Review: San Francisco’s International Hotel

This review appears in make/shift no. 4, fall/winter 2008/2009)

San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement, by Estella Habal. Temple University Press, 2007, Philadelphia.

by Max Elbaum

It’s a drama about housing rights vs. private property rights. It’s a chronicle of an urban Filipino community’s struggle to survive vs. gentrification and dispersal. It’s the history of an anti-eviction movement led by elderly Filipino tenants that became central to all San Francisco politics in the mid-1970s, bringing thousands into the streets and opening up big policy divisions within the city’s power elite.

It’s a window into the formation of today’s Filipino American identity. It’s a recounting of a pivotal experience in the development of the Asian American left. It’s a first-person account of the agony of eviction night on August 3-4, 1977. And with the 2005 opening of the new International Hotel on the same spot, it’s a story of redemption and the “healing of an old wound.”

It is, in the words author Estella Habal uses to describe the International Hotel itself, “an active recovery of the past.”

On top of all that, it is a penetrating analysis of political, economic and social dynamics.

Author Estella Habal experienced the I-Hotel struggle from the inside. She was a member of the I-Hotel work team of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), the main left-wing organization in the Filipino community and the I-Hotel struggle. Habal’s father was a Filipino U.S. Army veteran who escaped the Bataan Death March and her mother was a messenger for the guerrillas who resisted Japanese occupation. Habal grew up on Army bases and was a new activist and single mother in her 20s during the I-Hotel campaign. She’s now a distinguished scholar and Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at San Jose State University.

“Participant histories” are not easy to write. Often they drift into personal memoirs which, while immensely valuable for taking readers inside a given experience, have difficulty illuminating the “big picture” with the analytic distance required. But when such histories are done well, the author’s intimacy with events adds a unique level of depth and texture to the historical narrative.

Habal’s work is participant history at its best. Only someone writing from an insider’s vantage point could so vividly capture the psychological and political impact on all sides when young Filipinos encountered and then struggled together with Filipino elders (respected manongs) who had labored for decades in fields and canneries, many of them veterans of the labor and anti-racist battles of the 1930s and ’40s. Only someone immersed in the culture of the Hotel tenants and their supporters could take us inside the complex gender, race and generational dynamics that came with this fight.

Yet big picture analysis is never lost. This volume dissects the forces that clashed over “prime real estate” on the edge of downtown San Francisco. It describes the different waves of Filipino immigration and paints a vivid portrait of the evolution of the community, putting the differing outlooks of successive generations in historical context. The book grapples in depth with the complexities of developing an effective anti-eviction strategy within a system where private property has more legal standing than human rights. And rather than take the easy road of avoiding discussion of weaknesses and divisions within the anti-eviction movement, Habal explores debates and conflicts among the tenants and within the left with a tremendously deft balance of solidarity, frank evaluation, and self-criticism.

The quality of this book whets the reader’s appetite for more. The volume would be even more valuable had it included a fuller history of the left within the Filipino community and of the KDP in particular. And though other housing struggles of the time are alluded to, a more comprehensive treatment of them would have underscored both the importance of land-use issues to 1970s San Francisco politics and the pivotal role the I-Hotel fight played in bringing those to the fore.

Yet what is included in San Francisco’s International Hotel is of more than historical interest. With gentrification and displacement of communities of color still a front-burner issue in San Francisco and across the country, there is much to be learned from this book for present and future battles.

Max Elbaum, active in antiwar and anti-racist movements since the 1960s, was also a participant in the International Hotel anti-eviction movement. He is the author of Revolution in the Air (Verso, 2002; paperback 2006).