Justin Herman, Executive Director of the SF Redevelopment Agency, said this in 1977 to give credibility to the “urban renewal” project in SF that sought to buy up buildings and evict people who were poor, old, black and brown.  In the Fillmore, it was known as the “negro removal” plan and in downtown San Francisco, the International Hotel, of Manila Town, became the center of the movement against ideologies like those of Justin Herman.  The longest eviction battle to date, on the books, for the city, was one result of this movement. The commitment to low-income housing and the fire for social justice in the Asian community was another.  The story of the I-hotel is one of great significance as we enter a more modern era of gentrification in the city.

Even our honorable Mayor Edwin Lee was involved with the fight to save the I-Hotel-anyone who was any kind of an activist was.  It was an obscene and rash approach to try to evict dozens of elderly asian men and women who had called that place their home for so many decades.  Students from SFSU and UC Berkeley protested regularly on behalf of the tenants.  Jim Jones of the People’s Temple brought over 300 of his followers to help build a human blockade against the police on one occasion.  Human fences 7 to 8 people deep were formed every time the Sheriff’s office posted a notice for eviction.

The I-hotel was originally built in 1907 after the great earthquake.  It was part of a neighborhood near Chinatown housing mostly Filipino but also other Asian merchant mariner workers.  For many decades, Asians were prohibited from many normal activities due to their racial difference.  They were not allowed to intermarry with white people or even work at certain jobs.  Asian women were prevented from immigrating before 1965 to discourage breeding in the population. It was quite fine for the Asians to have a place to live together where they weren’t in the way of others.  But, when development took off, as it is always wont to do, the once deemed ghettos of Chinatown, Manila Town and The Fillmore, became hot real estate commodities.  Buildings were sold off and mass evictions were approved in order to tear down existing structures and put high rises and high income property in their place.

From 1968 to 1977, tenants, activists, regular people, politicians, cult leaders, students, teachers and many many others battled Milton Meyer and Company led by business mogul Walter Shorenstein who bought the building in ’68 and immediately began evictions in order to demolish the site and erect a parking structure in its place.  On several occasions eviction notices were posted and the immediate response was massive protest by the activist community.  This type of stand-off garnered a few stays of eviction and solidified a strong commitment to social justice among the Asian American community that still thrives today.  Shorenstein eventually sold the building in a clandestine fashion and the new owner, Four Seas Investment Company, carried on the fight to evict the I-hotel.  Sheriff Richard Hongisto was charged with carrying out the order each time an eviction was imminent.  On one occasion, he refused to and was sent to jail for 5 days.  His noble efforts were usurped by his eventual submission to evict the tenants and the horrendous way in which he eventually did it.  The eviction, caught on film by Curtis Choy, sent a brutal message to the nation about San Francisco and how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.  Choy eventually made a feature film about the struggle: The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983).

http://youtu.be/lzrWwvI8JpI

The link leads to the trailer for Curtis Choy’s film on the I-Hotel.  He describes the film as an act of witnessing.  Witness for yourself what the look and feel of the people and times were in Manila Town around the I-Hotel.

As the fight continues today to remove peoples of color and those who are economically disadvantaged from our fair city, remember the struggle of the I-Hotel.  Remember the thousands of folks who were activated into the political sphere to help those who could not help themselves.  Remember that no matter what your politics-moderate or progressive or other-it is never a sound idea to make violent and rash actions against those who are only trying to pursue a decent life, a decent amount of liberty and some happiness to go along with it.  And the next time you think the “ghetto” is a bad place to live, remember that some of the strongest community families  and bonds come from places like that.  You would never find thousands of people from across the land linking arms and fighting cops to protect a high-rise or a parking structure.  You would also never find the kind of culture, heritage and community in places like those, as you would in a place like the I-Hotel.  Let’s continue to make room for everyone making a contribution to this city big or small.

And next time you traverse Justin Herman Plaza, remember the kind guy he really was.