“This has caused a lot of friction within our mall and a lot of tenants are upset about it and the lack of transparency,” says Kimura. “We send multiple emails, letters to our property managers and landlords and have heard nothing back.”
Attempts to reach Kinokuniya’s attorneys for this story were unsuccessful, but Kirsten Fletcher, the building’s property manager wrote that “it is difficult all around,” and cites that the building owner also owns over 50 stores in the Americas alone. “Rent is contracted and due by the tenants, no one is making money,” Fletcher replied in an email.
Fletcher also notes that one month of deferred rent was offered to Kinokuniya tenants earlier in the pandemic.
Establishing and securing the commercial and retail district of Japantown is an effort that dates back more than a century, starting from when Japanese immigrants settled into the area after the 1906 earthquake. It grew into a thriving community that spanned about 40 blocks during its heyday until Executive Order 9066 during World War II swept Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans into internment camps.
Since then, through years of economic development, buildings have been razed and the neighborhood has been reduced into only a commercial district. It’s why protecting the mom-and-pop shops in Japantown is an effort to preserve the cultural heart of the wider Bay Area Japanese American community, many of whom come into San Francisco to convene and continue important traditions. Japantown is less residential than Chinatown but it serves as a focal point for key community events and festivals, including local basketball league games, the annual Cherry Blossom and Obon Festivals and gatherings at the Japanese Buddhist church in the neighborhood.
Kristy Wang, a community planning policy director with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) adds that keeping businesses alive in these neighborhoods is essential in preserving a cultural home base for communities, even if they move away.
She cites the exodus of San Francisco’s Black population as an example: “So many people have had to move out or decided to move out. And if you lose those businesses, then you lose a place to go back to even.”
Low says attempts to reach out to Kinokuniya’s property manager and attorneys have gone unanswered, and he’s afraid that once the commercial eviction moratorium is lifted on Monday, many of these businesses won’t make it.
“Our existing commercial eviction moratorium was based on the assumption that this pandemic would only last six months … it was a very short-term reaction,” Low said. “I think we relied too much on the good faith that landlords and tenants can work out their own problems and what we’re rapidly realizing is this is not the case.”
As it stands now, the commercial eviction moratorium states that if commercial tenants have not paid all outstanding rent after six months, landlords are able to evict them for non-payment.
Low has drafted an ordinance – and is in talks with Supervisor Peskin, as well as District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, whose jurisdiction includes Japantown – that would extend the existing moratorium as well as add more weight to its enforcement.
Though the timeline of when this may happen is still unclear, Peskin says he hopes to arrive at a solution that will be “legally sound.”
Low adds, however, that an extension of the moratorium still won’t be enough. “The moratorium is fine just for stalling the evictions,” he says. “You have to get to the underlying problem, which is not only stopping the evictions or addressing evictions, but somehow addressing the money.”
In SOMA Pilipinas: Incubating Survival Strategies
Another population in San Francisco that is acutely familiar with being forced to relocate is the Filipino American population.
SOMA Pilipinas was formed in 2016 in part to encourage entrepreneurship among Filipino Americans in a Filipino-dedicated business corridor and reclaim space in a city that has repeatedly displaced them.
There had been a 10-block radius neighborhood dubbed “Manilatown” on Kearny Street in the 1920s established by Filipino migrant farmworkers. But as urban renewal and development sought to grow the city’s Financial District, Filipinos were slowly pushed out of the area. The tension came to a head in 1977, when the International Hotel, or I-Hotel, a residential building for Filipino immigrants, faced eviction threats, which led to large protests and coalition building with other groups, including Chinese and Japanese American activists.
Eventually, I-Hotel evictions took place and shifted Filipino immigrants to the SOMA district, where they opened up businesses and established storefronts. But they then faced additional mass displacement during the development of Yerba Buena and Moscone centers.
“SOMA Pilipinas is kind of a great hope of ‘we can finally write the narratives that we always wanted,’ ” said Desi Danganan, executive director of Kultivate Labs, a nonprofit arts and economic development organization, who helped spearhead the district.
“All of these past struggles led up to this momentous opportunity to develop our community in one of the most wealthiest progressive cities in the world,” said Danganan. Since its establishment and before the pandemic, SOMA Pilipinas had 18 businesses in the neighborhood – its main corridor is on Mission Street between Fifth and Seventh streets – and many of its owners are younger Filipino entrepreneurs and artists. The district has since lost four businesses due to the economic challenges of the coronavirus.
In a survey conducted a few months ago, more than half of the food and retail businesses in SOMA Pilipinas have lost more than 90% of their revenue, largely attributed to the lack of foot traffic from employees in nearby office buildings, including the Twitter headquarters. Nearly 70% of the businesses say they only had a handful of months left to stay afloat.
The impact on SOMA Pilipinas may mean a serious hurdle for new Filipino entrepreneurs who saw the new business district as a source of cultural empowerment. With a background in entrepreneurship and business marketing, Danganan says he realized early on that establishing an economic footprint would be critical in creating a cultural space for the Filipino community.
“Access to capital and mentorship was the biggest barrier to entry into doing business in the south of market, or SOMA Pilipinas,” he said. Through Kultivate Labs, Danganan and his team function as an incubator to help kickstart Filipino businesses.
One such business owner is Hü Gamit, a 27-year-old San Francisco native who followed in the footsteps of his late grandfather, Papay, who once owned The Gamit Barbershop on 6th Street. He grew up in his grandfather’s shop, which he says was a safe space for Filipino immigrants, and watched him bond with the local community. He established his own barber shop, Yoü by Hü, on Sixth Street in August 2019 and says it provided an opportunity to continue a family and cultural legacy – he frequently runs into SOMA community members who remember his grandfather fondly – and empower himself to contribute something new for the larger SOMA community.
“The one thing I’m most proud of is I’ve turned myself into a business. Like, I am the business,” Gamit said. “My space on Sixth Street, that’s my place, that’s like my home court.” He says it’s especially meaningful as someone who was born and raised in the city who has witnessed the power shifts and dynamics of gentrification.
But dreams of entrepreneurs like Gamit have been thwarted by the coronavirus, which has kept him from opening his shop since March.
Some food businesses in the neighborhood have been able to survive by feeding front-line Filipino health workers, an initiative designed by Kultivate Labs. But Reina Montenegro, owner of Nick’s on Mission, a Filipino vegan restaurant, feels the urgency to pivot in order to survive.
A former caterer, Montenegro has turned to building her online presence, hosting cooking classes and preparing meal prep packages, to adapt during the uncertainty. While her landlord has accommodated late payments, she says the stack of unpaid bills, rent and other costs is growing to a point where she may have to rethink her entire business structure, and not return to the brick-and-mortar model at all.
Through grants and support from city politicians, Danganan said San Francisco has been largely supportive of SOMA Pilipinas and hopes that the city continues to incorporate equity in every decision.
While he continues to triage support for the SOMA Pilipinas businesses that continue to face devastating uncertainty, Danganan says he’s always willing to place a bet on culture, especially in San Francisco: “It’s like hardware and software. Hardware is just like any kind of city infrastructure and software is the culture. And that’s what we have here.”
He recognizes, though, that the survival of cultural neighborhoods will boil down to each community’s ability to take care of itself. Danganan holds the incredible political savvy of Chinatown, cultivated by decades of activism and organizing by community leaders and activists, as an example.
“We’re heavily supported by our city government, as they should, but at some point, our community’s going to have to come together and support ourselves. It’s the only way to push us forward.”