SoMa’s Kapwa Gardens: Built for the Filipino community

Zoe Binder

Staff Writer

A group of 350 volunteers from across San Francisco and the Bay Area made good use of their shelter-in-place downtime last year and built Kapwa Gardens, the newest addition to San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural District, SOMA (South of Market) Pilipinas. Their journey began after Kultivate Labs, a non-profit in SOMA Pilipinas, won the city of San Francisco’s request for proposals to build at 967 Mission Street, a formerly vacant lot.

Construction on the space began last fall, with the Filipino word “kapwa,” a concept of interconnectedness and shared identity, as the driving force. “It means a lot of things to different people, but in essence, it’s deep empathy,” Desi Danganan, Executive Director of Kultivate Labs, said in an interview with KQED. “Once you have empathy, you have that inner-connectedness and understand the notion of bayanihan and collaboration.”

The space features bright murals by local Filipino artists and hosts musical and theatrical performances for the public to attend. Art Director of Kapwa Gardens, Andre Sibayan, spoke about its design in an interview with Papalodown. “This project needed to have it’s own identity, but also feel congruent to these other community-based projects in SOMA Pilipinas,” he said. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Kapwa Gardens was in the beginning stages of its design. Since the gardens were designed to host several food trucks and other entertainment simultaneously — which did not align with social distancing regulations — the San Francisco city government planned on revoking Kultivate Lab’s authorization on the project. Danganan knew they would have to change their plans. “We realized that the premise of our designs for the space weren’t even legal anymore,” he said in an interview with 48 Hills. “Why don’t we just flip the script and design it for COVID?” 

The design for Kapwa Gardens also underwent a conceptual shift with the rise of the pandemic, Danganan told KQED. “Our underlying premise was how can we heal our community from this pandemic and then build space that facilitates that as well as programming on top of it,” he said. Now, in addition to providing a space for healing during the pandemic, Kapwa Gardens is the only public space in San Francisco specifically designed for social distancing and safe gatherings. 

Danganan started noticing a lack of representation for Filipinos in San Francisco from a young age. “Growing up Asian American, there’s Chinatown and Japantown, and like where are we? Why are we so invisible?” he said to KQED. In the early to mid-20th century, a three-block area near Jackson Square was largely Filipino until evictions in the 1970s displaced many people.

SOMA Pilipinas was officially recognized as San Francisco’s Filipino Culture Heritage District in 2016, and the designation has helped to protect Filipinos from displacement, and keep local Filipino businesses running. Since then, the area has become rich with Filipino culture, including the founding of Arkipelago Books, the Bayanihan Community Center, and several Filipino restaurants. 

Danganan told KQED that Kapwa Gardens is, “A beacon of hope for other communities as well that we can survive this and come out better. In the long term, what I’m hoping is that the garden not only grows in the sense of more foliage but really sets the seeds of developing a new Filipino cultural district.”

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