Desi Danganan on Reviving SoMa’s Filipino Neighborhood

Through Kapwa Gardens and Balay Kreative the community advocate and serial entrepreneur seeks to find a home for a twice-displaced community.

When Kapwa Gardens opened on a city-owned lot at 976 Mission St. in April, it attracted the standard trappings of city-beautification pageantry to Central SoMa. Mayor London Breed, Supervisor Matt Haney, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and other muckety-mucks showed up to congratulate the team of volunteers that had transformed a derelict address into a lively, turquoise-and-purple event space honoring SoMa’s Filipino American community. With murals, movable plants and furnishings, a stage, plaques from supporters, and a repainted school bus dividing it in two, it’s a flexible outdoor venue that could as easily be home to a food truck hub, a small music festival, or a socially distant yoga studio.

Kapwa Gardens comes five years after the formation of SOMA Pilipinas, an officially designated cultural district whose fortunes have risen and fallen more dramatically than many of its peers. The Castro has long been ailing and Japantown faces near-extinction, but SOMA Pilipinas’ initial successes in anchoring a Filipino-centered commercial corridor on Mission Street were all but reversed after COVID intensified an already-severe “retail-pocalypse” crisis. The closure of restaurants such Mestiza or Nick’s on Mission or new streetwear concept called Living Room compounded the challenges of a Downtown-adjacent neighborhood facing significant quality-of-life struggles. When Arkipelago Books — arguably more of an all-purpose purveyor Filipino culture — became online-only, it symbolized the decline of the street life in a neighborhood that had bet its future on becoming an attractive place for young Filipinos to gather and play.

“Mission Street’s really strategic,” says Filipino community activist and SoMa resident Desi Danganan, who led the effort to get Kapwa Gardens off the ground. “We have an initiative to build a Filpiino cultural center here called Balay Kreative. It’s going to be a $10 million endeavor, and the best way to get a cultural center off the ground is to utilize city property. They own the parking lot. Thinking long-term, we’ve put in a bid with two other developers to [create] senior housing above, and Balay Creative on the bottom.”

As an everyday space, Kapwa Gardens is an offshoot of the long-running Undiscovered SF series of night markets and holiday pop-ups, which is a project of nonprofit incubator Kultivate Labs — the mothership that is, in turn, Danganan’s own creation. He sits on the board of SOMA Pilipinas, and he’s got numerous other projects, from Balay Kreative to the direct-relief program Filipinos Feed the Frontlines. 

They’re united under a single goal: arrest displacement by stabilizing the existing residents while offering enough cultural amenities so as to lure young Filipinos to Central SoMa. It’s all happening under the shadow of 5M, the large-scale residential-and-commercial project that polarized SoMa’s Filipino community, in part because it violated an unspoken agreement that Downtown lay on one side of Fifth Street, and the Filipino community was on the other. 

Most battles over the soul of a neighborhood or a community fall along strict, us-versus-them lines, but Danganan complicates that picture. His organizations have strong relationships with City Hall, but he knows that the worst thing you can do is simply charge ahead without strong involvement from residents. Another would-be community center did just that, and now it’s essentially moribund. SoMa residents painted the murals, and effectively built the stage (with guidance from Bindlestiff Studio, the Filipino performing arts organization).

Cribbed from the famous tagline to Field of Dreams, the idea is like Undiscovered SF in microcosm: Erect a central stage to attract visitors with programming, then let vendors and other community members market to them, giving the “mavericks and Left Coast thinkers” self-reinforcing reasons to come from Oakland or Daly City.

Funding for Undiscovered itself, whose events will probably happen three or four times per year, is up-in-the-air at present. That’s why, per Danganan, the key to SoMa’s revival is to integrate it into other good-government elements like Sunday Streets, or to events in nearby Victoria Manolo Draves Park. That patch of green space a few blocks away became controversial a few years back when neighborhood activists successfully thwarted a development across the street that would have cast a shadow on it for a few hours a day, a few months a year. If that sounds like typical NIMBY overkill, keep in mind how park-starved Central SoMa really is.

Danganan is adamant that Kultivate, SOMA Pilipinas, and all the other organizations and players are not interested in a sharecropper model of leasing and renting ad infinitum. To the greatest extent possible, they must own their own businesses and the land beneath. He also freely admits that making Central SoMa a haven for creatives risks igniting the very processes that lead to gentrification again and again. 

“For the long-term viability of the Filipino cultural center, it has to be owned by the community,” he says. 

That Undiscovered has sat down with 5M to negotiate deals on favorable terms may not win Danganan points among anti-development absolutists, but it’s enabled him to provide artists and makers spaces to work and to show their work. Further, he adds, “we’re fortunate to have a progressive city government that gives us resources that other cities can’t. We get money out to artists to do work here.”

A lot of that money flows through Republika, a still-raw workspace one block east of Kapwa Gardens that used to be an art gallery way back when. It has a small, sidewalk-facing area where DJs can stream on Twitch and chefs can do demos, but otherwise it’s largely meant to be an engine for all Danganan’s other projects.

“Our objective is to recruit from within the SoMa community, but the most important criterion is the quality of the art,” Danganan is quick to add. 

He recognizes that his position is, to some extent, a privileged one. American-raised and college-educated, he has advantages denied to many members of the older generation — people keenly aware that San Francisco’s Filipino community holds the unique distinction of being displaced not once, but twice. A sincere belief in “radical collaboration” has not always been enough to ward off suspicions, either. Danganan, who was born in the Philippines but grew up in East Los Angeles, has been called a gentrifier.

But in a community reeling from the pandemic, with 5M’s three huge buildings towering above it, success may not hinge on fighting development as working to ensure the most equitable outcomes. 5M, Danganan says, is a done deal, but for it to thrive, the neighborhood below can’t become bereft of culture. Kapwa is nothing if not evidence that that is possible.

“It’s all about how do you mitigate it, and how do you make the mitigation effective?” he says. “In San Francisco, we are at the forefront of creating these mitigation programs. Is it working? We don’t know, but at least there are these mechanisms for community benefits. Capitalism is this evil machine, but how do you make the machine work for you?”

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