to lure existing businesses but to grow them from scratch. Undiscovered SF, a monthly “night market” that began in summer 2017 in partnership with Kultivate Labs, transforms a few parking lots on Mary Street into a hub for food trucks, contemporary Filipino music, and vendors. (The next market is Saturday, Sept. 15.) A lively party, Undiscovered draws impressive crowds and operates as an incubator. Entrepreneurs can get their feet wet ringing up customers on a Square one Saturday each month in preparation for an eventual brick-and-mortar.

Recondiez calls the market a “platform for emerging businesses, many of whom aren’t in the district now.” By helping to integrate them into the neighborhood, Undiscovered can help build a customer base and expose them to any long-term lease opportunities. The Mission Street corridor, between Fourth and Ninth streets, is where Recondiez and SOMA Pilipinas are keenest to build. Having worked to halt unlawful conversions of retail space on Mission to tech offices, SOMA Pilipinas now wants to partner with the California Historical Society, the long-term leaseholder for the Old Mint, to make adjacent Mint Plaza more welcoming. And a large, built-out space that was formerly a restaurant called Volta (and a location of Tom Colicchio’s fast-casual chain ’wichcraft before that) may soon become a Filipino-owned bar.

Along with Mark Herlihy, Marky Enriquez is one of Undiscovered SF’s music curators, having booked some of the biggest acts on the Filipino scene, turntablists like DJ QBert and DJ Shortkut. For its Sept. 15 iteration, Manila Rising, he’s working with some emerging artists from the Philippines.

“We’re presenting an all-star billing of the freshest talent coming out of Manila right now: future soul, R&B,” he says. “We’re not only curating the music, we’re also hand-selecting small food pop-ups that are emerging, and were giving a platform for a lot of these up-and-coming food start-ups. Being able to see maybe one, two, maybe three have a brick-and-mortar in SOMA Pilipinas would be amazing.”

However prestigious, a $100,000 grant won’t go very far in making all this happen. Further, San Francisco’s budget doesn’t confer baseline funding, which means cultural districts like SOMA Pilipinas must apply for every dollar they get, every year. So a new source of funding must be found. To that end, the Board of Supervisors placed a measure onto the November ballot that would reconfigure how the city distributes the revenue from hotel taxes. If passed, Proposition E — unrelated to June’s Prop. E, which banned flavored-tobacco products — will dedicate 1.5 percentage points of San Francisco’s 8-percent hotel occupancy tax revenue, which generates $370 million every year overall, toward cultural programs.

In 2017, Anthony Bourdain predicted that Americans would soon finally be ready for Filipino food. Photo by Mogli Maureal

Only around $3 million of that pie will go toward the city’s cultural districts, which will share it equally among themselves. As it simply re-allocates money from out of the city’s general fund without raising additional taxes, Prop. E is revenue-neutral. But because it pertains to taxation, it will require a two-thirds majority to pass, and a similar measure lost by only a few points in 2016. Recondiez is confident that this year is different.

“As far as I know, there’s no opposition, and we’ve been working really hard for broad-range support,” she says.

Shwetika Baijal, vice president of the liberal electoral-campaign management firm 50+1 Strategies, concurs, noting that cultural districts didn’t even exist in 2016. This time, she says, the campaign worked with City Hall directly, getting unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors and from the Arts Commission.

“We’ve been getting every endorsement we’re gone after,” Baijal says. “The amount of support behind this, at this point in the election cycle, far exceeds 2016, and we are confident that it will translate to the passing of the three points we needed last time.”

In preparation for the passage of Prop. E, administrators have worked to ensure that cultural equity concerns don’t fall to the wayside. With all due respect to the wonderful productions the city’s Opera, Ballet, and Symphony mount, it has historically been challenging for smaller organizations — particularly entities that primarily serve working-class audiences and communities of color — to secure their piece of the pie.

“This coalition has worked tirelessly to ensure that cultural equity is the foundational viewpoint through which they came up with and are seeing the impact of this money,” Baijal says, “and that shows in our allocations, it shows in our process, and it’s going to show in how the money gets distributed in the years right after this passes.”

Oliver Saria, artistic director of Bindlestiff Studio, believes that his performance-art venue dedicated to Filipino-Americans and Filipino culture is unique in the country. But, he says, it constantly confronts the same dilemma.

“How do you function when your community increasingly can no longer live in that neighborhood?” he asks, rhetorically.

Saria’s vision for what SOMA Pilipinas can provide, five or 10 years from now, is a city that’s “integrated ethnically and economically,” as well as without regard for an individual’s immigration status. For now, though, Bindlestiff is proof that the culture the district wants to preserve is alive, not frozen in amber.

“Our audience is not your typical theater-going audience,” he says. “We skew younger. More people of color attend our shows than a typical mainstream theater, and that’s simply because we try to eliminate the barriers of entry for people who don’t normally go to or participate in the theater.

“Part of that is allowing our audience to have some say in the type of content that we produce,” Saria adds. “It’s not uncommon for people who are volunteers to become actors. We have workshops that are very affordable and a standing policy of a number of free slots for SoMa residents and cultural workers in the district. We have affordable ticket pricing, and we make a portion of each show free for residents and other community groups.”

In that spirit, on Saturday, Sept. 15, Bindlestiff hosts an all-ages tape release party in collaboration with Aklasan Records. It’s $10 to get in, and it starts at 8 p.m. “No booze, no shitty tudes,” the Facebook invite says. Undoubtedly, at least a few people will walk over from Undiscovered SF’s night market, barely one city block away.

 

In a sense, SOMA Pilipinas is a product of several remarkable phenomena. It owes its very existence to the fact that, even as California is growing more and more diverse, San Francisco’s Filipino population has dispersed. And it demonstrates how grassroots community groups and city administrators have begun to speak one another’s languages, so to speak. Murals and theater enrich people’s lives and connect them to their heritage, but cultural districts must out-hustle some deep-pocketed and rapacious players. As Undiscovered SF’s music co-curator Marky Enriquez puts it, “One of our big goals is economic development. We’re not just throwing a big party every month.”

About the effort to bankroll her organization’s stated mission, Raquel Recondiez says, “What’s significant about this is we’ve identified key economic development strategies and hopefully, the funding would be able to allow us to leverage some of that, whether it’s for small-site acquisition of rent-controlled buildings that would otherwise be sold to the highest bidder in the private market.

“We’ve been successful in preserving over a dozen Filipino families who otherwise would have been displaced,” she adds. “My daughter always says that ‘Gentrification displaces generations.’ Right now, our biggest fight is on Natoma Street. [There are] four families — all from one small town, and the residents are ages four to 94 — and I think the owner is interested in turning it into Airbnb’s. We’re working with a community-based affordable-housing developer to purchase it so we can preserve it as long-term affordable housing.”

That’s largely what happened to the 24 units of the Gran Oriente Hotel after a for-profit developer eyed the site. With assistance from Sup. Jane Kim, who represents the area, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and its South of Market Community Stabilization Fund helped secure sufficient funding to set the historically important building on a path toward ownership or co-ownership by a Filipino organization before 2025. Until then, the Mission Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit, will rehabilitate the building and guarantee that no current tenants face eviction.

Across South Park, the Gran Oriente Masonic Temple might be dedicated to the Supreme Architect of the Universe, but barely a mile away, another landmark from a bygone era is dedicated to the subjugation of the Philippines. The Dewey Monument in the center of Union Square depicts a goddess of victory atop a marble column. She holds a wreath and trident, to commemorate the American naval triumph at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War. The inscription on the monument’s base is unabashedly bellicose. A telegram from Washington to Commodore Dewey, it reads in part, “Proceed at once to the Philippine Islands and capture or destroy the Spanish fleet.” Such nakedly imperialism would be roundly condemned in San Francisco political discourse today. But 120 years after that inglorious moment in American history, the Filipino community in San Francisco is working hard to take charge of its own future.

 

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