Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Welcome to SOMA

May is our month, according to the US Congress which passed a law in 1992 proclaiming May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month to honor the achievements of Asian/Pacific Americans.

Congress chose May not because Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal visited San Francisco in May of 1888 but because Japanese immigrants first arrived in the U.S. on May 7, 143, and because the transcontinental railroad, built largely with Chinese labor, was completed on May 10, 1869.

When the US Congress designates a commemorative month, government agencies and schools are required to sponsor programs or events to honor the ethnic group or groups during that month. In US cities with large ethnic Asian populations, various celebrations are held to mark the occasion. In San Francisco, the major event will be the 3rd Annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration on May 19 in the SOMA (South of Market) District.

Sponsored by the AsianWeek Foundation, the Celebration rotates its location annually to showcase the diverse Asian enclaves of San Francisco. In its first year, the event was held in Japantown (Nihonmachi). Last year, it was held in the Sunset District which has become San Francisco’s new Chinatown. This year it will be held in the SOMA with its large Filipino community and heritage.

At the April 17 kick-off event for the street fair, I welcomed 200 Asian/Pacific American community leaders of San Francisco and informed them that "from the 1920s up to the present, and especially during the 50s and 60s, SoMa has been the entry point of Filipinos in San Francisco. It is home to many of our cultural centers, restaurants, seniors/veterans facilities, schools and churches."

Before SOMA became a Filipino enclave, it was home to successive generations of European, Latin American and Asian ethnic groups who settled there because zoning regulations had set industrial activity for the area. This led to the construction of low-cost housing for factory and warehouse workers to be close to their places of employment, as well as for merchant marines, sailors, and others associated with San Francisco’s thriving waterfront activity.

Among the early Filipino residents of SOMA was Theodore Manalo, a Filipino cook who lived near 10th and Howard. In the 1920s, he married an English immigrant, Gertrude Taylor, who was the widow of a fellow Filipino cook who died of pneumonia. They had three kids, one of whom, Victoria, would later win fame and glory and two gold medals in platform diving at the 1948 London Olympics.

In October of 2006, San Francisco opened its newest city park in the SOMA district and named it Victoria Manalo Draves Park. It is situated in what was formerly the site of the Bessie Carmichael Elementary School, which was named after the school principal when Victoria Manalo was a student there. The school, which relocated to a new site adjacent to the park, has the highest percentage of Filipino students in the San Francisco Unified School District and has a Fil-Am principal, Jeff Burgos.

A little known factoid: the old Bessie Carmichael School was built on what was once Columbia Square, a park which featured war booty artifacts (old cannons) from the Filipino American War of 1899.

In the 1920s, Filipinos (US “nationals”) were not allowed to buy and own property in California (the law changed only in 1948). Because Masonic lodges could buy and own property, Filipinos formed three major Masonic lodges – Gran Oriente Filipino (GOF), Caballeros de Dimasalang (CDA) and Legionarios del Trabajadores (LDT). In 1921, about 40 Gran Oriente Filipino seamen purchased a hotel they renamed the Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel in the South Park area of SOMA to use as a meeting place and boarding house for their members.
The building still stands as housing for aging Gran Oriente members. In the 1970s, the Caballeros de Dimasalang joint ventured with a local affordable housing group (TODCO) to obtain funds from the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to build the Dimasalang House, a 149 apartment unit housing for seniors in the SOMA area.

The group renamed the four streets surrounding the building after Filipino heroes – Dr. Jose Rizal, Tandang Sora, Bonifacio
and Lapulapu. The building, now called the San Lorenzo Ruiz Center (named after the first Filipino saint), also houses San Francisco’s tallest mural depicting the history of Filipinos in the Philippines and in the US.

Neighborhood historian MC Canlas notes that “of all the poblaciones outside the Philippines, South of Market (SOMA) in San Francisco is perhaps the closest in layout and character to the plaza complex in the towns and cities of the
Philippines.” Canlas points to the presence in SOMA of the venerable 175-year old St. Patrick’s Church where “all the pastoral staff and almost 90% of the parishioners are Filipino,” where some masses are held in Tagalog and where the church's pastor emeritus is Monsignor Fred Bitanga.

Across from St. Patrick’s Church is the Yerba Buena Gardens where the annual Pistahan (Fiesta) is celebrated in August. A few blocks from the Church is the Filipino Education Center built in the 1970s for Filipino newcomer students like then 5-year old Marivic Bamba who would - 25 years later - be appointed Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

Most of the service providers for the Filipino community are located west of St. Patrick’s Church, including the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center (180-7th Street), the SoMa Teen Center (175–7th Street), Canon Kip Senior Center (705 Natoma), Bahay-Bayanan and the FilAm Development Foundation (965 Mission), the SoMa Child Care Center (366 Clementina), Galing-Bata (824 Harrison), the Yerba Buena Child Development Center (790 Folsom) and the SoMa Recreation Center (270-6th Street).

The Bayanihan House, an affordable housing complex that’s home to more than 100 Filipino seniors, is located at 6th and Mission along with the Bayanihan Community and Commercial Center. The collaborative running Bayanihan and two other Filipino centers is headed by Bernadette Borja-Sy, whose late father, Dr. Mario Borja, was the owner of the hotel before it was sold to Todco. A block down, between 4th and 5th Streets in the Bloomingdale’s complex is the Filipino Cultural Center, headed by Marivic Bamba, which received a grant of $388,441 from the US Congress, sponsored by the local congresswoman, now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

According to the 2000 Census, there were about 13,500 people living within SoMa boundaries. In 1990, there were only 8,000 and in 1980, just 5,400 people in the area. About 35% of the current residents are Filipino.

Let’s welcome our Asian/Pacific American brothers and sisters to our SOMA community at 7th and Howard on May 19.

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