The I-Hotel interviews

Pub date July 29, 1987

Many lives ago, I remember standing in the back hallway of the International Hotel trying to fathom why it was that this funny, run-down place with these very sad, old, alone men had become the focal point of an enormous array of the concerted power of the state, city and business interests from across the world. And it was not easy then, and it is not easy now, because we were looking at the problem of progress, in some strange sense, and the sadness of one generation, the evils of one generation, seeking redress in another generation. Most of the residents of the I-Hotel were Filipino men who had come to work in the fields of the Central Valley, and had been refused the opportunity to bring over wives or sweethearts, had stayed perhaps too long and had lost their families, lost their wives, lost their sweethearts, lost anything except their companionship with each other, and their attachment to this funny place that they called home, that was not much of a home, but it was all that they had. And so the landowners that owned that prime piece of real estate in downtown San Francisco were being chided for taking away a precious place, which they looked upon as a rundown flophouse, from people who had been cheated of their lives by other landowners, hundreds of miles away. And if there’s any lessons to be learned, it’s the lesson that we are all connected, each to the other, and that everything we do has consequences, not only for ourselves and our immediate family and friends, the people who live in our immediate neighborhood or our city or our state, but across the world, across the century.

Richard Hongisto
Member, San Francisco Board of Supervisor; former San Francisco sheriff

I think that a larger population of voters in San Francisco have begun to see — in part from the I-Hotel — that we can’t continue to Manhattanize the city without destroying our quality of life. And I think that is in part responsible for the passing of Proposition M and other efforts to control density in our city.

We just have to keep pursuing the legislative remedies to prevent the destruction of existing housing stock and replacing it with higher-density construction, and to prevent the conversion of existing low-cost housing into high-profit commercial space and so on. We’ve done some of that already, but I think we can continue to do more. One of the things we need to do is get the right person in the mayor’s office, to get the right Planning Commission in there, which is one reason I’m supporting Art Agnos, because he’s the only person in the race who supported Proposition M.

I wouldn’t let my photograph be taken knocking down a door [if I had to do it over again], because the photograph was completely misunderstood. I was knocking the door panels out of the doors, so the minimum amount of damage was done to the doors, because we were hoping we could get the tenants back in. When we started to do the eviction, the deputies from my department started to smash in the whole door and the door frame, and ruin it. And what I did was I took the sledgehammer and said no, do it like this — just knock out one door panel, and that way if the tenants can get back in, they can take one little piece of plywood and screw or nail it in over the missing door panel. So I showed them how to do it and I got photographed in the act. The photograph has been attributed that I was running around smashing down the doors in hot pursuit of the tenants, when in fact the opposite was the truth.

I think that as a result of the fact that I refused to do the eviction immediately, and then getting sent to jail and sued — I had to spend about $40,000 in 1978 out of my own pocket to defend the suit — I think we made a real effort to forestall the eviction and give the city a chance to take it over by eminent domain and save the building for the tenants. It did not work out in the end, but I’m glad that we gave it the best shot.

Brad Paul
Executive director, North of Markert Planning Association

Well, let me just start by saying that I was there the night that it happened. It was pretty horrifying to watch people, basically, that I was paying — because I’m a taxpayer and they were police officers, paid by the city — to beat people up around me, and I saw people right in front of me have their skulls split open at taxpayers’ expense, so that this crazy person from Thailand, Supasit Mahaguna, could throw all these people out of their homes.

In retrospect, we’ve learned about the important role that nonprofit corporations can play in owning houses and there was a thing called a buy-back plan, which people thought was a scam. Today, you would think of something like a buy-back plan as just a normal way of buying residential property protection. I can’t think of any residential development ten years ago owned or operated by a nonprofit corporation. Today there are lots.

The eviction — I think people paid a very dear price for that. A number of those people are dead now, and I’m sure that the threat of that eviction didn’t help. A more recent case is 1000 Montgomery. The eviction of those people, I think, led to the death of one of the older tenants there. I think that’s one of the sad losses of things like the I-Hotel and 1000 Montgomery and all of them. I don’t think government officials pay enough attention to that when they make decisions on whether or not to let somebody do these things.

But for myself, I’d have to say that there were a number of things that I was involved in ten and 12 years ago that made me decide to do the kind of work I’m doing now. And I’d say one of the single things that had the biggest effect on me was being there that night and watching that, and saying we shouldn’t allow this to happen — that we need to all see that it never comes to this again.

Quentin Kopp
State senator, third district; former member, San Francisco Board of Supervisors

To me it was an unusual episode, and I’m not sure that it was a lesson of any kind. I don’t think it’s been repeated, has it? You know, I’m a believer in property rights, so it’s a difficult issue. On the other hand, I became convinced that there was genuine justification for maintaining the hotel for those who lived there and had an attachment to it. It was a collision of property rights versus feeling sorry for people who would lose their lodgings, lodgings to which they had become accustomed and attached. If I were the property owner, I would be indignant about the way the city treated me …

the tactics that were used, and the litigation — the litigation was horrendous.

Now, the broader social issue I would characterize as preservation, obviously, of low-income housing for a minority group, the Filipinos. [But] if the city had such a robust concern, sincere concern, then the proper act for the city was to condemn the property — to take it and preserve it …

for the people who lived there. But the city was not forthright, the city did not set out to do that — the city tried to strangulate the owner into doing that, by reason of, it’s what I consider a bit cutesy a legislative move — a political move.

So what have we learned? Well, I don’t think that anything has been learned, and not simply because this is sui generis (which is the Latin term for one of a kind that lawyers often employ), but because the city doesn’t have a consistent policy for preserving this kind of living space.

Richard Cerbatos
Former member, San Francisco School Board, San Francisco Board of Permit Appeals

Speaking as a Filipino American, I saw an attempt to destroy a cultural link within the Filipino-American community. It was clear there was an established community living there. The use of the hotel in that general community formed a network and a lifestyle that was identifiable for older Filipino men. The access to the cheaper restaurants in Chinatown, the ability to hang out and speak their language in pool halls — this was all proposed to be destroyed in one big demolition permit. They were in a community where some of their cultural values were intact, and the only thing that kept them intact was the fact that they were close to one another.

I think those sensitivities now are clearer to the general community. I still think there are areas of Chinatown where they’re still going to have to fight this battle….

We’re seeing this: That we can’t allow people to be displaced purely in the name of bigger and better developments, and namely, bigger and better profits. With Prop. M, we’re seeing some attempts at this, and I think the first evolution of this was the I-Hotel.

As far as my sensitivites go, my thing is, through just having lived through it, this was the first time that anyone took on the developers the way they did. There have been later battles, but that was the first one that became known to everyone city-wide. If we are going to put some control on growth, we can use these lessons.

Ed Illumin
Member, I-Hotel Tenants Association

The first eviction notice was posted in December of 1968, so we’re talking about an almost 19-year battle, here. Actually, a 19-year war, because there were little battles in between. But it comes down to the city and various segments of the Chinatown community and the developer, Four Seas, arriving at an agreement on the development for that lot that would include some replacement housing — affordable, low-income replacement housing. I mean really affordable and priority for those apartments going to former tenants of the I-Hotel, and those elderly and disabled. A number of [tenants] have died since that time, so really we’re talking about maybe a dozen or 16 people who are still around to taste the benefits of this long, long war. Some justice, even though it’s late, has arrived and I would say that we finally won the war. It was a long struggle, 19 years, but people will get a chance, if they live long enough, to move in on the 20th year, which is 1988, when the construction should be completed.

It certainly wasn’t positive for the Filipino neighborhood. There are remnants of Manilatown, but to a large extent that neighborhood was destroyed. There was a lot going on there, and the I-Hotel was the heart of the community in that area. The positive thing about it was that it kept the Financial District from encroaching into Chinatown. The Filipinos and the Chinese have had a long history of living together, co-existing, and I think it was pretty much a sacrifice of the Filipino community there to make sure that Chinatown was preserved.

Chester Hartman
Fellow in urban planning, Institute for Policy Studies; lawyer for I-Hotel Tenants Association

In a sense, I think the International Hotel, the tremendous interest and support that the eviction attempt generated over so many years, was a kind of a coalescing and symbolizing of resistance to changes in San Francisco — changes being obviously the downtown corporate world taking over the neighborhoods. I think the fact that so many people came to the aid of the hotel residents, even though they weren’t successful in preventing the eviction, was pretty much a strong building block in developing what has become an extremely strong housing movement in San Francisco, one that really has become very effective in influencing candidates and people in public office, and in getting some laws passed.

So that’s one important lesson — that sometimes victories take a while, and take different forms, but all these struggles are connected. Another, I guess, is really how long it takes to get any results — the absurdity of having a totally vacant lot there for ten years, at a time when people need housing so badly. The fact that a private developer like Four Seas is able in essence to hold on and do nothing with its land when there’s so much need for housing in the Chinatown-Manilatown area says a great deal about … the relationship of city government to private developers.

Curtis Choy
Producer, “The Fall of the I-Hotel”

About the eviction night itself — and I just have a dim recollection now — I remember being very numb, and the fact that I was hiding behind a camera made it easier, because I had something between me and the event. I think I’ve spent a lot of time getting it behind me and if I haven’t seen my own film for, say, half a year it scares the hell out of me to look at the eviction again. I feel hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

What can I say about lessons? It was almost, I shouldn’t say, it was almost worth that eviction, but I mean, that’s the only thing you can get out of something like that — I mean, basically, they killed half those guys by throwing them out.

The potential for revolution in the country was still in the back of our minds in the early ’70s. And here we were trying to use the system, trying to play ball with the system, and it sort of set us up for yuppiedom. It was sort of our last hope to get something together, and we had invested 12 years or so in the struggle. There was kind of a little mass depression that stuck, and that same kind of high energy has never come back.

Sue Hestor
Attorney, San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth

In retrospect, one of the issues that we should have raised and litigated was the lack of an adequate environmental review of the project. We’ve learned a lot since then, and I don’t want to say that people that were involved at that point made a wrong decision, but in 1987 that would be one of the first issues that would be raised.

Secondarily, I think what we learned is how the physical destruction of a building makes it very hard to keep the issue alive — after a while, the hole in the ground becomes something that has to be filled, and the focus of attention drifts away. It’s really striking how when you lose the building, it’s more than just a symbol — it’s the motivating factor in people’s lives.

Allison Brennan
Organizer, San Francisco Tenants Union

They [the city] could’ve taken the building by eminent domain and they didn’t do that — they didn’t want to do that. I mean, the issue is not so much what they could do to prevent it, but why they didn’t prevent it in the first place. And that is basically because San Francisco has very little interest in preserving low-income housing. Its interest, and the interest of most of the people from San Francisco, are in getting rid of low-income housing, “cleaning up” poor neighborhoods, and turning them into nice middle-class neighborhoods, and that’s the stated goal of most city legislation — poor people aren’t what we want.

I think that probably the most important thing that came out of [the I-Hotel struggle] was that, while we don’t have a real good situation for tenants in San Francisco, I think consciousness was raised, among at least a lot of tenants about the situation which tenants are in. And I think that to a certain extent, on a national level, the elderly are getting somewhat better consideration than they did previously.

Gordon Chin
Director, Chinatown Neighborhood Improvement Resource Center

I guess the lessons of the I-Hotel have to go back to 15 and 20 years, to the genesis of the issue. I personally think the I-Hotel symbolized a lot of very key development issues — housing issues, tenant empowerment issues — that gained a national reputation back starting in the 1960s. In some respects, it highlighted many of the particular facets of the housing problem very early on: the need to maintain and preserve existing housing; the threat of commercial and downtown developments; the encroachment into the neighborhoods; the issue of foreign investment and the role that can play in development encroachment; the critical importance of tenant organizing and tenant organization with a support base in the larger community; the need for diverse ethnic, racial, sexual, lifestyle communities to work together on an issue of mutual concern — in this case, Chinese, Filipino, white, all different kinds of people supporting the I-Hotel tenants and getting involved in the issues as they evolved over the last 15 years.The I-Hotel experience has had a positive effect on these issues in San Francisco, and probably across the country. ….

It was a very critical time for the city, and this is going back to the early ’60s, with the previous United Filipino Association, the International Tenants’ Association, the whole bit. You had a lot of environmental movement activity….

I think that’s the I-Hotel’s importance, not just what happened back then. It was the whole evolution of the issue, even after the demolition, when the focus then became — well, we’ve lost the building, but the fight must continue in terms of making sure whatever is built on the site becomes new, affordable housing — not just housing but affordable housing. And it’s culminated in the most recent development plan for the project, which has gained pretty wide-spread support. I guess part of the whole recollection, reflecting back on the ’60s in general, [is that] the I-Hotel was very symbolic of the whole movement — Vietnam, everything.*

Interviews for this story were conducted by: Nicholas Anderson, Heather Bloch, Eileen Ecklund, Mark Hedin, Craig McLaughlin, Tim Redmond and Erica Spaberg.