From Mindfulness to Homefulness: The I-Hotel and the Struggle for Homefulness

cayley - Posted on 01 November 2010

In many ways the heart of homefulness is the struggle and fight for the International
Hotel. The “I-Hotel” was the epicenter for the fight for affordable housing in San
Francisco in the late 60's and 70's amidst a climate of business expansion and gentrification of neighborhoods—full-scale removal of neighborhoods, such as Manilatown, adjacent to San Francisco’s Chinatown, to make way for the expansion and voracious hunger for land on the part of the city’s financial district.

I grew up eating across the street from the I-Hotel, across the table from my father who
would order food from the waitress everybody affectionately called mama. “Mama, give
me rice, pig nose, Chinese sausage and oxtail”. I’d watch mama give the order to Jim,
the cook; a Filipino old timer whose eyes said everything his mouth couldn’t.

Mama would bring out the food and I’d watch my father pick it up with his hands—rice
mixed with pig, mixed with fish—against the backdrop of the I-hotel—the abandoned
brick building across the street from the Silverwing Café and Smokey Wong’s garage. It
was the heart of Manilatown, the place where Filipino and Chinese elders lived. It was a
place where artists and poets created their art for the community in place like the Kearny
Street Worshop. It was where young revolutionaries like Bill Sorro answered the call
when it was slated to be demolished--displacing its elder residents to make way for a
parking lot. I can never forget the image of Bill Sorro captured in the film, The Fall of
the I-Hotel, walking to the offices of Walter Shorenstein—billionaire landlord of the I-
Hotel, saying, “I’m here to speak to Mr. Shorenstein”. I thought, that’s the kind of man I
want to be, a real man.

I’d watch my father eat in the indigenous way, with his hands, while I used knife and
fork. What I saw as a kid was merely my father eating breakfast, but what I see as a man
is our ancestors from the I-Hotel, and the ancestors who preceded them, speaking through my father. The act of going back to Manilatown after it had literally been destroyed was an act of resistance—the act of being close to the I-Hotel, empty, but not abandoned
following the eviction of its tenants, was an act of resistance to the forced uprooting of
the Manilatown community. The act of eating with his hands was my father’s resistance
to the forced capitalist notions of what is decent and proper and acceptable.

What was not acceptable or decent was the eviction of our elders from the I-Hotel, elders
who had worked their entire lives to achieve the American Dream but were confronted
by the myths and lies that make up the layers of that dream. It was the community’s
dream—the community of poets, artists, activists, students, and ordinary people—to
have a place where our elders could gather with the youth and celebrate their lives. To
celebrate their struggle—which is the best part of our poetry—gathering together, eating
with their hands, and, as the poet Al Robles once wrote, “Taste the thick adobo tales of
their lives”.

Someone once wrote, it’s not what you look at, but rather, what you see. Capitalism
sees only more, wants only more. It has no memory beyond the latest sale or row of
figures. Capitalism cannot quantify the heart because capitalism has no heart. It will
not—cannot-- recognize work that has no paycheck and boss attached to the end of it.
Capitalism doesn’t concern itself with what you did yesterday, much less 10-20 years
ago. That’s why it was of no consequence—in capitalism’s eyes--that the elders of the
I-Hotel were discarded after a lifetime of work, their small rooms containing lifetimes
of memories of struggle demolished after a long and hard fought battle on the part of the
elders to keep their homes. In the eyes of capitalism, parking lots hold more importance
than people.

Homefulness is a dream that will become a reality. Homefulness is housing that is
not concerned with how much money you earn but rather is concerned with equity
and justice. Homefulness is about honoring our elders and youth and recognizing the
things one brings to the community that does not destroy the community: activism,
interdependence, eldership, art, poetry and the act of surviving an inhuman system
backed by corporate misinformation, ideals, the police and the non-profit industrial
complex. It is a dream that was planted long ago by the elders of the International Hotel
who knew that housing is a human right.

It was a dream that was honestly articulated by the poet Al Robles who said of the
Manongs (The Filipino elders of the I-Hotel) “They need a place because there is no
place for them”. Homefulness is that place, a place that is our own and not tied down to
one’s income. It is a place conceived by the poverty, disabled and migrant scholars of
POOR Magazine who see possibilities beyond the struggle to be housed and the unequal
dynamics that exist between the landlords and the landless. It is a place where we can eat
with just our hands, like our ancestors did. A place where we can say, “Mama, can I have
more rice”. And there’s enough rice for everybody.

© 2010 Tony Robles


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