South of Market’s long-standing Filipino cultural center is used to moving around. The nonprofit has had to pack up and find a new home at least six times since 1968.
The West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center kept finding itself in a familar cycle: Struggling to pay rising rents while trying to serve low-income residents in a historically Filipino neighborhood that has felt the pressure of displacement, particularly since the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.
“It’s been hard to have secure roots,” said Carla Laurel, West Bay’s executive director. “It just came that time where we need to find a space for us.”
After more than 50 years of moving around, West Bay will soon have its own permanent home in the neighborhood it has long served. Earlier this year, the nonprofit was awarded $5.65 million in city and state funds secured by local leaders in order to purchase and rehabilitate 150 Seventh St., across from the center’s current office. It’s expected to move in by spring 2022.
In a neighborhood where many have been priced out, West Bay knows it will be safe from the same fate so it can consistently and permanently provide for low-income SoMa residents. The nonprofit will also have more than four times the amount of space it currently has to provide services.
“It’s a huge victory and milestone,” said Raquel Redondiez, executive director of SOMA Pilipinas, a cultural district preserving the heritage that doesn’t have its own office. “Future generations can know that those services will be there. SOMA Pilipinas is still a gateway community for new immigrants — even for those who moved away, it’s still a cultural heritage zone.”
West Bay began with a focus on immigrant newcomers from the Philippines and Filipino-Americans in the area. The nonprofit was there to assist with job and housing assistance, provide afterschool programming and youth enrichment, along with activities for seniors.
At the time, Filipino-Americans were heavily concentrated in an enclave near Chinatown known as Manilatown. But the same year West Bay became incorporated as a nonprofit, trouble brewed in Manilatown.
Riot police in 1977 evicted the remaining low-income and largely Filipino tenants of the International Hotel at 848 Kearny St. after a years-long struggle, a moment in history that reverberates to this day. It spelled the beginning of the end of Manilatown, which was set off by urban renewal, known to decimate communities like the historically Black Fillmore. But Redondiez said it gave birth to the modern tenant rights movement, serving as a model for racial solidarity.
“The I-Hotel is a touchstone, a source of inspiration for people who eventually became leaders and activists in SoMa,” said Oliver Saria, managing director of Bindlestiff Studio, a local theater dedicated to Filipino performing arts. “I’m seeing now with the SOMA Pilipinas district, it is an area that draws a lot of budding young Filipino activists. There’s a multiplier effect when there are strong anchors and we partner together.”
SoMa alleyways as recently as the 1990s were once a spitting image of alleys in the Philippines’ capital.
The permanent home doesn’t just expand West Bay’s capacity, it benefits others in the neighborhood with the same mission. Nonprofits serving Filipino people like Bindlestiff, SOMA Pilipinas, South of Market Community Action Network and Bayanihan Equity Center could find themselves using the space in collaboration as is increasingly needed. West Bay’s experience in acquiring a building also lends institutional knowledge should another organization need help to do the same.
Examples of community collaboration abound. During the pandemic, United Playaz, a violence prevention and youth mentorship group, partnered with West Bay to create a community learning hub helping students with remote learning. Separately, a coalition of neighborhood groups teamed up to provide food, unemployment help, rent relief and other immediate needs.
Rudy Corpuz Jr., United Playaz founder and a SoMa native who went to West Bay as a kid, said that stronger collaboration has long been needed. While the neighborhood has landmarks named after Filipino Americans — United Playaz’ building honors community advocate Eric Fructuoso, Bill Sorro Housing Program was named in honor of longtime San Francisco activist, and Victoria Manaclo Draves Park was named after the Olympic athlete — Filipinos themselves are harder to find.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have no Filipinos living here,” Corpuz said. “We’ve got to continue to stabilize our Filipino families that are still here. When West Bay wins, we all win in this neighborhood. You’re sticking another flag in the ground for everyone to have a home to go.”
On top of affordability, the development that has boomed in SoMa has not lent itself to an infrastructure built for families seeking good schools. Still, a community remains.
Loren Masangcay, who has lived in SoMa for over a decade, said West Bay was there to help her job search, house search and take in her kids for afterschool programs as a new arrival from the Philippines. When she contracted coronavirus as a nursing assistant, she didn’t know what to do until West Bay checked on her and arranged for her to stay elsewhere to keep her kids and elderly parents safe.
“West Bay is really a big part of living here in SoMa,” said Masangcay. “Whenever I’m going through a lot, they always check on us. They always ask me, ‘Are you OK?’”
Laurel said that as the neighborhood changed, West Bay adapted and began serving as many kids in the area who often come from families with mixed immigration statuses, cramped living situations, and parents who need childcare. People like Masangcay still feel they can keep their children connected to Filipino culture through West Bay.
“We try our best to open our doors to everyone but still maintain the Filipino values are organization started on,” Laurel said. “The intent, too, of having this permanent space is to be able to have a permanent space other nonprofits can utilize. We want to make sure this space is accessible for other folks to use as well so they know this is another community space that’s for them.”