Community Arts Journal

Visions and Voices of the I-Hotel

By Julianne P. Gavino, Nancy Hom and Johanna Poethig

Project Overview

How do contemporary mythologies strengthen communities? How do artists contribute to mythmaking while in dialogue with greater society and local communities? How does this kind of cultural work shape identities of individuals, groups and communities across time and beyond a particular place?

Bearing in mind the questions above, the I-Hotel Culture/Action/Tribute Group project focuses on the International Hotel's (I-Hotel) cultural legacy since the 1970s. This collaborative effort—a compendium of personal and scholarly reflections, oral interview excerpts and visual images—illuminates more than 40 decades of community-engaged creative work. The broad spectrum of cultural life and artistic production highlighted is tied into a synergistic blend of people, politics and place. Given the limitations of this publication format, the story told here is only a partial one. It is not intended to offer a comprehensive study, but rather a series of reflexive impressions that furthers the community's continuing self-exploration and engagement with the forces of its history.

Perhaps it is in the broadest scope possible that the I-Hotel can be approached as a cultural phenomena—an admixture of history, memory, activism and creativity emerging from a particular sense of spatiality that is time- and place-bound. Organizing multiple interacting and compelling layers calls for a conceptual framework. One such way to analyze this complexity and simultaneity is to apply the notion of urban palimpsest, defined as a local geography or space that is constantly being reinscribed with new cultural meanings. The examination of “memories of what there was before, [and] imagined alternatives to what there is” reveals “[t]he strong marks of present space [merging] in the imaginary with traces of the past, erasures, losses, and heterotopias.”1 Thus, the peeling back or excavation of overlapping layers exposes any number of local and global inscriptions as shaped by the daily life and significant events of people and place (e.g., community.)

Historical Background

From 1968 to 1977, the I-Hotel operated as a low-income single-room-occupancy residential hotel located on Kearny Street in downtown San Francisco. It was at front and center of a tragic eviction process and larger community demise, sparking grassroots activism for affordable senior housing and creating a distinctive platform for the nationwide Asian American Movement. In the most abstract of senses, the issues of the time cut across gender, age, race/ethnicity and class.

The I-Hotel has significantly transformed since it was first established in 1854. The original I-Hotel was a luxury destination for travelers initially located on Jackson Street until it relocated to Kearny Street in 1873. Following the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, it was rebuilt on the same site in 1907. By the 1920s, the I-Hotel became the center of a ten-block ethnic enclave known as Manilatown, the first Filipino American community in San Francisco. Catering to a local population consisting mostly of male Filipino immigrants with seasonal jobs, Manilatown generated a lively streetlife and social world. Its pool halls, dance halls, boxing centers, restaurants, barbershops and residential hotels fostered a unifying sense of place through kinship, security, a comforting sense of familiarity and cultural ties to homeland. In further context, the neighborhoods of Chinatown, North Beach, and the Financial District bordered Manilatown, each having a distinct set of characteristics and issues.

By the late 1970s, the specter of urban renewal would prove to be insurmountable. Eventually, Manilatown was destroyed. The I-Hotel, the last vestige of this once thriving community, was ultimately targeted for demolition to make way for commercial development by the Four Seas Investment Corporation. Beginning in 1968, the city served eviction notices to the residents who were, for the most part, elderly bachelors of Chinese or Filipino descent. After nearly a decade of protests led by the tenants and thousands of supporters, the brutal eviction occurred in the early morning hours of August 4, 1977. Given the community demise and its dispersal, the I-Hotel tenants suffered shattering losses on an immeasurable scale.

The I-Hotel was demolished in 1979. A bitter residue of the eviction persisted in the years to follow, curtailing development plans and leaving the lot standing empty. Significant community pressure mounted to address the historical injustice and, through continued activism, a cross-cultural coalition formed to purchase the land and rebuild the site. In 2005, 28 years after the eviction, the International Hotel Senior Housing and Manilatown Center opened its doors as a new development providing low-income apartments, social services, a community room and cultural center and an archive and education facility.

Adjoined to this discussion is yet another powerful facet of the story. The I-Hotel was also the birthplace of a progressive wave of community organizations, arts venues and a bookstore that filled its storefront spaces in the late 1960s and 1970s. During this era, new ideas of identity, culture, politics and social/economic justice circulated swiftly around the country and worldwide. On a local level, the I-Hotel experience likewise encompassed a sense of radical thinking and urgency amidst a potent set of circumstances. An air of experimentation, community awareness and creative expression permeated throughout the site and its surroundings. The very structure and setting of immigration, segregation, communal living and intense urban conditions led to a localized sense (in terms of residential, commercial and social services) of what the I-Hotel stood for and what the Manilatown community was and should be.

In addition, gentrification, redevelopment policies and groundbreaking events shaped not only the locality but also the future of San Francisco and the development of Asian American political voices. The noteworthy overlap between the city's Chinese American, Filipino American and Japanese American communities revealed histories and cultures that are shared as well as disparate. In a number of ways, the I-Hotel continues to play a significant role in galvanizing community processes and successive goals.

In this exploration, the I-Hotel Culture/Action/Tribute Group considers a selection of dynamic cultural intersections along the following sub-themes: a) Manongs and Manangs b) Artist-Activists and c) Time, Space and Place.

Manongs and Manangs

The manongs play a central role in the I-Hotel’s epic story. Manong (masc.) or manang (fem.) is a term of respect in the Philippines and is accompanied by the gesture of touching the top of the manong/manang’s hand to one's forehead. The manong/manang is esteemed for his or her age and experience, offering a seasoned (if not traditional) perspective to the community. In the United States, the word “manongs” has come to refer to the bachelor Filipino immigrants, many of whom labored as domestic servants, agricultural workers and merchant seaman. They made major contributions to 20th century California and West Coast labor history, although this role is largely under-recognized. In fact, as forerunners of the United Farm Workers, they lead early struggles for human rights and economic justice.

Yet the manongs grew old alone, due in part to the systematic racism and discrimination that prevented them from building traditional families in American society. Filipina wives and girlfriends were not allowed by United States immigration law to join their "sweethearts" abroad. Matters worsened in the 1920s and 1930s when anti-Filipino riots erupted on the West Coast, and, notably in California, anti-miscegenation laws prohibited Filipino immigrants from marrying white women 2. In this vein, to add deep insult to injury, the I-Hotel manongs were expelled from the only home that they were allowed to create together.


Over the years at the I-Hotel, the lives and memories of its former inhabitants and the united battle for low-income housing became mythologized into archetypal narratives representative of immigrant experiences in America. The artist-activists who lived through and engaged with this past developed visions, words, sound about this legend of community affection, struggle and resilience. Some have become mythical figures themselves as they age and continue to create work that touches the imagination of audiences. Newer generations are finding ways to connect with the I-Hotel, keeping the legacy fresh by fashioning it through radical artistic processes. For local organizers, this process has been primarily geared to establishing a foothold within a site of struggle. Today, artists-activists are tapping into such a dynamic force to help realize healthier and more empowered communities. Part of the nature of this work is in the making of collective memory. As the historical accounts, stories and related creative work are passed from one generation to the next, they take on a life of their own, blurring the lines between reality, fiction and memory.

Time, Space and Place

The I-Hotel, while located in a particular place at an intersection of Chinese and Filipino urban communities, provides a story that is neither confined to one city corner nor to any specific ethnic group. Not long after the eviction crisis, the I-Hotel emerged in myth-like ways with strong universal symbolism (e.g., “the site,” “the stories,” “the poetry,” “the art”…) to connect visions of then and now. Hence, this myth-building phenomenon appears in both tangible and intangible ways to transcend time and space. The rebuilt site itself serves to continue this process in narrating the history of the former. Like offspring, however, the current building and community participants have created a distinct persona. This sacred space holds deep yearnings for connections that in some ways can be understood as "home." Simultaneously, the site is known as an active and activist community center of social, cultural and political dimensions. Approached then as an urban palimpsest, the I-Hotel presents us with necessarily unstable temporal and spatial boundaries that are defined between past and present, history and memory, reality and myth, home and journey.

Overview of Individual Texts

The I-Hotel offers a living memorial to a decades-long struggle for fair housing with a strong subtext of a growing Asian American identity. Its epic tale of community healing and recovery resonates today not only because it tells us about a pivotal moment in history, but also because an abundance of creativity continues to flourish from it. Contemporary mythologies, transmitted through writing and poetry, visual art, music and film, function as a profound touchstone for many diverse social groups. Indeed, as Community Arts, Social Practice or Public Art academic programs are developed, the I-Hotel offers an enduring case study of artistic forms and formats that have grown out of a community and its history. The I-Hotel Culture/Action/Tribute Group individual texts by Nancy Hom, Johanna Poethig and Julianne P. Gavino each focus on different aspects of the I-Hotel and related community arts engagement. Yet as much as each author's perspective is unique, there is common ground across narratives, themes and analysis.

Julianne P. Gavino, a doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, researches Asian American artists engaging with California “publics” and public sites. Gavino examines selected aspects of Kearny Street Workshop’s founding years centered at the I-Hotel, its related community network, and the poster work of visual artists in a context of historical significance and critical pedagogy.

Nancy Hom is an I-Hotel activist, artist, writer, curator, former director of Kearny Street Workshop and current arts consultant to the new I-Hotel Manilatown Center. From her own observation and participation in the community, Hom provides an overview of the art and culture that has been shaped from experience since the early 1970s. Hom's recounting also introduces several of the key manongs and manangs that fought in the struggle and inspired a creative spirit.

Johanna Poethig is a studio and public artist, muralist, community artist and associate professor in the Visual and Public Art Department at California State University, Monterey Bay. Poethig gives an account of her artistic connection to the I-Hotel as well as her other community arts projects both in this country and abroad.

  • 1 Huyssen Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. 7.
  • 2 See Leti Volpp, “American Mestizo: Filipinos and Antimiscegenation Laws in California,” U.C. Davis Law Review. 33.4 (2000) 795-835.

Placemaking and Posters: The Imprint of Kearny Street Workshop at the I-Hotel

By Julianne P. Gavino

The “space and place” of San Francisco’s International Hotel (“I-Hotel”) can be a room, a hallway, a storefront, the building itself and much more if you count its surrounding neighborhoods, regional landscape and national and global reaches. Once a home away from home for many elderly Chinese and Filipino bachelor immigrants, the I-Hotel brings forth multiple impressions in a collective mind’s eye because of its complicated and difficult history 1. A decade-long eviction struggle from 1968 to 1977 ended in the near destruction of the I-Hotel, which has had a lasting psychic and spatial toll. Paradoxically, for the community it was a fractured and dislocating experience but it was also rooting and unifying in deeply symbolic ways. During that era and extending well beyond those years, the I-Hotel emerged as a high-intensity contact zone2 of overlapping social, political and cultural communities.

This discussion elaborates upon a rich artistic legacy stemming from the above notions of the I-Hotel’s “space and place.” Explored here are selected historical aspects of Kearny Street Workshop (KSW), a vanguard Chinatown/Manilatown community arts center that first emerged from an I-Hotel storefront space in 1972. From the outset, KSW’s endeavors included innovative and engaging cultural work grounded in Asian American communities. As one significant part of this effort, workshop artists created graphic-art silkscreen (screenprint) posters with an intent to render visible Asian American life in various complexities for the public eye in direct and tangible ways. By way of compelling compositions of image and text, the posters assert self-defined cultural identities, a local/global sense of space and place, and community needs and desires.

The significance of Kearny Street Workshop and its posterwork may be assessed in several dimensions. The following presents: a) excerpts from a larger historical case study that considers previous research, archival materials and oral histories, b) an overview of the archived poster collection and c) a discussion of related preservation and pedagogical initiatives that seek to bridge knowledge gaps in engaged learning formats. This analytic and empirical research approach is instructive in bringing forth models and lessons for present communities, and some ideas about “best practices” of interdisciplinary and intercultural community engagement through the arts. In the limited space of this article, the extent of Kearny Street Workshop’s early history cannot be fully described and analyzed at great length. Previous research attests to the depth, quality and reach of the organization and makes a plausible case for further extending the discourse.3

Kearny Street Workshop: A Historical Background

While Kearny Street Workshop’s inception was as a local grassroots effort, over several decades transformed into a nationally acclaimed non-profit Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization that continues to operate today.4 The following overview serves to fill in key aspects of KSW’s historical background by examining interacting components and configurations of space, place and cultural identity. Covered in this section are KSW’s foundational beginnings at the I-Hotel, its mission and participant heterogeneity as well as its position as a significant social force and locus of creativity in the neighborhood. These aspects are contributing factors to the notion of placemaking—a sustainable way of cultivating human spaces, relationships and local identity that is at once grounding and transformative.5

KSW at the I-Hotel: During its formative years, 1972-1977, KSW emerged from the I-Hotel site as a local cultural and political force at the height of the eviction struggle. The looming disaster that would eventually cause the forced dispersal and relocation of its residential and storefront tenants was to have far-reaching effects in terms of local and national identity for Asian Americans. Significantly, the I-Hotel was one of the last remaining traces of San Francisco's Manilatown (a Filipino American enclave), itself an evaporating neighborhood due to aggressive gentrification. The I-Hotel's population included a co-mingling of low-income/working-class Chinese and Filipino immigrant elderly male residents, shopkeepers and community activists. The quadrant was ultimately subsumed by the bordering communities of Chinatown and the Financial District. In light of such prolonged social conflict, it is perhaps no surprise that grassroots efforts would galvanize around the anti-eviction cause to emphasize urgent concern for the general well-being of the community.

Located at the corner of Kearny and Jackson Streets, the I-Hotel block was a dense and bustling environment. KSW operated alongside community organizations and small businesses including the Chinese Progressive Association, Asian Community Center, Everybody’s Bookstore and Tino’s Barbershop. The daily activities and interactions of community folk and visitors added to a strong, local sense of place. Within this unique setting, KSW had both simple and quirky beginnings. KSW co-founder Mike Chin recalled that the workshop space was initially shared with a vendor that stocked a curious mixture of soybeans sacks and used television sets. 6

KSW Mission: In 1972, Chin, along with fellow Chinese Americans Jim Dong and Lora Jo Foo, initiated Kearny Street Workshop. The main intention was to develop a neighborhood outlet for community artistic engagement, locally run and for the people. This blending of art and activism was shared by a loose group of friends and associates who came to hang out and provide support in various ways. Bernice Bing, a staff member of the Neighborhood Arts Program (part of the San Francisco Arts Commission), served as the liaison to help secure $2,000 in start-up funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. With reluctance and suspicion of the establishment (i.e., government authority), KSW founders only moved forward with assurance that the workshop would have autonomous decision-making power.7

The workshop underscored how the cultivation, support and creation of community arts could aid in social understanding and community development from a self-determined, ethnic-specific approach. This standpoint was clearly expressed in an early grant proposal (c. 1972):8

Art gives valuable insight into a culture. It records the social conditions and attitudes. Recently a cultural revival or more appropriately a new cultural awareness is taking place. Many Chinese Americans are aware of the relevance and need of art which depicts social changes as they take place in their communities, and that this art must come from people within the Chinese American community. In this way Chinese Americans can begin to break down dependence on white standards in the creative art field.

In the above, the concept of "new cultural awareness" put forth more than a desire to address local community needs, serving to directly challenge a structural context seen as suppressing the community. With the further notion of “... break[ing] down the dependence on white standards,” there is pointed reference to a real perception of Western/Euro-American dominance of the arts and cultural ideals.

KSW’s mission was thus incubated in both a particular set of circumstances and a larger ongoing and emerging political climate of the 1960s and 1970s. On both local and global scales, marginalized groups (based on gender, race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and disability) rallied against widespread social and political inequity and challenged deep-rooted systems of patriarchy, racism, discrimination, oppression and/or violence. Student activism around these issues was a cultural signature on the campuses of City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State College and U.C. Berkeley. Integral to the workshop’s development, the Asian American Movement materialized in the late 1960s, stirring a groundbreaking panethnic collective consciousness and related civil rights struggle9. This urgent climate of cause and action prominently shaped KSW leadership and its early undertakings to express these percolating ideas through art and culture.

Participant Heterogeneity: In the beginning, KSW’s core group of leaders mostly consisted of trained and developing artists of various disciplines, many of whom volunteered as workshop instructors and/or participated in its activities, classes, programs and exhibitions. For the most part, the regulars were college-age and post-collegiate men and women, many of whom were Chinese Americans who came from Chinatown, outlying rural towns or out-of-state. Workshop students and audiences eventually spanned a wide age-range from youth to adults to seniors. As it evolved, KSW became quite dynamically diverse, consisting of any number of distinctive individuals and groups. Thus, while its main goal was to build and strengthen Asian American communities, KSW in practice came to recognize and respond to cultural differences within and across age/generation, gender, race/ethnicity and class.

During the 1970s, KSW initially asserted a Chinese American perspective and maintained a Chinatown/Manilatown community focus. Nonetheless, the workshop grew to be inclusive of diverse groups, social causes and geographic areas. One of the first exhibitions held at KSW's Jackson Street Gallery (opened in 1974 in an adjacent I-Hotel storefront) featured Chicano artists Rupert Garcia and Juan Fuentes who were both based in the nearby Mission neighborhood. A group of Japanese Americans who often participated in workshop activities went on to develop Japantown Arts and Media, turning to KSW as a model organization. In another example, KSW artist Leland Wong, who was born and raised in Chinatown, created the 1st Annual Nihonmachi Street Festival poster for the nearby Japantown community in 1974 and has continued to do so for 30 years. Also, Jim Dong (along with Nancy Hom) brought art education to local classrooms and led art and culture courses in the ethnic studies departments at San Francisco State College and U.C. Berkeley. The sampling above offers insight on how KSW consciously facilitated intercommunity engagements as part of its overall program.

Social Force: In general, it is safe to say that KSW embodied a collective spirit to purposefully “give back” to the Chinatown/Manilatown community. As a force for social justice, the workshop allied itself with local citizens who faced low-income urban conditions (e.g., child and family welfare concerns, poor housing, labor exploitation, crime and gang violence.) Many residents also struggled with social challenges common to immigrant life such as racism, discrimination, isolation from mainstream life and cultural and language barriers. That being said, the neighborhoods’ geographic and racial boundaries were formed within a long historical trajectory of institutionalized racism and segregation (e.g., racially restrictive exclusionary laws and housing covenants). KSW quite intentionally set itself apart from Chinatown elite and commercial interests and, even more so, from outside media influences. In the popular imagination, an urban picturesque vision of Chinatown as an exotic and fanciful tourist destination often eclipses the oppressive and gritty reality and obscures a more self-defined and creative sense of community.10 In fact, through a contemporary lens, an inspection of literature, film/television and digital media demonstrates a perpetuation of Asian American stereotypes, geographically based and otherwise.

Cultural Hub: Apart from its centralized I-Hotel base and community commitment, KSW became an alluring hub in Chinatown/Manilatown because of its unique and tangible cultural offerings. The wide array of adult and youth classes offered included silkscreening, ceramics, photography, film/video, sewing, patternmaking, needlepoint, jewelrymaking, leathercraft, guitar, dance, tai chi and kung fu. Community muralmaking projects enlivened the Jackson Street side of the I-Hotel and other neighborhood facades. Field trips to places in northern California such as the Locke Historic District and the ghostly remnants of the Angel Island Immigration Station afforded photographers an opportunity to explore and document Asian American historical sites.11 Exhibitions, musical performances and poetry readings occurred at the Jackson Street Gallery (opened by KSW in 1974), located just around the corner in another I-Hotel storefront space. KSW also played a leading role in organizing and providing concessions at the Hop Jok Fair.12 Of significant note, the summer youth programs drew hundreds of participants. The program, intended as a diversion from gang activity and other urban conditions, brought local adolescents to out-of-area campgrounds and Chinese American farms.

Chainlink Fence Summer Happenings
Left: Asian American Summer Art Workshops in Ceramics, Photography, Silkscreen (ca. 1974-1975) by Leland Wong. Right: Summer Happenings, Chinatown-Northbeach Area Youth Council and Kearny Street Workshop Co-sponsors (ca. 1973) by Artist Unknown. Reproduced permission of: Kearny Street Workshop Archives, CEMA, Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

Kearny Street Workshop Archives Poster Collection

With cultural activity abounding, KSW was in clear need of a way to “get the word out” to its growing communities of interest. The expressive graphic medium of the silkscreen poster proved to be an effective way to announce KSW's various classes and cultural programs. KSW artists also designed and printed posters for affiliate community organizations. In general overview, silkscreening (associated with the broader category of screenprinting or seriography) is a print reproduction technique with historic ties to social activist communication.13 During the 1960s and 1970s in the San Francisco Bay Area region, posters surfaced as a notable form of public ephemera found throughout the city streetscape, tacked onto telephone poles, storefront windows and community boards. They were relatively quick and inexpensive to produce in multiple batches, allowing for wide distribution. To catch the attention of passersby, posters would often combine vivid imagery and/or text in bold type. At the time, KSW stood alongside a number of community arts centers and poster collectives based in the vicinity.14 In effect, this concentrated artistic production mobilized a wide arts network and developed a regional visual culture. A general survey of other extensive poster collections reveals a shared tone of social justice activism concerning a range of issues.15

For its part, KSW posters mostly circulated throughout San Francisco, in particular the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Manilatown, as well as nearby Japantown. How the posters subsequently conveyed KSW’s mission is as much a part of the story as the aesthetic of the posters themselves. By their very placement in the selected communities, the posters communicated a significant subtextual message: Asian American ethnic communities are to be valued and made visible in society. As a result, it was essential to address these communities in their own right and on their own terms. Transcending the functionality of advertisement and promotion, the posters linked community members to embedded concepts of self-determined community building. It is precisely in that vein that KSW posters functioned as a placemaking tool, and as such they were instilled with a propagandistic bent.

Panda Bears
"Panda's Dream of Golden Ox Mountain" (1973) by Jack Loo. Reproduced permission of: Kearny Street Workshop Archives, CEMA, Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

On the whole, KSW posters were visually innovative, attempting to construct common ground amongst community members. For example, the 1973 “Year of the Ox” calendar was distributed throughout the neighborhood. Artists Jack Loo, John Wong, Fred Yung and others made contributions to this particular group project. Each calendar month is represented by a composition that interweaves depictions of the local milieu with traditional/ancestral symbols alluding to the Chinese zodiac. Loo’s version, “Panda’s Dream of Golden Ox Mountain” (1973), is a colorful illustration consisting of a bear “boss” figure that oversees a group of panting panda garment workers who are, in turn, seated behind sewing machines piecing together ox hides. Employing satire, the poster title lends itself to the popular Chinese myth of “Gold Mountain” or Gam Saan, which lured sojourners to seek out wealth and good fortune during the 19th-century California Gold Rush, only to face racial and economic adversity (and only a small number of immigrants were able to realize this dream). In this vein, there is little doubt that the poster offers its own scathing critique of grueling sweatshop labor conditions rampant in Chinatown, evincing both compassion and solidarity for its victims.

A substantial selection of KSW posters demonstrates a critically engaged imagery or artistic praxis. In many cases, they represent significant aspects of the surrounding environment and its inhabitants melded with ancestral notions of history, symbolism and language. Some KSW posters incorporate bilingual text in English and other languages of the community. Many of KSW’s Chinese American artists had limited Chinese language skills; subsequently, they sought translation assistance from fluent community members. For example, one poster includes a Tagalog/Pilipino phrase, Mga Kababayan ("My Countrymen"), to announce an event planned for the I-Hotel manongs (Filipino elders). Furthermore, KSW artists also created posters concerning the I-Hotel anti-eviction campaign. In various renditions, the manong, the building and the brick facade each appear as prominent symbols of the community. These deliberate admixtures of visual forms and compositional elements developed layered notions of individual and community identity, spanning local-to-global senses of “space and place.”

Community-Cultural Legacy

The bitter end of the I-Hotel eviction struggle unfolded on August 4, 1977. Police in riot gear harshly ejected the tenants from their homes and storefronts. Kearny Street Workshop was not spared in the process. It was a community trauma for all involved, the end of an era. Nevertheless it paved the way for new and sometimes effective activist approaches to confronting issues of social justice. In retrospect, the socio-spatial cultural experiences related to the I-Hotel were identity-transforming ones. Approaching this historical experience by way of hypotheses about identity formation and space exposes the very complex and layered nature of spatial engagement (i.e., community arts workshop hub, collaborative poster production, poster distribution and placement, artistic engagement with complex home and homeland milieus, etc.). This exploration is framed in the examination of recurring acts that brought people together in action across race, ethnicity, class, gender, age and other interest groups. In producing and facilitating community arts experiences, artist-activists were continually moving beyond their own social boundaries in both location and cultural arenas.

After the I-Hotel's fall, Kearny Street Workshop ultimately relocated several times to other San Francisco neighborhoods including North Beach, South Park, the Mission and SoMa (South of Market Street.) While it would never return to its physical origins in the thick of “the block” in Chinatown/Manilatown, in an almost diasporic mode, KSW keeps these formative layers in the forefront of its collective social action and cultural programs. Scholar Wei Ming Dariotis has remarked:

The name “Kearny Street Workshop” doesn’t say anything about those two things, it doesn’t say Asian [American] and it doesn’t say art. The conversation and discussion about changing the name to something that said those two things would always come back to the local, it’s a name you have to explain. And in the explaining you re-tell the stories and you reclaim that location...16

Nearly 40 years after its founding, KSW's continuing cultural resonance and resilience suggests a powerful sense of community engagement. This has unfolded into a story of even larger proportions that would prove relevant for all communities seeking to honor its members, preserve its spirit and keep efforts of social justice alive. In its beginnings, KSW found significant ways to build and sustain community amidst dire adversity at the I-Hotel. It is no small achievement that KSW’s poster production has yielded surviving artifacts that continue to leave an indelible mark on an expansive landscape.17

Preservation, Research and Pedagogy

In the larger schema, the implications for developing community arts history and its applicability are relevant and necessary. Thus, it is instructive to lay out how Kearny Street Workshop’s history and poster collection can be made accessible for current and future generations across different kinds of community settings. In short, the active archival preservation of the posters and related materials—along with engaged critical research and pedagogy—helps to facilitate an overarching goal of historical connectivity.

Archives: In general, archives contain primary source materials essential to historical knowledge building. The Kearny Street Workshop Archives include historical documents, print ephemera and a 170+ poster collection. Housed within the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, University of California Santa Barbara Libraries, the archive is part of a larger Asian/Pacific American Collection. Nancy Hom, who has been associated with KSW as a workshop artist since the mid-1970s as executive director (1995-2003) and current member of the Board of Directors, had the foresight to initiate this preservation of the organization's significant legacy. Furthermore, a grant-funded project initiated by this article's author in 2009 has allowed the poster collection to be digitally available through the public online database UC Calisphere.

Research / Oral Histories: As one area of research and writing, collecting oral histories demonstrates high value, as it is "at heart a deeply social practice connecting past and present, and at times, connecting narrative to action" (Hamilton and Shopes, viii). For community arts, the interview process allows interviewees to share not only individual points of view on collective artistic creation and process but also the zeitgeist of the time and of what they perceive to be its relevance today. The stories shared interweave history and personal memory. In this kind of approach, it is vital to recognize that the very act of reconstructing the past is an involved and complex dialogic process formed between oral history practitioners and interview participants alike. Oral histories of KSW leaders and participants are continuing to be recorded and integrated into a larger study [see excerpts].

Pedagogical Applications: Educators in the mode of critical pedagogy work with students so that they become active and activists by way of developing awareness of social inequities. Hence, for educators with this bent, KSW posters in both print and digital formats readily lend themselves to curriculum development across various settings (e.g., K-12, college and universities, museums, community cultural centers, etc.). From a substantive viewpoint, because the posters pertain to collective histories that traverse social identities, there is fertile ground to develop lessons that critically examine social processes within a cultural production framework. Apart from the social agenda of the imagery, the methods of artistic expression are also a compelling focus. A wide range of subfields that integrate visual culture (e.g., art studio, art history, history, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, ethnic studies, media/communication, community studies and social work) can readily include these archival materials.

In final reflection, taking into account how community arts can creatively counter oppressive forces is paramount in sustaining community wisdom. As outlined, the cultural legacy of Kearny Street Workshop at the I-Hotel provides both models and lessons of how to do just that. In this vein, it is hoped that this historical and pedagogical exploration of community arts proves useful for advocates, activists, students and scholars alike. This brief study has highlighted only selected elements of vibrant community and cultural processes to stress how social identity is formed in situ and yet can go beyond local spaces and places to profoundly connect outward.


    1. Leading historical accounts of the I-Hotel eviction struggle include the work of documentary filmmaker Curtis Choy and scholars Harvey Dong and Estella Habal.
    2. My use of the term “contact zone” refers to a bounded space of encounter in which a range of interactions might occur across divisions of social groups, knowledge and power. It draws from the concept as developed by Mary Louise Pratt (1991) and James Clifford (1997).
    3. Examples of previous research include Michael Rossman's 2007 web article, "The Evolution of The Social Serigraphy Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1966-1986"; Margo Machida's 2008 exhibition, “Icons of Presence: Asian American Activist Art” (Chinese Culture Center, San Francisco) and related scholarly essay; Christine Wong Yap's poster montage installation for the 2008 “Activist Imagination” exhibition (Kearny Street Workshop, San Francisco); and Julianne P. Gavino's 2010 exhibition "Public Lives of Posters in San Francisco's Chinatown, Manilatown, and Japantown, 1970s" (Multicultural Center, April-June 2010, and Department of Asian American Studies, ongoing; University of California, Santa Barbara).
    4. San Francisco-based Kearny Street Workshop is currently established as a non-profit Asian-Pacific-American multidisciplinary arts organization dedicated to make "artists out of community members and community members out of artists" (2002). KSW continues today in presenting classes, programs, and exhibitions. See Kearny Street Workshop website
    5. Placemaking can involve a variety of social actors who engage with the space in question (e.g., residents, visitors, business owners, politicians, architects, designers, city planners, etc.). Schneekloth and Shibley (1995) note: "...placemaking is not just about the relationship of people to their places; it also creates relationships among people in places" (1). Moreover, "The tasks of placemaking—opening the dialogic space, confirming and interrogating contexts, and framing action—are inherently political and moral acts" (18).
    6. Telephone interview with Mike Chin, September 2010.
    7. Council on Museums and Education in the Visual Arts. The Art Museum as Educator: A Collection of Studies as Guides to Practice. (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978. 206.


  • This excerpt was taken from a document shared by Lora Jo Foo from her personal papers.
  • The Asian American Movement occurred on a national level to address a host of issues, including antiwar sentiments, labor conditions, healthcare, youth, education, heritage, identity and cultural pride. Notable scholars of the Asian American Movement include William Wei, Yen Le Espiritu, Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu, Diane C. Fujino, Michael Liu, Kim Géron and Tracy A. M. Lai.
  • Photography by Arnold Genthe taken in the early 1900s or landscape paintings by Dong Kingman in the mid-20th century are just a couple of examples of picturesque depictions of San Francisco's Chinatown.
  • KSW photographers active during the I-Hotel period include Bob Hsiang, Crystal K.D. Huie, Connie Hwang, Jerry Jew, Richard Murai, Jow Sum Tak, Leland Wong and Doris Yue.
  • In English translation, Hop Jok means “cooperation,” as noted on a related silkscreen poster.
  • Lincoln Cushing, Shifra Goldman, David Kunzle, Michael Rossman and others have made major contributions to the study of 1960s and 1970s San Francisco Bay Area political posters.
  • Some of the San Francisco Bay Area poster collectives active during that time include: Media Project, est. 1970 (Berkeley); Galería de la Raza, est. 1970 (Mission District); East Bay Media, est. 1971 (Oakland); La Raza Graphic Center, est. 1971 (Mission District); Taller de Artes Graficas, est. 1972 (Oakland); Inkworks Press, est. 1974 (Berkeley); San Francisco Poster Brigade, est. 1975 (San Francisco); Japantown Art & Media Workshop, est. 1977 (Japantown); Mission Gráfica, est. 1977 (Mission District); Community Asian Art & Media Project, est. 1979 (Oakland)
  • Examples can be found in the graphic art poster archives maintained by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives—UC Santa Barbara Libraries and the Michael Rossman Collection of Political Posters/Oakland Museum.
  • This quote appears in the exhibition catalog Activist Imagination (San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop, 2008) and was taken from a related public discussion on March 27, 2008, held at the Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco.
  • After the I-Hotel eviction, KSW poster artists continued to produce work in other area printmaking facilities well into the 1980s.


Works Cited

  • Ansell, Joseph, and Thorpe, James. "The Poster." The Poster. Spec. issue of Art Journal 44.1 (1996): 7-8. Print.
  • Council on Museums and Education in the Visual Arts. The Art Museum as Educator: A Collection of Studies as Guides to Practice. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978. Print.
  • Dong, Harvey. International Hotel's Final Victory. San Francisco: International Hotel Senior Housing, Inc., 2010. Print.
  • Habal, Estella. San Francisco's International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-eviction Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Hamilton, Paul, and Shopes, Linda. Oral History and Public Memories. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Kearny Street Workshop. Activist Imagination: A Multi-disciplinary Look at the Past, Present, and Future of APA Activism, Featuring the Work of Bob Hsiang, Donna Keiko Ozawa and Christine Wong Yap. San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop, 2008. Print.
  • Kearny Street Workshop. Kearny Street Workshop's 30th Anniversary Celebration. San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop, 2002. Print.
  • Laguerre, Michel. The Global Ethnopolis: Chinatown, Japantown and Manilatown in American Society. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • Leong, Russell C., and Park, Kyeyoung. “How Do Asian Americans Create Places? From Background to Foreground.” How Do Asian Americans Create Places? Los Angeles and Beyond. Spec. issue of Amerasia Journal 34.3 (2008): vii-xiv. Print.
  • Machida, Margo. Icons of Presence: Asian American Activist Art. San Francisco: Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, 2008. Print.
  • Machida, Margo. "Art and Social Consciousness: Asian American and Pacific Islander Artists in San Francisco, 1965-1980." Asian American Art. A History, 1850-1970. Eds. Gordon H. Chang, et al. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008. 257-279. Print.
  • Rossman, Michael. “The Evolution of the Social Serigraphy Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1966-1986.” Michael Rossman Writings and Then Some. 2007. Web. 19 Jun. 2011.
  • Schneekloth, Lynda H., and Shibley, Robert G. Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1995. Print.

Kearny Street Workshop at the I-Hotel, 1972-1977
Excerpts from Oral Histories (recorded 2009-2011)

Interviews conducted by Julianne P. Gavino

The following are text excerpts from recorded oral histories with early leaders and participants of the Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) when the organization was based in an International Hotel (I-Hotel) storefront from 1972 to 1977. The interviewees were asked questions about the workshop's goals, impressions of San Francisco's Chinatown/ Manilatown, individual and collective involvement in community arts, issues regarding Asian American identity and stereotypes and the I-Hotel eviction experience.

Selected excerpts—

On community arts:

For a lot of us, the values of those early movement years informed our choices for the rest of our lives – values such as inclusiveness, openness, and unity.... In general, art is a powerful tool to inspire, uplift and build community and foster positive affirmation – of our individual and collective identities, histories, neighborhoods, sexuality, pride. It can be a healing and unifying force or jolt viewers into questioning the world around them. It can also educate and provoke discussion and inquiry into injustices. (Nancy Hom)

On the Chinatown/Manilatown community:

The positions of the young people or the immigrants [in Chinatown/Manilatown] were just as you can imagine. They were immigrants that had no experience, no means to do anything other than survive...put food on the table. So a workshop, knowing or not knowing, we provided them,with other outlets like guitar classes, ceramics, silkscreen classes, all kinds of classes. (Jerry Jew)

On envisioning Asian American communities:

…in the world I grew up in there were hardly any images of ourselves...of our community...if you’re [part of] a community [like] Chinatown, or [another] Asian immigrant community, your art should reflect it, and it should be representing us as well in a good light, and to tell our story and our history as well. (Leland Wong)

I think we made a difference. I know at the time…we were kind of like the pioneers…we developed the icons…and so people started to identify the Kearny Street [Workshop] "look" with Chinatown, and I think it put out an image there that this is what we were. (Jack Loo)

On Asian American identity formation:

Kearny Street [Workshop]...[permitted] a sense of discovering oneself in the field of the greater community...[and] how [to] place oneself in the community of common concern, whether it be racism, economic disparity [or] finding new paradigms for Asian Americans. (Bob Hsiang)

We were all part of [the] Third World Liberation [Front]... . If nothing else that was part of what were doing, not accepting stereotypes...KSW gave all of us a sense of empowerment...gave us confidence to go out in the world. (Ida Foo)

On countering Asian American stereotypes:

So you didn’t really see…an Asian American image of doing more mainstream things, like camping, for instance. And I think part of it was, and this has made me proud…we were challenging media, challenging society, saying we’re Americans and you need to include us. If you’re not going to include us, we’re going to include ourselves. You need to include us in trying to create our own images and not accepting whatever stereotyped images you’ve done in the past. (Norman Yee)

On intergenerational exchanges:

Jackson Street Gallery
"Jackson Street Gallery" (ca. 1974). Photograph by Bob Hsiang

...we would get the community down, so it was not just a mixture of young folks… . It was also people in their 30s, people in their 40s, immigrant Chinese. They would come on down just to see what was happening there [at Jackson Street Gallery]. (Jack Loo)

[The exhibition on Angel Island at Jackson Street Gallery in 1976] created a situation where in the Chinatown community [the older generations began] talking about immigration experiences more showed to them that my generation wanted to know more about it. (Jim Dong)

On intercommunity/intercultural exchanges:

...other communities other than the Chinatown community...[such as] Chicano and black communities were also involved in the arts... . [They were] using art to communicate issues...Chinatown needed a base for that type of art... . [We all] formed around the same time...mutually sharing what each other are doing...this [was] the climate of the time in the 60s and 70s. (Jim Dong)

On the I-Hotel eviction on August 4, 1977:

"I-Hotel Eviction" (1977). Photograph by Bob Hsiang

It was scary because as soon as the police came on mounted horses, they made it very apparent that they were going to use that force to drag people away, to get people away from the building...because the building was filled with people who were trying to protect the tenants, and at the same time, there were people inside the various storefronts...bolted in... .

I was right outside this doorway with my camera before they came in, obviously, taking shots of the chaos outside... . [The policemen on] horses came in, rushed in, and charged people and...they charged with the horses, and at the same time, they started hitting people on the head with those batons. It was very dark out, you couldn't really figure what was going just heard a lot of yelling and screaming... .

So after they had cleared the street and we were inside and the police said, "Would you please leave? We are now evicting you." This is the last [camera] shot I took right before we left Kearny Street. I guess they locked the door...and we couldn't get back in...

We weren’t sure if it was the last stand, like the Alamo. It was actually the last stand because we never went back to that site. We had to take everything out, put things in storage, or sell things...and then Kearny Street went to other locations temporarily.

I remember the aftermath of that experience was a big letdown emotionally. Everyone was drained. It was so emotional to see all these senior citizens being taken out of their home...kind of devastating. (Bob Hsiang)

IHotel_Posters IHotel_Posters IHotel_PostersIHotel_Posters
Reproduced permission of: Kearny Street Workshop Archives, CEMA, Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

Keeping the Story Alive: An Art History of the I-Hotel

By Nancy Hom

This hotel is much more than a place to sleep…. This hotel is not enough For those who have helped to build the world They are the force behind everything Muscles strained in survival This hotel will never be enough But it is where we have come to fight As the night comes and our feet grow tired We must leave a strong footprint For those who will follow 1

Trains and Stations

There are trains that stop at stations, taking in the rich experience of the place and bringing new perspectives from other travels. And there are stations – places that we have imbued with sacredness. The International Hotel (I-Hotel) is such a place. Its story of pain, resistance and triumph brings us back home, no matter how far we wander.

In relationship with the I-Hotel I am both a train and a station. In the 37 years that I’ve lived and worked in San Francisco, I have been part of many different communities within and beyond the Bay Area. But I have also stationed myself at the I-Hotel and watched many people come and go through the decades of its long struggle, eviction and eventual rebirth.

How I Came Here

I was born in Toisan, China, and grew up in New York City. I studied visual art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and expected to pursue a traditional art career. But after graduation, I began immersing myself in the emerging Asian American movement and looked for ways to have my art serve larger social purposes. My generation witnessed the momentous societal changes brought about by the post-civil rights, women’s, counter-culture, Black power and Third World liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s. My colleagues and I found commonality with cultures of color in our shared histories of discrimination, economic exploitation and racism.

After becoming involved with several community arts groups in New York City, I moved to San Francisco in 1974 and immediately sought out the I-Hotel, whose struggle was known even in the East Coast. There I met the Chinese American members of Kearny Street Workshop (KSW), an Asian American arts organization formed in 1972, and was drawn to their shared sense of purpose to help their surrounding community of Chinatown/Manilatown. I resonated with their working-class backgrounds, their reclaiming of identity as Asian Americans different from portrayals in the media, their desire to learn their own history, and their passion to do something about the issues that affected the Chinatown/Manilatown neighborhood.

Founded 39 years ago, KSW is the oldest multidisciplinary Asian American arts organization in the country, still going strong today with a new generation of artists. It opened in 1972 with a storefront on the Kearny Street side, and in 1974 KSW acquired an annex gallery, Jackson Street Gallery, on the Jackson Street side of the Hotel. It was the making of the block-long mural on Jackson Street that first drew me to KSW.

At the I-Hotel, along with other artists and scholars, I gained first-hand insight into the values, sensibilities and creative sources that sparked the nascent efforts of arts organizations such as KSW, and the influence they have in the shaping of contemporary culture, a legacy that continues through programs at the new I-Hotel Manilatown Center and through the next generation of KSW artists. Since the mid ’70s I have made a career creating literary and visual work for political and social causes and celebrations in the Asian, Chicano, African-American and women’s communities of the Bay Area. Yet the I-Hotel, a frequent stop in my adventures through the years, still beckons me and other artists/activists home.

After the tenants’ eviction in 1977, I continued to be part of KSW and later became its executive director for almost nine years. In the 1980s, KSW’s headquarters were back in Chinatown next to the Manilatown Senior Center where manongs were served daily lunches. Under my leadership, KSW fiscally sponsored Manilatown Heritage Foundation (MHF), formed in 1994 to continue to keep the spirit of the I-Hotel alive through annual Aug 4th commemorations, storytelling and artistic programs. When after 28 years the I-Hotel was finally rebuilt in 2005 for low-income housing, I helped to raise money for the build-out of the I-Hotel Manilatown Center, on the same spot where KSW once stood. I continue to be part of the I-Hotel/Manilatown community as a curatorial and organizational development consultant to MHF, which manages the I-Hotel Manilatown Center. Since the Center opened in 2005, I have been overseeing its artistic programs and assisting with its organizational growth.

A Sense of Belonging

Many different community groups rallied together to support the I-Hotel – students, activists, artists, labor unions, church groups, etc. It was an intergenerational and multicultural effort.

For all of us, the I-Hotel was more than a hotel. For the transient Filipino workers it was a cultural center, a clearinghouse and a place to call home. This sense of belonging was passed on to those who came to the Hotel to help the tenants, but also to find meaning in their own lives. The Hotel fostered a symbiotic relationship between the artists and the community – we inspired and were in turn inspired by the people we encountered. The elderly tenants welcomed us like family, taught values that stay with us to this day – humility, family, honoring our ancestors, fighting for what we believe in, staying true to our sense of justice.

But I have seen many “stations” that now lie dilapidated with disuse. People no longer stop there, for they have nothing to offer. Why did the I-Hotel endure, even after eviction, when it stayed a hole in the ground for 28 years? To me, it has a lot to do with the artists, writers, poets, performers, etc., who gave voice and vision to the I-Hotel experience, who witnessed, documented, provided lasting icons, kept telling the stories that perpetuated the myth. Cultural values are preserved and sustained over time through collective rituals – commemorations, memorials, celebrations – that honor and preserve memory. New artists and activists reflect upon and re-vision the stories that have been handed down, keeping the memory alive. They also create their own art forms and address current issues that make the Hotel experience relevant to the present day.

The smell of bagoong lingers long after a meal is done. We so hungry for home can still feel the hot rice on our tongues, taste the salt of the sea and the grit of sand and shrimp that remind us of islands left behind. We brought our bagoong here to flavor the unfamiliar and make it our home. I remember the plants in the stillwell, a patch of green on Kearny Street. A bony fist, a crinkled smile, a poem. Those days the sky was cloudless, and victory hovered like a silver-winged bird. 2

Heroes and Mentors

The tenants were the subjects of murals, poems and photographs by KSW artists and others, and were made larger than life. One of the tenants, Charles Smith, even illustrated a poster depicting “Supermanong,” dressed in a Superman outfit and poised to fight the developers. There was Felix Ayson, a fierce fighter for justice, whose cane was immortalized in Jim Dong’s mural, “The Struggle for Low Income Housing,” and whose face is in many photographs taken at the time. Rachael Romero captured Felix in her posters of the struggle, and his voice can be heard in the film, “Fall of the I-Hotel,” by Curtis Choy.

Wahat Tompao was one of the most active leaders of the I-Hotel struggle. He was known for his fiery speeches, and his buffalo plaid jacket and fedora were captured in several photographs and immortalized in later years through theatrical re-enactments and exhibit installations. An iconic photograph of the time, taken by KSW photographer Cristal K.D. Huie, showed Wahat Tompao, Charles Smith and Joe Diones, chair of the I-Hotel Tenants Association, in front of a boarded storefront, with the words “We Won’t Move” written in big letters.

Mrs. Luisa de la Cruz, affectionately known as Mrs. D. nurtured everyone with her calm presence. Another giant icon at Manilatown was Bill Sorro, one of San Francisco’s most influential, beloved and passionate activists, who passed away in 2007. He and his wife Giuliana Milanese got married in the I-Hotel, and were deeply involved in the I-Hotel struggle. Bill continued to serve MHF, joining its board and working side by side with Al and others to fight for low-income housing and social justice.

These and other manongs and manangs are heroes and mentors to an entire generation of young activists who are continuing the long struggle for equal rights in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Uncle Al

Al Robles
"Al Robles." Photograph by Bob Hsiang

In time the lines between fiction, memory and reality blur. The artists became mythic figures themselves as they grew older, passed away or continued to create works that touch the imagination of the public. One of the best known of these is the late beloved poet/activist Al Robles, who worked for many years with the manongs in the I-Hotel and whose poetry painted the images of the homeland and metaphors of their lives. Besides his commitment to serve seniors, he was also a mentor to young people, who affectionately called him Uncle Al.

Al, who embodied the heart and soul of Manilatown, wrote extensively about Ifugao Mountain and a character named Tagatac. He had never been to the Philippines, but he made it his life work to record and honor these first-wave immigrants who lived out their lives in single-occupancy hotels. Sometimes Al wrote poems about his fellow poets, turning them into fictionalized characters, too, as if we were all in a magical world of our own.

Many long tales have been told about ifugao mountain All the stories I’ve heard have not been written down Who’s going to travel far back into the past? There is only one sound that comes from Ifugao mountain Tagatac says that it tells you all you need to know An ifugao mountain nose flute sound tells no lies. 3

Al was a humble man with multiple talents and interests; his activities included building teahouses, teaching poetry, playing jazz on the piano, organizing readings and community festivals, advocating for affordable housing and collecting oral histories of the manongs.

The manongs have been on a long journey.… They have lived through so many wars and have scars in their hearts to prove it. They were the brown gypsies, the low-down niggers, the brown apache savages, the uncivilized nomads who wandered from place to place in search of their dreams.… They lived, as it were, in two worlds – in a world they left behind, and in a dream before their eyes. 4

Al was involved in the I-Hotel tenants’ long battle against eviction and also with KSW, where he co-founded the Kearny Street Writers Workshop. He served on the citizens committee that fought over a 28-year period to rebuild the I-Hotel. After the new I-Hotel Senior Housing was built, he continued to be active with MHF and the Chinatown community until his untimely death in 2009.

Fish Head Soup

An example of the creative way Al used to galvanize the community is the poetry and song event that he had organized in Chinatown in the ’80s. He had coaxed eight or nine seniors to perform with him by promising to cook them fish head soup. The catch was that they had to sit at tables on stage and eat the fish heads in front of the audience and sing a few songs. Well, these manongs, some 70 years old, some in their 80s and 90s – they loved fish head soup and couldn’t resist the offer.

So Al cooked up a big batch of fish head soup, and the manongs sat at the tables, which were decorated with palm leaves and pineapples. The wonderful aroma of the soup filled the air. The manongs waited eagerly. Then it was ready, brought out by women in long flowing shawls – one fish head per bowl, with a heap of rice, each placed before the manongs. They ate with much relish as Al read poetry about finding Ifugao Mountain right here on Kearny Street. Just listen, he said, to the songs and smell the fish head soup. Ifugao Mountain is here in the hearts of the manongs. So they ate and Al read and Joe played the guitar; his old fingers flying nimbly across the strings.

After the manongs were finished with their meal, they gathered around the mike in a circle and Al started to talk story. “Remember, Freddy, that song you used to sing that made the women did it go?” And Al would sing a few notes and Freddy, 92-year-old Freddy, who used to sing and dance and play the banjo for us on Kearny Street, would start to remember and sing in as beautiful a voice as ever.

Come to me my melancholy baby....

We sighed with memory. A woman got up and swayed to the music; someone played the harmonica and others joined in, urged on by Al’s loving touch and Freddy’s deep voice.

Come to me and don’t be blue....

Toward the end of the evening they wouldn’t stop singing, as the memory of all those songs and all the past came flooding in. Women sang and danced; men crooned, stomped their feet. We closed the place late, with the manongs begging for one more goodbye song, their bellies full of fish head soup, our hearts nourished and fed as well.5

On the Block

Home was not just the I-Hotel; it was also the surrounding blocks where the manongs hung out. Wherever they were, the artists also followed with their cameras and recording equipment and sketchbooks. At Tino’s Barber Shop, manongs played instruments while Tino cut hair. This frequent jam session can be heard in Curtis Choy’s “Manilatown Series.”

Lucky M Pool Hall across the street from the Hotel gave the elderly Filipino men a place to socialize and to show off their skills. The Pool Hall and Tino’s Barber Shop also served as an informal clearinghouse for seasonal workers and casual laborers. KSW joined the manongs in a big farewell party on the last day of the pool hall. Elders played music, danced with the young ladies, and reveled in bittersweet celebration of a disappearing era.

Kearny Street Workshop

The hub of the artistic and cultural expression of the struggle was KSW, where seniors, artists and activists gather every night to create posters, share poetry, mount exhibitions and take classes. With two venues – the KSW storefront and the Jackson Street Gallery – KSW offered weekly classes and monthly exhibitions, as well as poetry readings, tai chi, boxing and occasional dance performances. We often interacted with the other commercial storefronts on the block, producing artwork for political newsletters or joining them in rallies.

Freddy Poets
"Freddy and KSW Poets." Photograph by Bob Hsiang

The seniors came down to visit KSW storefront and Jackson Street Gallery all the time. Some of us were invited into their rooms. We ate with them, talked story with them, sang and danced with them. It was our home, too. So we did what we could to help the fight against eviction – posters, photography, films, poetry, exhibitions, marches, rallies, countless meetings, court appearances. In addition to Jim Dong’s mural, our artistic contributions to the struggle included: PINOTOH (People in Need of Their Own Housing), one of several exhibits on affordable housing; We Won’t Move, a book of poetry and photos of the tenants and of life in the I-Hotel; and dozens of poetry readings.

I want to leave nothing forgotten, every poster and button of our time then; the cold slap of morning air, the sighs and angry shouts; I want others to know there was celebration there. The threat was imminent, yet still we danced, until there were only days left, hours, minutes, and even then hope lingered like the smell of bagoong.6

The Fall of the I-Hotel

I-Hotel Eviction
"I-Hotel Eviction." Photograph by Bob Hsiang

After a nine-year battle, the mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese tenants and community organizations were evicted on August 4, 1977, in a brutal eviction at 3 a.m.. Over 3,000 protestors gathered. Police on horses beat the crowd back. It took a SWAT team armed with billyclubs and sledgehammers to break through and physically drag the elders out of the hotel. After eviction KSW did an exhibit at the Galeria de la Raza and a calendar on the history of the I-Hotel struggle that contained a timeline, photos and poetry. There were rallies and protests as community pressure continued. After demolition, the Hotel remained a hole in the ground for over 28 years. Curtis Choy’s film, “Fall of the I-Hotel” (1983), chronicled the whole struggle and contained interviews with the tenants and moving footage of of the night of eviction. The film continues to be shown at colleges and universities, educating a new generation about the Hotel.

This hollowed earth. These tractor tracks. This putrid pit. Wild grass on rotted pillars. Rusted cables through jagged rock. Billboard tombstones. Through the whistle of a mournful wind – A banjo’s song. His dancing feet, her perfumed shawl. Scent of adobo and salted fish. Later, strings and plastic twist ties in and out of the cyclone fence. The flapping banners, the sighing roses. The names of those who died in hidden places. And later still, crushed orange peels. Pink and white bags of trash. Yellowed newspapers like pigeons in flight. A hastily chalked mural in the night. 7

Annual Commemorations

Every year, the former tenants and activists kept the spirit and memory of Manilatown and the I-Hotel alive through annual Aug 4th activities, which included a march, candelight vigil, songs, poems and speeches. We’d place flowers on the cyclone fence surrounding the empty pit where the Hotel once stood and read the names of the manongs who lived there, so we will not forget.

By itself a building is merely a building; we can only keep count of what was done by whom, and the exact hour of its demise. We retain those moments in frozen photographs – A protester dragged out, an ax against a tenant’s door, the frayed banners draped neatly over bricks piled into rectangular coffins. These memories we play over and over in our minds like well-loved films. We never let us forget, less we forget the taste of bagoong 8

20th anniversary: Pearl Ubungen and KSW Collaboration

On the 20th anniversary of eviction, 1997, when the I-Hotel site was still a hole in the ground, Pearl Ubungen, a second-generation Filipina dancer/choreographer, and KSW produced an on-site dance theater collaboration together. KSW had the history, visuals and the poets; she had the young artists, dancers and musicians. It was part of MHF’s weeklong commemoration of the eviction, starting with a march down Kearny Street, vigil and speeches, a symposium at the Chinese Culture Center, a huge poetry reading at Cameron House, and a candlelight procession. There was a conference on labor that weekend, and we managed to get some of those attendees to come to our event.

The three-day event was a big production, involving street closure, generators, video projection, portable sets, port-a-potties and sound permits. There was a big band, graffiti mural and symbolic representations of the rooms of the I-Hotel against the cyclone fence surrounding the pit. We timed it so that the seniors, who were at the symposium nearby, would walk down with candles when it got dark.

The show climaxed in an ending that included a reenactment of the actual eviction, with members of the audience participating. There we were – former tenants and supporters, seniors, veterans, activists, artists, young school kids, college students, funders, even tourists who happened to pass by – surrounding the I-Hotel fence, linking arms and shouting, “We Won’t Move” and “The People United Will Never be Defeated.” The show ended at 10 p.m. due to noise restrictions, but people did not leave the street until almost midnight, swapping stories and educating tourists and young people about the I-Hotel.

Rise of the New I-Hotel

After more than 28 years of continuous pressure by the community to build affordable senior housing on the same land, the new I-Hotel Senior Housing and Manilatown Center opened its doors in 2005.

Sadly, only a handful of the former tenants were alive to return to the I-Hotel. The new I-Hotel has many more Chinese tenants and some Russians, too, in addition to Filipino. Many different ethnic groups now come to the I-Hotel Manilatown Center to create, exhibit and interact; but under MHF’s management, it remains a place for the public, especially Filipinos, to learn about their history and the story of the I-Hotel.

The new Hotel has mango walls. It is sassier, modern, with a view we never saw through our second story window. I hear the wild laughter of loin-clothed men behind the bricks and bamboo. It is my secret, this longing to find you here. 9

manila town scrims
"I-Hotel Manilatown Center Scrims." Photograph by Bob Hsiang (2011)

Since we’ve opened the I-Hotel Manilatown Center in 2005, we have worked with community groups, individual artists, seniors and youth to showcase the creation of original works inspired by Filipino themes. Many artists young and old have passed through the new I-Hotel, echoing the spirit of the former Hotel and bringing with them fresh perspectives. From film screenings to book launches to exhibitions, the new Center moves the mythology of the I-Hotel forward. Younger artists, touched by the story of the I-Hotel, are inspired to create their own version of the Filipino immigrant experience. Al Robles’ nephew, Tony Robles, wrote two children’s books, Lakas and the Manilatown Fish and Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel based on the I-Hotel experience. They were illustrated by Carl Angel, whose own paintings were exhibited at the Manilatown Center. Artist Jenifer Wofford created a poster series for the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Market Street Kiosks, depicting the arrival of a Filipina nurse from the Philippines who joins the I-Hotel struggle. Smaller versions of the artwork were shown at Manilatown Center.

Jerome Reyes, Routes and Seasons Jerome Reyes, Anagesia and Armament

Left to right: Jerome Reyes, “Routes and Seasons” (After Carlos Villa’s “Quilt of Hope”) Cast fedora made of I-Hotel brick debris, fedora bird feather made with brick dust, raw wood table, 2005 bird feathers covered in brick dust. 8' x 8' (floor), 30” x 20” x24” (table) 9” x 7” x 7” (hat), 2010. Jerome Reyes, “Analgesia (and Armament).” High-definition video. 8’ x 6’ Floor Projection, 4:45 min, 2009

In 2010 Jerome Reyes mounted a groundbreaking exhibition that started out to re-imagine the I-Hotel as if eviction had never taken place. It ended up to be a symbolic homage to the past in light of the future, using contemporary art aesthetics, with drawings, public text, sculptures, and an installation using the ground-up bricks of the original Hotel. A projected video on the exhibition floor depicted a re-enactment of a poignant moment during eviction when Wahat Tompao sliced a cantaloupe and passed it around while the police were charging up the stairs. I was one of the ones asked to be filmed. The experience inspired me to write the following:

I-Hotel, Retold There is poetry in the telling and retelling Of an epic so huge we cannot contain it, But must reinvent it one slice at a time. I cut the cantaloupe with a butterfly knife Under a bare bulb in a barren hotel. A video camera records each sharp thrust. And so the I-Hotel legend lives on Through the juice that runs down my fingers Into the eager mouths of youth sucking stories. With every fresh cut of my blade The wound reopens, spilling memory. In the seeds, a new way of telling. 10

Photo by Jerome Reyes. Theatrical reading of Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel, I Hotel, performed on the physical site of the exhibition itself, 2010

Also in 2010, Karen Tei Yamashita’s 640-page book, I-Hotel, was published after eight years in the making. An ambitious work, it was a fictionalized account of San Francisco's Asian American community in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Experimental in form, the novel co-mingles various voices and formats to tell a narrative that evokes the feelings of the period, a definitive work that places the Hotel as the primary setting for drama of epic proportions. The work extends far beyond the perimeters of the I-Hotel, touching upon everything from Japanese internment camps to the Marcos dictatorship to Lenin and Malcolm X. Adapted and directed by San Francisco playwright and comedian Allan Manalo, and co-produced by tammy ko Robinson and Jerome Reyes, this event cast a team of actors and non-actors to read certain scenes from the book, which was nominated for the 2010 National Book Award.

The I-Hotel building itself contains art by seniors as well as by artists. Photographs of manongs and the struggle are etched into the glass windows facing the elevators. A permanent exhibit of photos and silkscreen posters line the lobby and third floor. Johanna Poethig was chosen to create a mural on the front of the new Hotel that honors the history of the struggle and symbolizes the continuum of spirit. She created a companion project, “Placesetting,” to depict the concept of creating a “place” for our families, our communities and ourselves. The table settings, which were exhibited at I-Hotel Manilatown Center, comprise cups, bowls, places, placemats, etc., upon which images of the I-Hotel struggle are imprinted.

The Extended Station

Through the years the I-Hotel experience became a universal narrative about the immigrant experience that those in other cultures could relate to and that could sustain them in similar struggles. The I-Hotel Manilatown Center has been the place for exhibiting and showcasing works that call attention to such issues as Veterans equity, affordable housing, globalization, women’s rights and the plight of service workers. Individual artists have been moved to depict work that addresses their longing to belong in a society that has traditionally been hostile to their ancestors. “B*longing” is an exhibit of Filipina-Japanese Julia LaChica’s paintings that attempt to connect with the life of her father and “to generations of Filipino and other immigrants who likewise longed for elsewhere, who came to the U.S. and dreamed of other horizons, even as they forged new ties here. In their faces, we see marked their longing for dignity, community, prosperity and love, and perhaps we can also sense how these ideals eluded them.” 11

The I-Hotel Manilatown Center reaches out to other communities through events such as the Rhymes & Rhythms series curated by poet/musician Avotcja and myself, which brings together poets, musicians and storytellers from different cultures – Filipino, African-American, Indian, Puerto-Rican, etc. At the time of this writing in the summer of 2011, we are showcasing a young Filipina tattoo artist, Melissa Manuel, at the Center. She works in the style of Tatau and Neo-tribal tattoo, taught by her teacher, Orly Locquiao. “It is not only about acknowledging who we are now, but also never forgetting what is grounded within us: our traditions, perceptions of life, where we came from and the things that influence us to get to where we want to be.” 12

This aptly sums up the I-Hotel’s role as it moves into its 35th year of the anniversary of the eviction in 2012 and beyond. The Hotel’s rich past, with all its colorful characters, painful struggles and triumphs, has brought us to the point where it lives fully in the present, a lively combination of different kinds of people, concerns and art forms. Traditions and old heroes mix with new and innovative creations as trains from faraway places find their way here. The exhibit after Melissa’s will showcase the Filipino contribution to the comic-book industry, honoring the pioneers and also the next generation of cartoon artists. After that we will pay homage to Dream, a Filipino graffiti and hip-hop artist who set the Bay Area on the map as far as the genre is concerned. We will also feature other artists who have been inspired by him. All of it has brought us to where we want to be. Home.

Let the I-Hotel breathe free as wind, Let the carabao loose, let the wild manongs dance. Let mango be mango, vibrant and warm. Let rondalla mix with hip hop, bagoong with egg rolls and okra. Let past be present. Let love be our home. 13



  1. Jayo, Norman. Excerpt of poem, “Hard Lines and Shades of Grey Flannel.” We Won’t Move. San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop, 1977. Print.
  2. Hom, Nancy. Excerpt of poem, “Reflections on the I-Hotel, 30 Years Later.” 2007. Unpublished.
  3. Robles, Al. Excerpt of poem, “Tagatac in Ifugao Mountain.” Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996. Print.
  4. Robles, Al. Excerpt of poem, “The Wandering Manong.” Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996. Print.
  5. Hom, Nancy. Prose, “Fish Head Soup.” 2008. Unpublished.
  6. Hom, Nancy. Excerpt of poem, “Reflections on the I-Hotel, 30 Years Later.” 2007. Unpublished.
  7. Hom, Nancy. Excerpt of poem, “25 Years of Sadness.” 2010. Unpublished.
  8. Hom, Nancy. Excerpt of poem, “Reflections on the I-Hotel, 30 Years Later.” 2007. Unpublished.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hom, Nancy. Poem, “I-Hotel, Retold.” 2011. Unpublished.
  11. La Chica, Julia. Comment by the artist. 2011.
  12. Manuel, Melissa. Comment by the artist. 2011.
  13. Hom, Nancy. Excerpt of poem, “Reflections on the I-Hotel, 30 Years Later.” 2007. Unpublished.

Kapwa in Community Arts

By Johanna Poethig

I-Hotel Mural
Johanna Poethig, I-Hotel Mural (2010). Photograph by Bob Hsiang

Kapwa in Tagalog, means “togetherness.” This can also be understood as “oneness,” and an “interconnectedness” among living beings and the broader environment. It is the core construct of Filipino psychology. The concept of kapwa includes pakikitungo, civility; pakikisalamuha, the act of mixing; pakikilahok the act of joining; and pakikisama, being united with the group. There is also pakiramdam, which means shared inner perceptions, and kagandahang-loob, which refers to our shared humanity.

All cultures have different ways of interacting socially and expressing these values. The field of community arts is informed by the best aspects of these cultural values and methods of social connection. They serve as models for successful interface, collaboration and production of creative work within the many layers of our society. Studying different cultural models of interaction gives us valuable information about the diverse peoples within our own country and guides us in the navigation of expanding global networks.

Filipino culture makes its own unique contribution to our American cultural life and specifically to arts in the community. It is expressed in the I-Hotel experience as well in other Filipino American (Fil Am) collective and individual arts projects. My own work with this community is now entering its fourth decade. The I-Hotel was depicted in my first mural on Filipino American history “Ang Lipi in Lapu Lapu” in 1983 and then more fully in the “I-Hotel Mural” in 2010. However, this is not just a reflection about painting commemorative pictures on walls but about the much more illusive and complex nature of histories, identities, self expression, collaborative art forms, social practice and improvisations in the community to shape a society that is both more democratic and joyful to live in.

I-Hotel Mural

I-Hotel Mural Opening, August 4, 2010. Photograph by Bob Hsiang


The I-Hotel is an enduring case study in community arts and activism. It is grounded on the corner of Kearny and Jackson Streets, the last remaining site of San Francisco’s Manilatown. It is a living memorial to a decades-long struggle for fair housing. It is a center of Asian American political, arts and cultural movements. This story still resonates today not only because it was such a pivotal political moment but because of the art that grew out of it and continues to flourish. Though this story belongs to one very specific place at the intersection of the Filipino and Chinese communities in the Bay Area, it is not confined to this corner. There is a way that stories become myths and myths become epics or legends. When that happens, we can dip into this mixture of fact and fiction of people’s history and remember what is most important to us.

As community artists we have a particular domain, yet we branch out as part of our work. Thus, artists are not historians yet we tell histories. We are not politicians though we navigate politics. We are not social workers though we might choose to serve people and communities. We are not scientists, anthropologists or sociologists though our practice is to observe. We might support ourselves in many different professions but in the end our work and play is to create. What distinguishes art that comes out of a group is the power of collective experience. Within this collective are the individuals that shape the form and detail of the overall texture. This texture is made tangible by the crafting of memories, language, dreams, sights and sounds of the everyday into new forms. These forms reflect who we are, where we are from and how we live, becoming part of a fluid social imagination. Our country’s social imaginary is dominated by the same colonizing corporate forces that tore down the original I-Hotel. The inspiration of this epic story is that the collective prevailed and the artists were a force that endures to today. The I-Hotel then and now stands as a stage for the individual voice and collective song.

At the heart of the art that came out of the I-Hotel are the poems of Al Robles and other I-Hotel and Kearny Street artists. Drawing from the stories told by the Filipino manongs (elders) and other I-Hotel residents, they create myth through the memory of land, time, place, language, sound, ritual and image. Culturally the I-Hotel is deeply significant in the Filipino American community. Filipinos have been in the Americas since the 1500s. They are the second largest Asian American group in the United States. American culture is a richer place because of Filipino Americans, though unfortunately most of these contributions are hidden in the successful assimilation of a colonized minority.

I spent my first 15 years of life in the Philippines, in downtown Manila, and was educated in Filipino schools. I learned to speak conversational Tagalog and to view the United States in a colonial context that was both illuminating and confusing to me as a child and teenager. I am the daughter of a midwestern mother with Mayflower ancestors and New Yorker father with a German immigrant and labor-union history. I was raised in an ongoing discussion of culture, social justice, creative and scientific exploration, feminism, spiritual practice and community service. I am an adult “third-culture or trans-culture kid” who by definition spent a significant period of time as a child in one or more culture(s) other than my own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and my own birth culture, into a third culture.

We spent my childhood holidays in Baguio City, the summer capital, located in the Cordillera Central mountain range. This is the home of the Ifugao and Kalinga, who because of their remote location resisted colonization for much longer than the rest of the country. I remember the pine-spiced air of the humid mountains, Ifugao grandmothers in the market, cigarettes smoked backwards, endless rice terraces, hanging coffins, talk of headhunters, ritual dances and spiritual ceremonies. The poems of Al Robles, the “manong” of the I-Hotel arts movement, tell these stories from a street corner in San Francisco. They describe a way of life still rooted in the land and the ancient memories of generations. He traveled these mountains as a poet communicating the manong’s experiences and memories so powerfully that they pierce through our American way of life. It’s this poetry of tangible/intangible, shape-shifting, dream-telling, edge-cutting, taste-touching, sex-talking provocation of laughter and tears that reaches into our hearts that we call art.

The I-Hotel as a cultural and political phenomenon was and is fashioned through individual artists/activists and their collective imagination. The purposing of the “imagination” is critical to the field of community arts, social practice and public art programs as they develop. The artistic canon upheld by the elite cultural institutions and lucrative art marketplace relies on the individual artist or even collectives of well-positioned individual artists to sometimes work outside the traditional confines of the studio but ultimately still within in its own social circle. The accepted theories of the imagination and the art it produces continue to function as an entertainment, investment or evidence of advanced intellectual pursuit, contemplation and aesthetic refinement.

The imagination as social practice is something entirely different. It may involve fantasy, escape, contemplation, aesthetics, financial support and scholarship but it is a contemporary and age-old form of improvised and organized cultural practice. It is creative work that functions for people and communities who are, at this point in history, most often not part of the economic and social elite. Art as social practice becomes an active negotiation between different agencies, people and ideas that greatly benefits the people engaged in the exchange. In the case of the I-Hotel, it sustained 40 years of housing activism, it keeps alive the stories of its early inhabitants and it provides a new home for the elderly today as well as a cultural center for the community. The artistic and activist imagination as we attempt to realize it through a broad spectrum of socially engaged artistic projects and practices is a true experiment in bridging what divides us, leading us into new forms of collective experience.

How then are the rituals of collective inspirational experience connected historically so that they inform and engage us today? What strategies can we use to inform our own practice and teaching of community arts and socially engaged art processes? Poetry, “talk story,” music and dancing were central to the I-Hotel experience. In a related but more recent event another great manong, the late Jose Maceda, ethnomusicologist, composer, National Artist of the Philippines, brought the Ifugao ritual music and dance to Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco in 2001. He was ahead of his time in his blending western avant-garde with traditional forms of music often unfamiliar to the city Filipino. He was not a community artist by definition but a composer who kept alive and honored the communal, ritual music of the Philippines for future generations and the international arts world. Without intending to he pioneered a form of community arts by documenting, interpreting and re-contextualizing these traditional ceremonies and values of communal arts in experimental, collaborative performance events. As community artists and social practitioners we need to look in unexpected places for new ways to engage community – to learn not only about our own cultural traditions but also about those of other cultures.

Filipino cultural heritage is, in particular, not well understood but offers a wealth of possibilities to explore, not in the least considering the long historical colonial relationship between the Philippines and the United States. There are other examples of successful “Fil Am” community arts projects in the Bay Area. In the 1990s the DIWA “Fil Am” Arts Collective did a number of innovative installations and projects in the Bay Area. “Bayanihan Transition,” a community art project sponsored through the Gerbode Foundation, explored the lives of the manongs through the installation of electronic sign boards that told their stories collected from extensive interviews. The signboards were moved from several significant sites—a Filipino restaurant, a Filipino senior housing residence and a gallery space—in the spirit of bayanihan, which is the Tagalog word for a town collectively moving a neighbor’s nipa hut from one location to another.

There is the even older connection between the Philippines and Mexico and their shared traditions resulting from the 300-year Galleon Trade. All these traditions still play out in our lives today, specially in California. In this light, “Galleon Trade,” conceived by Bay Area Filipino American artist Jenifer Wofford is an international arts exchange project, focusing on the Philippines, Mexico and California. Taking the historic Acapulco-Manila galleon route as its metaphor of origin, these exhibitions and collaborations sought to create new routes of cultural exchange along old routes of commerce and trade. As communication technologies advance there are exciting possibilities in doing local/global collaborative projects in the field.

There is a dilemma in the community arts movement that has to do with the role of the artist. Artists who work in the community navigate a new territory. This land lies between that mythological land of our communal origins where art was created as ritual and a shared transformative experience for the whole group and our current times where we have been industrialized, categorized and separated to create an obedient work force. We are professionalized, trained and judged by how much money we make. Our taxes tell us our work in the arts is a hobby if we can’t justify the deductions. In reality we are cultural workers for a society that is happy when we begin the gentrification process of dangerous neighborhoods, bring in tourists and entertain when we are asked to. Beyond that are the endless justifications and assessments demanded to prove the value of what we do as art, as service and as education. In a socially focused arts practice we care about the inter-personal, political and ethical implications of our work. At the same time if we are too wrapped up in the service aspect of this process we lose site of the art. The I-Hotel is an interesting site artistically because Al Robles, who worked in the meals program of Manilatown, enjoyed both the community service of his role and his own uncensored voice as a poet. The best projects are those where the focus is the art and the collaborative process unfolds with pleasure rather than self-consciousness. The results are more varied, the individual artists recognized for their unique contributions and the group engaged in unexpected improvisations that are grounded in a foundation of shared interests and values.

There are a number of strategies that have been used to engage the public in arts processes and projects. The mural is a “classic” (think cave paintings) and often under-appreciated form of painting that lends itself easily to community collaborative projects. There is a reason that large public spaces are so populated by advertising. Whenever these sites are successfully appropriated for non-commercial purposes it is a victory. Historic landmarks that celebrate events, people, cultures and communities return the urban landscape to us and spare us from another piece of unwanted corporate graffiti. The I-Hotel mural that I created in 2010 stakes out its own spot in the landscape of downtown San Francisco with Coit Tower on its left and the Pyramid Building behind it. This mural was the result of a nearly three-year-long process of community engagement, fundraising, implementation and celebration.

The windows of the new I-Hotel bear permanently etched photos and texts by its photographers and poets. Architecturally integrated public art is an effective way of transforming our built environments into lasting works of art that hold the community voice. Public art too often falls on the side of architectural design or a boosterism that is just another form of advertising for institutions. There can be too much community input driven by the plans of bureaucrats, project managers and politicians. The experienced public and/or community artist should be trusted to lead this process to produce the best work of art. There are many techniques of engaging community in public projects. One way is not better than the other and all options should be explored based on site and budget and the creative interests of the artist and participants.

Installations in art spaces provide another opportunity for community expression. Manilatown Art Center in the new I-Hotel offers this opportunity to the artist community. In the recent “Placesetting” exhibit I collected materials from the community and created an installation of table settings. “Placesetting” centers on the concept of how we create a “place” for our families, our communities and ourselves. The “setting” in this artwork combines the utilitarian objects of a table setting with the art, necessity, emotion and politics of creating home and community. The “Placesetting” exhibit offered “souvenirs” to the public to take to their own homes, to use or to display as works of art, as remembrances or as objects of curiosity. I involved senior residents from the current I-Hotel in a workshop through which they made their own plates, cups and bowls for the exhibit. The opening of the “Placesetting” exhibit on December 14, 2010, brought the seniors, Manilatown and the art community together in an evening of singing, dancing and the sharing of food and art. During this exhibit, on Chinese New Year, composer Anne Perez performed her “Mahjong” piece with the seniors. Through amplification of the mahjong table the participants enjoyed playing the game while becoming part of an experimental music performance. Truthfully it is the karaoke afternoons at Manilatown Center that the seniors love the most. Whether creative engagement of community is traditional, experimental or anything in between, the moments we are seeking are those where we think, communicate, move and make something together.

Poster from Villanueva Vignettes series by Jenifer K Wofford

Flor, like many other immigrants and lower-income residents, gets caught up in the big S.F, urban renewal/redevelopment fall-out. She’s drawn to the Chinatown/Manilatown area for its familiar-feeling Asian population and food, but also finds herself fascinated by oddities like the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant/punk music venue in the neighborhood. Having become part of the extended community that has converged around the International Hotel (I-Hotel), a low-cost residential hotel on Kearny Street, she is outraged by the forced evictions of the elderly men living there. Calling forth the political spirit of one of her brothers back home, Flor begins her own journey into Bay Area-style activism by protesting the evictions alongside thousands of others.