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The Forgotten History of the San Francisco I-Hotel

October marks the official celebration of Filipino American History Month. Even though the Filipino and Filipino American community has played a crucial role in American history and society dating back to pre-colonial times, we do not learn about Filipino American history. In most standard American educations, students only discuss the Philippines when briefly learning about the Spanish-American War in some high-school history class. To ensure that previous generations of Filipino Americans and their efforts do not disappear over time, I want to commemorate one of the most crucial moments in American history that embodies the resilience of the Filipino-American community. Now, what happened to Manilatown? 

Manilatown: Isang Pamayanan 

Following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines remained an American colony. Then as the United States implemented the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese immigrants from entering the country, the United States needed a new source for cheap labor, so they looked to the Philippines. 

As a result, in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a surge in Filipino immigrants coming to the United States as migrant workers wanting to live the American Dream. Instead, they faced exploitation, isolation and discrimination. Although faced with racial adversity, Filipino Americans created their neighborhoods to maintain their cultural identities and sense of community. One of those communities was Manilatown in San Francisco. In present-day Chinatown and Keary Street in San Francisco, California, for ten blocks, Manilatown was a thriving and bustling Filipino-American community from the 1920s to the 1970s. 

Filipino-owned businesses, restaurants, and homes created the community, creating a sense of home for the migrant workers and permanent residents that lived throughout its buildings. Because Filipino migrant workers were considered foreign nationals and could not bring their families to the United States and due to segregation laws, they could not marry white women. As a result, a large portion of the Filipino-American community in Manilatown was aging bachelor migrant workers known as the Manong generation. 

The majority of those that belong to the Manong generation resorted to living in residential hotels, which at the time was a form of affordable low-income housing. One of the most prominent and longest-standing residential hotels was the I-Hotel

What is the I-Hotel? 

The International Hotel, more commonly referred to as the I-Hotel, was an affordable housing residential hotel that ran for almost ten years, hosting over 200 residents, many of whom were Filipino and Chinese laborers. Although the rooms were in poor condition, often cramped and crowded, these tenants called the I-Hotel home. 

At the time, in the 1960s to the 1970s, San Francisco was still heavily racially segregated, gentrification and Manhattanization of San Francisco ultimately eradicated Manilatown, and the I-Hotel was one of the last remaining structures before its ultimate demolition. However, we cannot commemorate the I-Hotel without discussing its struggle and resilience in the face of adversity from a city that wanted to erase all of its histories.  

Issues first arose when the city of San Francisco evicted many of the residents in the communities, specifically those that housed ethnic minority groups, surrounding Manilatown. For instance, approximately 12,000 African and Asian American residents were evicted from the Western Addition and Filmore districts, while about 4,000 people were evicted in the South of Market neighborhood. 

As a result, gentrification slowly destroyed Manilatown and the other residential hotels in the area, evicting its tenants and demolishing the buildings for future corporations. The I-Hotel knew that in due time, it would be their turn as well. 

The first eviction notice occurred in 1968. Upon this news, the tenants discovered that the city wanted to demolish the I-Hotel to make room for a new parking lot. As a result, protests arose from young activists and the local Filipino community. As a temporary solution, the United Filipino Association agreed to a lease agreement with the Milton Meyer Company, the company that wanted to demolish the building. 

However, in 1969 before the two parties could reach an official agreement, there was a suspicious fire in the I-Hotel that led to the death of three tenants: Pio Rosete, Marcario Salermo, and Robert Knau. In response, the Milton Meyer Company pulled away from their deal, and the I-Hotel owner was forced to sign a three-year lease agreement that would end in 1972. In the meantime, volunteer groups did their best to help renovate the hotel. By 1973, the I-Hotel owner sold the building to a Thai developer, and a four-year battle to prevent the building’s demolition progressed. 

However, on August 4, 1977, that four-year battle came to an end. Around 11 p.m. the night of August 3, tenants in the I-Hotel received a tip that the police gathered and were coming with the intent to evict people that night. Immediately, when news reached the community, over 2,000 protestors led a demonstration to protest the forceful evictions. Activists surrounded the building, forming a human barricade. Then others remained inside the building with the tenants in their units as they barricaded the doors with mattresses and furniture. 

For hours, protestors did their best to keep the authorities from entering the building, and a riot on the streets ensued. Eventually, using a firetruck ladder, the police gained access to the building. Using axes to force doors open, the police attempted to pry their way through barricades. Ultimately, to put an end to the senseless violence, the I-Hotel tenants decided to stand down and walked out of the I-Hotel one-by-one, arm-in-arm with an activist. 

The next morning, the streets cleared, and the I-Hotel remained empty, left as a shell stuck in time as tenants’ possessions sat within its walls, but no soul remained. The city of San Francisco claimed that they had accommodations for evicted tenants, but they were simply empty promises, and no such arrangements existed. As a result, tenants scattered throughout the city, and many were left homeless. After being vacant for two years, the I-Hotel was demolished, and Manilatown was simply a memory. 

Although the original I-Hotel laid in rubble, the International Hotel Citizens Advisory Committee (IHCAC) was formed as an attempt to create a new I-Hotel. For decades, IHCAC fought for the development of a new I-Hotel. Finally, their efforts came to fruition, and construction began in 2003. By August 26, 2005, the I-Hotel stood once more. Today, the I-Hotel is an affordable housing residential hotel with 104 units designed specifically for senior citizens. Although the original building no longer stands, the new I-Hotel serves as a memorial of the triumphs and tribulations of the community that fought so hard to keep their home.

Lindsey is a junior public relations major pursuing a minor in event management. She is a senior editor for Her Campus UFL.
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