Thursday, December 20, 2007

International Hotel Eviction Struggle 1968-1977

On October 28, 1968, the first eviction notice was served on 150 elderly Filipino and Chinese tenants of the International Hotel in the Manilatown district of San Francisco. This marked the beginning of a nine-year long anti-eviction campaign against financial district redevelopment interests. Widespread student and community grass-roots support imprinted this event as a milestone in Asian American civil rights history. The campaign culminated in the deployment of over three hundred riot police, mounted patrols, anti-sniper units and fire ladders in a 3AM eviction raid. A three thousand person human barricade was brutally cleared away by authorities before tenants were physically removed from the premises.

The International Hotel was located on the final block in a once thriving Filipino American enclave. Originally consisting of over ten square blocks and located near the edge of San Francisco Chinatown, Manilatown was considered home to many Filipino farmworkers, merchant marines and service workers. During the 1960s, financial district encroachment had slated much of the residential Manilatown community for "higher use" development.

The original intent of International Hotel owner Walter Shorenstein, President of Milton Meyer Co., was to demolish the building in order to build a multi-leveled parking lot on the site. In protest, tenants, represented by the United Filipino Association (UFA), marched to Milton Meyer Co. offices and were successful in obtaining a lease agreement to be signed on March 16, 1969. However, in the early morning hours of March 16, a suspicious arson fire swept through the north wing of the second floor of the International Hotel. Three tenants, Pio Rosete, Marcario Salermo and Robert Knauff, were killed in the fire. Milton Meyer & Co. canceled the lease agreement and used the fire as justification for the demolition of an unsafe building.

Mounting opposition forced Shorenstein to sign a three-year lease scheduled to end June 30, 1972. In the meantime, the building went through extensive renovation project at the hands of hundreds of student and community volunteers. Abandoned street-level store fronts were replaced with community centers. Burnt-out hotel rooms were rebuilt, plastered and painted.

International Hotel storefronts such as the Asian Community Center, Chinese Progressive Association and Kearny Street Workshop became conduits for political, social and cultural transformation of the S.F. Chinatown-Manilatown area. Community center participants included student activists from the Third World Liberation Front strikes of San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley. Veteran Chinese American labor activists of the 1930s and individuals involved in the campaign to normalize relations between the US and People's Republic of China also saw the International Hotel block as an alternative to the more conservative Chinese Six Companies establishment.

By March 1974, Shorenstein transferred property ownership to a Chinese-Thai liquor baron, Supasit Mahaguna, who held title to the property under the name Four Seas Investment Corporation. The property transfer had the effect of changing the target of the struggle from local big capital to foreign Asian capital. Negotiations with Mahaguna for lease extensions proved fruitless and eventually, Sheriff Richard Hongisto was mandated by California Supreme Court decision to carry out the eviction in 1977.

In this nine year period, the key factor for the series of eviction postponements, numerous court stays and intervention by local politicians, was public support. The participation of volunteers and the organization of the tenants had built a new level of community solidarity and public opposition to the eviction. A newly formed tenant organization, International Hotel Tenants Association (IHTA) was formed as a democratically elected representative organization for the tenants. Its daily functions involved caring for the general welfare needs of the mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese residents.

Following the tumultuous forced eviction, tenants and community members continued to lobby for low-income housing on the International Hotel site. With public support, they were able to forestall Four Seas' development plans for twenty years. Ground-breaking was originally scheduled in 1998 to build a parochial school on the ground floors with 104 units of low-income housing on the upper floors. Bureaucratic delays will postpone construction into the next millenium. Due to community input and pressure, a Manilatown Heritage Museum and cultural center has been incorporated into the construction plans. The museum will be a testimonial to the dedication and memory of the International Hotel tenants.

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