A home, a community
Built in 1907, the I-Hotel was a low-cost residential hotel located at the corner of Kearny and Jackson Streets in the Manilatown section of San Francisco. It was not only a home to many Asian Americans, but a community, specifically to the Filipino American population. But San Francisco’s growing financial district has made the land a prime piece of real estate.
The I-Hotel was a place to thousands of seasonal Asian laborers in the 1920s and 1930s — many who were young Filipino and Chinese men who worked as laborers, dishwashers, messengers and other jobs that were referred to as “appropriate for Orientals.” There were also the “old-timers,” those who settled in San Francisco after years of working in seasonal harvests, on merchant ships and canneries in Alaska and Washington.
For the most part also, Asian women were excluded from entering the US until 1965, preventing most men in Chinatown and Manilatown from having their own families. According to Roots of Justice: Stories of Organizing in Communities of Color by Larry R. Solomon, California’s antimiscegenation laws prevented Filipinos and other Asians from marrying outside their race, and the white elite pushed “race preservation” by bringing the issue before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.
Still, life persisted, and the neighborhood grew to a community filled with camaraderie.
Lost, but not beaten
After WWII, plans were made to expand the downtown business center in San Francisco. Low-cost housing, restaurants, barber shops, markets, clubs and other businesses that benefited the Filipino community were destroyed. One of the hotels slated for demolition was the I-Hotel. In March 1968, business magnate Walter Shorenstein bought the I-Hotel and made plans to construct a multilevel parking lot on the site. Securing a demolition permit, he ordered the evictions of the 196 tenants.
But the word was put out – the battle cry was to “Fight to Save the I-Hotel.” Students, community leaders and activists were up for the fight, a long one. The final residents were evicted on August 4, 1977. In 1978, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein created an International Hotel Citizens Advisory Committee, which was unable to break the deadlock between low-cost housing advocates and the property owner. The building stood empty while the fate of the site continued to be debated, but was finally demolished in 1981.
The site was acquired by St. Mary’s in 1994, but the air rights was later sold to Chinatown Community Development Center which planned to build a replacement low-cost residential project. Construction began on the new I-Hotel in 2003, and the building was completed on August 26, 2005. The new building contains 105 apartments of senior housing. A lottery was held to determine priority for occupancy, with 2 residents of the original I-Hotel given priority. Occupancy started in October 2005. The Manilatown Heritage Foundation now sits in the area, with a historical display commemorating the original I-Hotel.
(Editor’s note: Last August 4, 2008 was the commemoration of the final eviction of the tenants of I-Hotel. Various activities are scheduled including a film showing of Manilatown is in the Heart, a time travel documentary, on August 9. For more information, log on to http://www.manilatown.org)