Protesters link arms in front of the International Hotel, Aug. 4, 1977. Photo by Nancy Wong, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26624067. Inset: Jeanette Lazam leaving the I-Hotel with tenant leader Wahat Tampao, Aug. 4, 1977. Screenshot from “The Fall of the I-Hotel” courtesy of Curtis Choy and the Manilatown Heritage Foundation
By Estella Habal and Hilton Obenzinger
Jeanette Lazam and the other tenants of the old International Hotel – known as the I-Hotel – were evicted in the early morning of August 4, 1977 after a nearly decade-long struggle to remain in one of the last vestiges of what was known as Manilatown, squeezed between Chinatown and the financial district of San Francisco.
“Coming home!” Jeanette exclaimed. “I never thought I’d utter those words. In some respects, it scares me to think that after 44 years I will step onto the doormat of the International Hotel Senior Housing to take up my rightful place in my very own apartment. There are so many emotions when I think about moving back into the International Hotel that it leaves me breathless.” But on June 3, 2021 Jeanette did in fact come home, moving into a room at the new International Hotel. “It has been such a long time that I probably won’t remember where I left my shadow that August morning when Wahat Tampao [tenant leader] and I walked out of the hotel to a grey and misty city that once held the promise of low-income housing in 1977,” she said.
There was a lot of trauma after the horrific eviction. “For the first time ever since I started living and organizing in the hotel, I couldn’t offer the tenants encouragement,” Jeanette recalled years later. “I couldn’t offer them hope that our hotel would be saved. I felt so totally helpless. By five o’clock in the morning, it was all over. I walked out of the hotel arm-in-arm with Wahat Tampao, leader of the IHTA [International Hotel Tenants Association]. We walked out the front door. He turned to look at the hotel and fell on his knees sobbing like a child. Wahat was a warrior, and now this warrior, this fierce noble tribesman, wept in my arms.”
Jeanette was glad, but also sad, returning to the site of one of the key housing and anti-racist struggles of the 1970s. Tenants of the old I-Hotel get priority to move into the new senior housing built in 2005. Most of the elderly tenants who lived there in 1977 had passed away, but a few of the younger ones had moved in. She was one those younger tenants, an activist fighting for the manongs (Filipino term of respect for elders) and for low-income housing. Now she was returning as an elder. “I was told that I am the last former tenant to take my place at the Hotel,” she said. “After me, there is no more.”
HOUSING RIGHTS VS. PROPERTY RIGHTS
In November 1968, elderly Filipino tenants first protested their eviction from the International Hotel. The struggle to save their home was a battle to preserve low-income housing for the primarily Filipino and other Asian tenants.
“Urban renewal” aimed at transforming San Francisco from a blue-collar to a white-collar town, dominated by corporate and financial interests, and the I-Hotel was part of a citywide resistance. Corporate downtown expansion was the master plan for San Francisco, and I-Hotel tenants wanted to preserve their community from further encroachment. As redevelopment continued to destroy the neighborhood, the I-Hotel stood on the last block of Manilatown, a neighborhood running down Kearny Street along the spine of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Filipinos were considered expendable as San Francisco expanded the downtown area to accommodate finance capital. It was the manongs’ last stand, a battle between human rights and low-income housing over property rights. A parking lot was slated to take the I-Hotel’s place.
The I-Hotel tenants sparked a protest movement that gathered broad support from the Filipino and Asian communities, and far beyond. It drew in a wide range of grassroots communities, such as the artists facing eviction in the Goodman Building, the J-Town Collective stopping the urban removal of the Japanese community, Glide Church, Peoples Temple, and other religious groups, the Black Panther Party, the ILWU, United Farmworkers, and other unions, housing advocates, Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL), Third World liberation groups, Northern California Alliance (NCA), and independent radicals and anti-imperialists.
At the core of the resistance was the IHTA, working closely with members of Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP) or Union of Democratic Filipinos. In the broader support coalition were other left-wing Asian American organizations, such as the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), Asian Community Center (ACC), Everybody’s Bookstore, and the Kearny Street Workshop. All of these groups had found space in the building’s basement storefronts, and the I-Hotel was known as the Red Block.
The movement mobilized thousands to the I-Hotel at 848 Kearny Street. Demonstrations would stretch around the block from Jackson to Columbus to Washington Streets and back again, surrounding the building.
The battle lasted nine years, but on August 4, 1977, a human barricade of defenders more than 3000 strong could not prevent the I-Hotel tenants from being evicted. Non-violent civil disobedience could not stop the police and sheriffs from forcing their way through the human barricade with horses while swinging batons, nor stop them from peeling back the physical barricades set up to block doors and entryways. The tenants were evicted one by one into the cold night and early morning air, leaving them stranded and homeless.
The struggle did not end the night of the eviction, despite the despair. Organizing from the bottom up, the IHTA had built a base of support involving the left, liberals, and government officials. This meant that the I-Hotel struggle put pressure on elected officials, and many city supervisors and the mayor came to support the effort to turn the I-Hotel into a permanent site for low-income housing for the elderly. The pressure was great enough to gain funding and cooperation from the federal and city governments for the project.
In 2005, 28 years after the eviction, a new International Hotel Senior Housing building was erected on the site, with 104 units of low income housing for the elderly. Although the Manilatown neighborhood had been erased, the Chinatown community, seniors, and the poor were able to benefit and live in the new facility. The International Hotel Manilatown Center was established on the ground floor as a performance, exhibition and educational space to commemorate the former tenants and the entire first generation of Filipino immigrants.
BONDS ACROSS GENERATIONS
Jeanette Lazam was one of the youth who first became involved in the I-Hotel as a student at San Francisco State College and remained active throughout the struggle, even moving in to become a tenant. The I-Hotel’s social composition was familiar to her because her father had a similar economic and social background.
Francisco Lazam was an aspiring student who had come to the U.S. in 1928 to study at Fordham University. He had a scholarship, but after the stock market crash in 1929 he could no longer pay the tuition, and ended up as a migrant farmworker harvesting different crops up and down the West Coast and taking domestic service jobs to survive, like the other Filipino men who lived in the I-Hotel. Many of the manongs even said they knew Francisco after they inquired about Jeanette’s family name. She later learned that he had even lived at the I-Hotel before moving to New York where she was born and grew up. Coming home to the I-Hotel on June 3, 2021, was, as Jeanette said, like “coming face-to-face with my father.”
“Will I remember the names etched on the walls?” she wondered. “Will I hear [poet] Al Robles whisper in my ear, then laugh, then smack me on my arm and walk away? Can I see my buddy Tex Lamera and will he invite me in his room for a short chat? Oh, Mr. Lamera is long gone . . . What kind of homecoming is this? There aren’t any people just ghosts of years past hiding in the brick and mortar waiting to be released by the living.”
Many of the elderly tenants were experienced union organizers and fighters in the agricultural fields of Delano, Salinas and Stockton, and the canneries in Alaska, and were tough veterans of the fight against Japanese fascism during World War II. The youth and the manongs bonded inter-generationally into a leadership core that included the IHTA and the KDP. Jeanette was a KDP I-Hotel team member, along with Estella Habal and Emil de Guzman, who eventually became president of the IHTA. As a member of the I-Hotel leadership, Jeanette’s work would involve attending meetings with the tenants, organizers, and support coalitions. She also wrote articles about the I-Hotel regularly for the KDP newspaper Ang Katipunan.
The elderly tenants and the young radicals learned from each other. One lesson that Jeanette and the KDP I-Hotel team learned was that intergenerational bonds are crucial in social movements, a lesson often obscured by the focus at that time on the rise of youth culture. For Filipinos, the I-Hotel struggle helped to forge a unified Filipino community linking elderly immigrants from the early twentieth century and young people who were raising their consciousness of ethnic pride, as well as their awareness of racial and class inequities. The movement to resist the eviction of the I-Hotel was also a major moment in the fight to allow the “non-rich” – the poor, working class, and even the middle class – to remain in San Francisco, a struggle that continues to this day.
At the time of the eviction Jeanette was 28 and could have gone on to a comfortable life as a college-educated professional. But she took a different path to become a revolutionary activist, often supporting herself with jobs that would not interfere with her political work. Before the eviction she had worked with two of the women tenants, Luisa Delacruz and Nita Rader, in a jewelry factory and as a baker at People’s Bakery. After the eviction she held various jobs at the San Francisco’s Women’s Building, Asian Health Services in Oakland, the AIDS Emergency Fund, and the Shanti Project. She moved to New York to lead study groups for the Marxist Leninist Education Project, while working in a law firm doing legal research.
In the 1980s Jeanette took a break and moved to the Philippines, where her mother lived, to work in a bakery there. Her last job was working for Congresswoman Barbara Lee managing her district 2003-2005. It paid well, but soon the health problems that plagued her kept her from working. She suffered from multiple cancers and the debilitating effects of treatment. She developed spinal injuries leading to several surgeries, and she had to cope with heart failure. She endured all of this, and was placed in hospice care – but miraculously she survived, and had the unique opportunity to leave hospice care. During this time, she moved from Oakland to Taos, New Mexico, and then to Ashland, Oregon before her apartment became available at the I-Hotel.
In addition to being a former tenant, Jeanette had to have income below a certain level, and with her career of low-paying jobs she readily qualified. The new I-Hotel was a victory, in the end, for low-income housing in a city that continues to be increasingly gentrified. It would be unlikely that Jeanette could find a place to live in the city otherwise. Often, struggles for social justice can take years, even decades, to culminate in a victory, and it’s rare for someone who was at the beginning of such a struggle to see its end. Jeanette Lazam was there then, and she’s home now.
The Manilatown Heritage Foundation has worked for two years to obtain housing for Jeanette Lazam and three more former tenants at the new International Hotel Senior Residences. Manilatown is producing a documentary on the return of the I-Hotel tenants. “Long Live the I-Hotel” will be released in 2022. For more information, please visit www.manilatown.org.