SOMA Pilipinas: Past and Future
SOMA Pilipinas, San Francisco's Filipino Cultural Heritage District located in the South of Market, is home to a network of community-serving organizations, cultural institutions, multi-generational residents, workers, artists, and activists that
SOMA Pilipinas’ formal recognition in 2016 is a result of decades of organizing and community advocacy and the resilience and collective power of the Filipino community in the face of political struggle, dispossession, and disinvestment.
The South of Market (SOMA) has historically been an industrial and working class neighborhood. Though SOMA Pilipinas was formally recognized in 2016, the Filipino community’s presence in San Francisco spans over a century. With the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the SOMA quickly became one of the main gateways for Filipino immigrants moving to the U.S.
Policies including urban redevelopment and the expansion of San Francisco’s Downtown and Financial District after WWII began to displace Filipino residents and erase long-standing Filipino neighborhoods, most notably the destruction of Manilatown, San Francisco’s first Filipino enclave. Though the fall of the International Hotel in 1977 marked the end of Manilatown, it sparked the beginning of San Francisco’s contemporary housing movement, serving as a formative experience for many Filipinos who would become involved in future struggles against displacement.
In the 1990s, the dot-com boom brought new challenges to the SOMA. The rise of evictions through the Ellis Act, illegal conversions of industrial property to office use, and displacement of residents and businesses to make way for market-rate development made it imperative for the community to organize.
Given the erasure of Manilatown just decades prior, the community understood the urgency to protect their neighborhood and cultural assets. They fought to rebuild Bessie Carmichael and preserve the FEC, the first elementary school in the nation to offer Filipino bilingual education. They created Victoria Manalo Draves Park, named after a Filipino-American Olympian and SOMA resident, and protected anchor businesses and institutions like Arkipelago Bookstore and Bindlestiff Studio, the first Filipino bookstore and the only Filipino-American arts theater in the United States, respectively.
During this time, the South of Market also became home to hundreds of Filipino WWII veterans. The Veterans Equity Center opened its doors to the public in 1999, providing housing application assistance, counseling, legal referral services, and case management. San Francisco became the headquarters for the fight for full equity for Filipino WWII Veterans who were not recognized for their services due to the Rescission Act of 1946.
The current gentrification and displacement crisis is historically linked to the pattern of market-driven growth that has shaped planning and development in San Francisco. The first and second technology booms have brought in enormous amounts of capital to the city. This process of wealth generation, like that of the past, has been to the direct detriment of marginalized communities in San Francisco. The dot-com boom in 1995 (crashing soon after in 2000) saw mass evictions, especially in the Mission, and the rapid transformation of the SOMA where the boom in San Francisco was centered.
The second tech boom has been much longer-lasting than the first. Beginning in 2010, technology companies began to settle again and grow in the San Francisco Bay Area. City government played a critical role in ushering in and supporting the tech boom, passing plans and policies that attract technology corporations, often at the direct expense of low-income, immigrant, working-class communities and communities of color.
The infamous Twitter Tax Break is one example, as is the more recently passed Central SOMA Plan, which explicitly sought to continue the expansion of high rise office uses in the SOMA, specifically for tech. The persistent drum of never-ending market-rate housing development has also been a core feature of the tech economy, with the constant unfulfilled promise that the wealth will eventually trickle down.
The second tech boom has been accompanied by another wave of evictions, displacement, and gentrification that persist to this day. Mirroring the overt plans of the past to create a richer and whiter San Francisco during Urban Renewal, the city has steadily lost low-income and working-class residents and had a net out-migration of Black and Latino residents from 2006-2015 as wealthier residents came into the city. The struggle for official recognition and the formal establishment of SOMA Pilipinas is part of this longer fight for economic and racial justice, visibility, recognition, and cultural preservation.
These realities have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately impacting communities already suffering from gentrification and displacement. At the height of the pandemic, the SOMA shouldered a high burden of COVID-19 cases compared to the rest of the city. COVID-19, however, only exacerbated existing inequities, including housing instability, low wages, food insecurity, health insecurity, lack of childcare, and more.
SOMA Pilipinas is a community in action and a cultural movement that resists the profit-driven transformation of the SOMA, and is advancing a model of self-determination and community development that puts the needs, experiences, and realities of low-income Filipino seniors, families, and workers at the center.
Today, SOMA Pilipinas, alongside the community, is actively advocating for strategies to not only preserve their home and cultural heritage, but also address the myriad of issues impacting the community, many of which are articulated in SOMA Pilipinas’ Cultural Heritage, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategies report submitted to the City in 2021.