Filipino Americans Make a New Name for Their San Francisco Neighborhood

A mural at the Bayanihan Community Center in San Francisco. Art by Cece Carpio Cece Carpio, commissioned by KulArts.
San Francisco’s South of Market area is known for swank tech-company offices, gleaming luxury apartments, a baseball park with breathtaking views of the bay. Few know that it was also home to one of the country’s earliest Filipino communities.

Today, San Francisco’s South of Market area is known for swank tech-company offices, gleaming luxury apartments, a baseball park with breathtaking views of the bay, and some of the city’s best bars, restaurants, and galleries. Few know that it was also home to one of the country’s earliest Filipino communities.

Some 5,100 Filipinos still live in SoMa today, according to the 2010 Census. But amid concerns about the encroachment of rapid development, community advocates hope a new resolution approved by the city earlier this year will help preserve what’s left of the Filipino culture and history in the neighborhood.

Now they are readying plans to be presented to key commissions and the Board of Supervisors this month, which happens to be Filipino American History Month, as a step towards finalizing the project.

The seven-story Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu mural. Photo courtesy of MC Canlas.

When Filipinos began arriving in San Francisco in the first decades of the 20th century, they congregated in places like “Manilatown,” a bachelor community around Kearny and Jackson streets—adjacent to San Francisco’s Chinatown—and also in the South of Market area. Both were near jobs in downtown restaurants, hotels, and department stores. But by the 1950s, the city’s urban renewal and redevelopment of the Financial District had pushed out those on Kearny Street. Many moved to South of Market, where cheap rent and unskilled work was easy to find.

The neighborhood’s population surged after the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened the nation’s doors to many Asian immigrants. Newly arrived Filipinos would land in SoMa and save up before eventually moving further afield, establishing the Filipino bastions of today in Daly City, Vallejo, and Union City. But many also stayed in the area.

Perhaps you didn’t know there was a Manilatown on Kearny Street. MC Canlas, a historian who gives walking tours highlighting the area’s Filipino American history through its notable buildings and monuments, understands. “It’s hard to remember Manilatown,” he says. “But in South of Market, we’re still alive, we’re still here, we’re still thriving. This is the generation that can tell the story.”

In April, the city’s Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee recognized the need to preserve the living landmark that is the Filipino community in the South of Market neighborhood and established the SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District. Today, an estimated 1,500 Filipinos live within its boundaries, which span Second to 11th streets from Market to Brannan Street.

The move to rebrand the area is just the latest in a long history of Filipino American activism to preserve their community spaces in San Francisco, especially those within SoMa. Racism and disenfranchisement are things the community has fought against since the signs “positively no Filipinos allowed” were posted in businesses throughout California in the 1920s and 1930s.

Many consider the fall of the I-Hotel in 1977 (when the living quarters of a group of low-income, elderly Filipinos—and the last vestiges of Manilatown—were torn down by developers) to be the crucible of Filipino American activism. But recent years have also seen impassioned campaigns to preserve significant Filipino landmarks, including Bindlestiff Studio, the only permanent, community-based Filipino performance art space in the country, which lost its theater space in 2003 to the SF Redevelopment Agency. Following a public outcry, it was rebuilt in 2011 with the help of that agency.

The name SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District may not roll off the tongue, but nomenclature matters. The neighborhood is still active, so it isn’t “historic,” nor does it have the century-old landmarks that grace other preserved districts. It also lacks the commercial corridors that typically mark a Chinatown or Japantown.

The Parol Lantern Festival in SoMa. Photo courtesy of MC Canlas.
The Parol Lantern Festival in SoMa. Photo courtesy of MC Canlas.

“Cultural heritage district” was the term of art proponents landed on, and they envision SoMa Pilipinas through the framework of the social nucleus of any Philippine town: the plaza. The phrase reflects the neighborhood’s role as a sort of community plaza writ large, where people are brought together through nonprofits (like the Bayanihan Community Center), service agencies (like West Bay), schools (Bessie Carmichael Elementary/Filipino Education Center, the only public school in California and perhaps the nation with a Filipino bilingual program), and churches (St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s). It’s also a place for arts, culture, and traditions, as evidenced by annual celebrations like the Parol Lantern and Pistahan festivals, which draw Filipinos from all over the Bay Area. “It’s a center of gravity,” said Canlas.

There’s also Victoria Manalo Draves Park, the first park named after a Filipino American Olympic champion; the seven-story Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu mural; and several streets named for important figures in Filipino history including Andrés Bonifacio, Lapu Lapu, Apolinario Mabini, José Rizal, and Tandang Sora.

Canlas hopes that the neighborhood’s new designation will bring about tangible changes including visual markers throughout the area alluding to the Filipino community—for example, permanent lanterns highlighting the path of the Parol Lantern festival are suggested in a draft of the plan. He also envisions SoMa Pilipinas as a tourist attraction.

It’s a dream that’s already been about a decade in the making, in part because no one had tried it before. Los Angeles designated its Historic Filipinotown in 2002 (so far the only such designated in the nation), but this was the first to recognize a vibrant, living cultural landmark and take steps to make sure it endures into the future. “This was uncharted territory, embarking on a cultural heritage district,” said April Veneracion Ang, an aide to Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents District 6 (which includes SoMa) and who wrote the resolution to establish the district. “We’re basically creating this from scratch.” Prior to working for Kim, Ang was the Executive Director of the South of Market Community Action Network and was on a planning taskforce with Canlas, where the idea was born.

Although significant communities exist in states like California, Hawaii, New York, and Nevada, Filipinos in America are sometimes referred to as “forgotten” or “invisible,” in part because there are few easily recognizable Filipino neighborhoods in the vein of Chinatowns, Koreatowns or Little Tokyos. Historians have pointed to reasons that include the “sojourner” mentality held by Filipino immigrants, that they would be in the United States only temporarily, and the transient jobs of early Filipino immigrants, as merchant marines, migrant farm laborers, and seasonal cannery and fishery workers. Others say that the high levels of education and professional experience of later Filipino immigrants coupled with a strong grasp of English diminished the need for ethnic enclaves. “Little Manila”-style neighborhoods did manage to spring up, however, in Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C., in addition to Los Angeles and San Francisco; at one point, the nation’s largest was Stockton’s Little Manila.

Now the task is not only to make visible the existing Filipino community in SoMa but also to safeguard it from the area’s rapid development and help it thrive into the future. Supervisor Jane Kim says that the roadmap in the year ahead is to use land use tools, such as zoning, and economic development strategies to “ensure that there is a halt to the displacement of community-serving organizations, businesses, as well as families and residents and artists from the neighborhood,” and that there is “an investment by the City in preserving and growing the Filipino and Filipino American community in the SoMa Pilipinas district.”

The strategic plan document is currently being prepared and will be presented to the historic preservation commission on October 19, to the planning commission on October 27, and then the Board of Supervisors on October 31.

The timing is fortuitous, as issues of community preservation and visibility aren’t merely theoretical. For the past few months, community members have organized efforts to save the Gran Oriente, a nearly 100-year old single room occupancy building within the SoMa Pilipinas borders that has served as a Filipino social center and is on the verge of being sold to a private developer.

“The creation of SoMa Pilipinas should provide significant notice to any entity that wants in the future to become a neighbor and stakeholder in this district, that they must respect the existing community and be a part of acknowledging and honoring its importance to the City,” Kim said.

“Our community is at the mercy of developers,” Canlas said, pointing also to the controversial 5M Project planned for Fifth and Mission streets, which divided the Filipino community on whether the high-rise offices and residences would lead to a cleaner, safer neighborhood with affordable housing or would price out longtime Filipino residents and dilute the multicultural, working-class character of the neighborhood. “Why not claim it as a cultural heritage district, so developers need to talk to and work with us? Otherwise, you’re just a resident or tenant and they can displace you. We need to fight for our existence.”

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Lisa Wong Macabasco is a writer, editor, and second-generation San Franciscan. She was the editor in chief of Hyphen Magazine and has written for Slate,, Mother Jones, and many ethnic media publications.

Editor’s Note:

This story kicks off CAAM’s celebration of Filipino American History Month, where we will be sharing interviews, photos and StoryCorps recordings from Filipino Americans in San Francisco.

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