Touring embattled Chinatown with ‘the mayor’ and the supervisor

By David Talbot : sfchronicle – excerpt

Gordon Chin is a cool dude. He likes his smokes and his dive bars (Grasslands is his favorite). He digs jazz, and used to haunt the hungry i and other clubs where the likes of Miles Davis and Nina Simone sanctified the stage. In fact, he’s so cool that he can even get away with wearing Hawaiian shirts — he has a whole closet full of them. He has some explanation about it, something about the Hawaiian concept of ohana, or “family,” that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that when Chin retired as executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center in 2011, dozens of people threw better judgment (or inner shame) aside and slipped into aloha shirts in his honor. Because the coolest thing about Chin is that he made being a Chinatown activist cool.

Like the late, great mover and shaker Rose Pak, Chin was part of the 1960s/’70s generation that announced to the city that Chinatown was no longer going to be its meek, exotic tourist playground. Chin’s style was more low-key than the brash and brawling Pak. But he was no less effective. During his run at the community center, the nonprofit group built over 2,300 affordable housing units in Chinatown, spearheaded the mixed-use rezoning of the neighborhood to ensure that it wouldn’t be swallowed by the encroaching Financial District, and helped secure the future of the community that has been a portal for poor and striving Chinese immigrants since the 1840s.

So it makes sense that Chin will be serving as the honorary marshal of the Chinese New Year Parade on Saturday. As the raucous event looms, I thought I’d check in with the man who some call the mayor of Chinatown and take a walk through the neighborhood with him. Looking for Chin at Portsmouth Square, I bumped into his political comrade, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who decided to join us for the stroll through his district. Standing in the square, surrounded by romping children and clusters of retirees playing chess and mah-jongg, Chin and Peskin surveyed the terrain before them like generals recalling an old battleground…(more)

Below them, at the corner of Kearny and Jackson, was the new International Hotel — the 16-story affordable housing development opened by the community center in 2005 and named after the old residential hotel for Filipino and Chinese immigrants. The original I-Hotel was the scene of the most bitter antieviction battle in the city’s history, pitting tenants and young activists like Chin against powerful developers. There were pitched battles with the police and sheriff’s deputies, and at one point the cops even turned their frustration on a demolition contractor who was trying to bulldoze the building before the legal process had run its course. The demolition crew boss “finally stopped his bulldozer,” recalled Chin in his fascinating 2015 memoir, “Building Community, Chinatown Style,” only “after San Francisco police officer Dennis Meixner pulled his firearm and threatened to ‘blow your head off.’ This was one cop who was cheered by the tenants and supporters.” In the end, the old I-Hotel was torn down, leaving an ugly hole in the ground for decades, until Chin’s group made it rise from the ashes.

“Chinatown sits on valuable land and it’s been under constant financial pressure throughout its history,” Chin said. Mayor Eugene Schmitz “tried to use the ’06 earthquake as an excuse to evacuate Chinatown and move it to the Bayview. But our people refused. ‘We won’t move’ has been our slogan for nearly two centuries. This neighborhood is in our DNA.”
Now, there are new pressures on the neighborhood. Towering over the square is the building that once housed Empress of China — “every Chinese family’s favorite banquet hall,” but now shuttered and being touted by its landlords as a future tech incubator complex. The thought makes Chin shudder. “We don’t want this landmark building to become part of the tech gentrification of Chinatown.”

As we walk through the neighborhood, Chin and Peskin pointed out other landmark sites that the community has fought to protect: Pork Chop House — where young, broke community organizers like Chin could fill up on rice and gravy for 35 cents; Red’s Bar, Li Po Cocktail Lounge, Clarion Music Performing Arts Center.

The battle to preserve Chinatown’s affordable housing is even more critical, as Airbnb and greedy developers muscle their way into the neighborhood, even taking over SRO hotels that have long been the only sanctuary for the poor. We stand on Grant Avenue, staring up at one such building, whose rows of laundry fluttering outside the windows look like white flags of surrender.

“I’ve seen Airbnb listings where they say, ‘Small room, but situated in the heart of Chinatown’ — and you know they’re talking about an SRO like this,” Peskin said.

“Airbnb is getting away with murder — they’re taking away precious housing,” Chin said. “We need to crack down.”

“The problem is enforcement,” Peskin replied. “City Hall only has six people to enforce these housing violations. As long as Airbnb keeps refusing to cooperate, these inspectors are looking for needles in a haystack.”

Strolling up Jackson Street, we come to an alley that the city named Rose Pak’s Way. “With an apostrophe — we did that on purpose,” Peskin said. Chinatown’s salty-tongued mother superior died in the apartment building overlooking the alley, across the way from the Chinese Hospital, for which she raised $120 million to renovate.

“When the hospital was first built in 1927, Chinese weren’t allowed in public or private hospitals,” Chin said. “I was born there. So was Bruce Lee.”…(more)

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