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The Bottom LineThe Bottom Line

San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural District Keeping Hope Alive After a Tough Year

Businesses in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural District were hit hard by the pandemic. But the cultural district is there to help the recovery start where it’s needed most.

Lily Prijoles (center front) and Golda Sargento, owners of Arkipelago Bookstore (also baby Miles in front).

Lily Prijoles (center front) and Golda Sargento, owners of Arkipelago Bookstore (also baby Miles in front). (Photo courtesy Arkipelago)

For Lily Prijoles, the typical, pre-pandemic day at Arkipelago Bookstore meant a lot of talking with customers.

“Communicating to customers and helping them find what they would be interested in, it’s like psychotherapy,” Prijoles says. “People would leave buying a bunch of books they didn’t know they wanted.”

Arkipelago is one of two independent Filipino specialty bookstores across the country. Prijoles rattles off a selection of go-to authors, depending on her read of who the customer is and what they might be looking for.

There’s Nick Joaquin, an eclectic and versatile writer of essays, novels and plays. “The way he writes is so intellectual but so very down to earth,” Prijoles says.

Or there’s Jessica Hagedorn, the “queen mother” of Filipino-American writers. “I get really intimidated when I see her,” Prijoles says.

Or there’s Erin Entrada Kelly, a prolific author of children’s literature featuring Filipina protagonists. “I love showing her to young readers, especially young girls who are Filipino-American but never see themselves in books,” says Prijoles.

Prijoles learned from a master of the craft — fellow Filipina Marie Romero, who founded Arkipelago in the mid-1990s, in San Francisco’s South of Market or SoMa neighborhood. It had been a predominantly Filipino area for many decades at that point. In the early the 20th century, SoMa was more of an industrial area, not a very desirable place to live unless you had few other options. Filipinos, displaced from other neighborhoods or newly arrived from the motherland, moved right in.

Prijoles first encountered the bookstore right around when it first opened. She had just moved to San Francisco to study screenwriting at the Academy of Art, a short walk from the bookstore’s original location. Arkipelago brought Prijoles together with Golda Sargento, a fellow Filipina “book nerd.” In 2017, when Romero announced she wanted to retire, Prijoles and Sargento rallied some friends and family and bought the store together.

This past year has been rough, particularly without the typical face-to-face interactions that are such an under-appreciated element of bookselling. But online sales have kept Arkipelago afloat, and they’re hopeful that the renewed energy and growth will continue around SOMA Pilipinas, the city’s Filipino cultural district, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this spring.

An interior shot of Arkipelago in San Francisco, one of a very few number of Fliipino bookstores in the US

(Courtesy Arkipelago)

“Teaming up with SOMA Pilipinas … helped us find a new market that didn’t realize we were around still,” says Prijoles. “A lot of [Filipino] people don’t live in the city any more. It’s brought back the heart and the attention to the store from the Filipino community.”

Last year was supposed to be a big year for SOMA Pilipinas. Created in 2016, it’s one of San Francisco’s officially designated “Cultural Districts,” of which there are eight so far. The first was Japantown Cultural District, created in 2013, followed by the 2014 creation of the Calle 24 Cultural District in the Mission, a historically Latino area and gentrification-hotspot. There’s also the world’s first Transgender Cultural District, created in 2017.

San Francisco’s cultural districts promise to protect historically and culturally vital communities at risk of displacement due to the city’s wave of development over the past decade or so. But rather than using a pre-set list of specific policies and tactics, each cultural district brings together existing community leaders, organizations, businesses and residents into advisory committees to draft a plan of action for city planners and policymakers to endorse and use as a guide — known as a Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy, or CHESS.

The cultural districts got a boost after the November 2018 election cycle, when voters approved a ballot measure to dedicate a portion of the city’s hotel tax to provide a baseline of operating funds for cultural districts. The funds allowed SOMA Pilipinas to hire full-time staff for the first time, instead of relying on volunteer participation and part-time consultants. The funds for SOMA Pilipinas get funneled through the Filipino American Development Foundation, which helped push for the creation of the cultural district and now acts as its fiscal sponsor.

The additional capacity allowed SOMA Pilpinas to build on the momentum from 2018, which was a banner year for the cultural district. One of its premier events is the “UNDSCVRD SF” night market series, held once a month from July to November. Produced by the local nonprofit Kultivate Labs, with funding from the SOMA Community Stabilization Fund and other sources, the night market attracted over 35,000 attendees in 2019, generating $300,000 in sales.

The SOMA Community Stabilization Fund was created in 2005 to pool impact fees from new development in the neighborhood. It awards grants for capital projects like acquiring or renovating buildings and for programs like UNDSCVRD SF. An advisory committee of community stakeholders helps select grantees.

The night market features a range of Filipino vendors from local businesses like Arkipelago to others across the state. The market helped identify which businesses would be prime candidates to move into a permanent brick and mortar space in the neighborhood — centering on the historic Mission Street Corridor.

“Since the inception of the cultural district, we had doubled the number of Filipino businesses in the cultural district,” says Desi Danganan, serial entrepreneur and founder of Kultivate Labs.

The night market also serves as a testing ground to help select businesses for Kultivate Labs’ SEED Accelerator Program, which provides bootcamps and one-on-one support for Filipino-owned businesses that are located or would like to be located in a permanent space within the SOMA Pilipinas cultural district. The SOMA Community Stabilization Fund also provided grant funding for the accelerator program. Danganan says Arkipelago was consistently a top-three seller at UNDSCVRD SF, making it an obvious choice to join the accelerator’s first cohort.

“They’re an example of how we’re using [the night market] as a sandbox to identify anchor tenants or show that they have product-market fit in our community,” Danganan says. “A lot of businesses in the SEED accelerator are vetted through UNDSCVRD.”

The pandemic put at least a temporary halt to all that momentum.

“We lost about a third of the Filipino businesses that had set up shop in SOMA Pilipinas since creating the cultural district,” Danganan says. “Some were pop-ups, some were market vendors, some were brick and mortars.”

For some, SOMA Pilipinas and Kultivate Labs helped prepare them for the pandemic. One of the first big SEED accelerator projects for Arkipelago was to re-do the bookstore’s website, making it mobile friendly and building a recommendations function for online shoppers — replicating the in-person experience of coming to the store and having a conversation. It’s kept the bookstore afloat during the pandemic, though it just isn’t the same as having those unexpected conversations in the store or at the night market or other events.

“That’s part of what we missed this whole year,” says Prijoles. “Just chopping it up with people.”

SOMA Pilipinas cancelled the UNDSCOVRD SF night markets for 2020 — though that freed up Kultivate Labs to instead run “Filipinos Feed the Frontlines,” an initiative that has raised more than $144,000 in donations so far to support free emergency meals prepared by local Filipino restaurants and caterers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Stockton, California.

Meanwhile, SOMA Pilipinas got to work drafting its CHESS document, pivoting scheduled in-person meetings into virtual meetings. But there was also outreach in-person to a particular segment of the population that isn’t easily reached via online meetings.

“During the pandemic we saw a growth in unhoused Filipinos,” says Raquel Redondiez, executive director of SOMA Pilipinas. “Three different tent sites popped up, so we started doing interviews with individuals. What we found was that some were chronically homeless, some had been living on the streets for decades. Some were newly unhoused — before COVID they were marginally housed, maybe staying with family, and because of COVID that became too risky.”

The CHESS draft from SOMA Pilipinas calls for more social worker outreach to the new tent sites, and for more construction of below-market rate housing that can accommodate multiple generations.

A number of Filipino families are or were crowded before the pandemic into single-resident occupancy or SRO units because of housing affordability challenges. For the sake of protecting older generations, younger family members who didn’t have jobs that allowed for working from home sometimes decided to move out to the new tent sites.

The SOMA Pilipinas CHESS draft calls for using the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund or other available resources to protect the remaining rent-stabilized buildings in SoMa through permanent community ownership — as community-based organizations have been doing in the Mission, for example. It also calls for aligning publicly owned properties along Mission Street with the goals of the plan, from expanding space for artists to providing opportunities for more locally owned Filipino businesses.

SOMA Pilipinas now awaits approval and endorsement of its CHESS draft from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. But in the meantime, the city is already taking steps in line with some of its goals. Kultivate Labs recently secured a long-term lease for a storefront beneath a city-owned parking garage. It’s located at the southwest end of the Mission Street corridor within SOMA Pilipinas. The nonprofit is now seeking public funding to build-out the space as “Republika,” the home for its business incubator program and also for Arkipelago Bookstore, which will move a few blocks over from its current location to serve as an anchor tenant for the space.

“We’ll be able to meet more Filipino businesses from different cities, and we can support them by connecting them to our customers or maybe they’ll support us somehow,” says Prijoles. “We have a lot of love and affection for SOMA. We just love this place. It’s home.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.

Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.

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