According to the San Francisco city government website, Filipinx people have been in the Bay Area since 1858. Since then, the Filipinx community has established a vibrant cultural legacy in San Francisco, despite challenges. The city’s cultural district is doing important work to revitalize the vibrancy of Filipinx San Francisco, and its efforts should continue.
The area South of Market Street (SOMA) has been significant for the Filipinx population. According to the San Francisco Examiner, it was once known as Manilatown, after the capital of the Philippines. In the early waves of Filipinx migration, “Legislation forbid Filipinos from owning land or setting up businesses[…] They stayed in labor camps, rooming houses and hotels,” according to the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. The International Hotel in SoMa became a place Filipinos could live for extended periods of time and became a foundation of Filipinx culture in San Francisco.
A variety of Filipino cultural institutions grew around the International Hotel. According to FoundSF, Filipinx cafes, nightclubs, and clothing stores thrived in the SoMa district, creating a cultural enclave through the early 1960s.
In the 1970s, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency pursued a sweeping plan to “renew” areas of the city, according to the Manilatown Heritage Organization. As the I-Hotel San Francisco organization stated, the Financial District increasingly encroached upon Manilatown, culminating in a forceful eviction of Filipinos from the I-Hotel despite heavy protest. The I-Hotel was demolished in 1977, according to FoundSF.
SoMa continued to be culturally significant for Filipinx Americans. In 2005, after decades of organizing by community activists, the new I-Hotel was opened, along with the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. Since then, the city has taken steps to preserve Filipino heritage in SoMa through the San Francisco Cultural Districts program.
According to the City and County of San Francisco’s website, “The Cultural Districts program is a place-making and place-keeping program that preserves, strengthens and promotes cultural communities.” In 2016, San Francisco designated the SoMa neighborhood as SoMa Filipinas, a Filipinx cultural district, headed by the Filipino American Development Foundation.
According to the California Cultural Districts organization, SoMa Filipinas “honors 120+ history of Filipinos in San Francisco, and celebrates the community’s living legacy of making home, celebrating culture, building community and fighting for economic and racial justice in the rapidly gentrifying South of Market neighborhood.” The district is an important part of righting the wrongs of the past for Filipinx San Francisco.
According to San Francisco’s 2022 Cultural History Housing Economic Sustainability Strategy Report, one-third of Filipinx San Franciscans live in the 1.5-square mile SoMa district. The district hosts various organizations to facilitate Filipinx culture, including the Bayanihan Equity Center and the South Of Market Community Action Network, and features many Filipinx-owned small businesses. It also provides crucial affordable housing “through small site acquisition and development agreements,” according to SOMA Filipinas.
San Francisco hasn’t always done right by its Filipinx community. However, developing the SOMA Filipinas District is a step in the right direction to right the wrongs of the past. The Filipinx cultural district is important to the preservation of Filipinx culture in San Francisco, and these efforts must continue.