Poetry In History: Writing About the I-Hotel

Scene from the 1977 I-Hotel Eviction (Credit: SF Chronicle)

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts.  For each post in the series, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and  conclude with an idea that we hope will provoke you to respond. Today’s post is about the fraught history of the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown.

In 1977, San Francisco’s Manilatown community suffered a huge blow with the final eviction of the mostly Filipino American residents from the International Hotel (or I-Hotel).  This followed  almost a decade’s worth of protest and community struggle in the hopes that the building, which had housed many Filipino immigrants throughout the years, would not become yet another victim of the city’s gentrification projects.   For years after the final residents were removed, the building — and later, the site — stood empty, the hole a yawning reminder of what had been lost.  One of the major voices speaking out against the fall of Hotel belonged to the poet, musician, and activist Al Robles. The I-Hotel was a recurring theme that wove throughout his work and took on breath, shape, and life through his poetry.  Robles’ nephew wrote the following on the recent anniversary of his death:

“In the I-Hotel he [Robles] traveled up the stairs and the doors opened to those small rooms; the smell of rice and adobo and fish was there; the face of the manong was there—he knew the face—it was the face of his father and mother and ninong and ninang. He sat across from the manongs and in their faces he saw the motherland, in their hearts and minds he journeyed and tasted what he described the “thick adobo tales of their lives”. Those elderly men were alive and in Uncle Al’s poetry they became young again.” (Tony Robles, “Still Hanging onto the Carabao’s Tail”)

The I-Hotel was eventually rebuilt into a community center.  The new building, opened in 2005, houses the Manilatown Heritage Foundation and is a hub for political and arts events.  Al Robles passed away in 2009, but his legacy continues to be celebrated.  Other poets have since followed in Robles’ footsteps, writing about their relationship to the city of San Francisco, and to the “ground zero” that was the I-Hotel site.  One such poet is Barbara Jane Reyes, whose poem dedicated to Robles is forthcoming in the first issue of Lantern Review. In her book Poeta en San Francisco, Reyes touches on the shape of this wound, invoking the evicted bodies whose physical rootlessness signifies a history fraught with forced erasures and displacements.  In her poem “calle de sección ocho, casas de abuelos y de abuelas,” her speaker invites us to enter the hole in the ground where the hotel once stood

“the unused hole in the ground located at the corner of kearney and
jackson across from celluloid god’s patina café may one day contain
supportive tenant services and artifacts of blue men’s billy clubs in the
meantime just gawk at it and take polaroids don’t hold your breath
few descend into the hole it’s been 30 years”

Manilatown itself becomes a ghost with a cavity in place of the organ that was the I-Hotel, which by the end of the poem is revealed to be a type of inverted sanctuary, inhabited by “ghosts and discarded things,” made remarkable for its absence — its existence etched out in the negativity of its space, the way that it tunnels into the earth rather than rises up from it.

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