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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, May 12 1999
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A few weeks ago, when I wrote about my dinner with San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom, I related his story of an emotionally taxing Board of Supervisors meeting that had included a protest by the displaced tenants of the Hartland Hotel. At the time, the Hartland residents were the latest victims of a rash of fires that have shut down many of the city's single room occupancy (SRO) hotels. Since then, the 180-room Park Hotel has also gone up in flames.

After the column appeared, I received an e-mail from David McGuire, secretary of the Hartland Hotel Tenants' Union, inviting me to dine with him, in hopes of "changing your mind about SRO residential hotels ... and to convince you not all their dwellers are hopelessly declasse."

Since I barely knew anything about SRO hotels, or their residents, changing my point of view would not be necessary. But I was more than willing to start building one. So on a recent Monday evening, me and my open mind headed down to Mission Agenda's office in an old brick building at the corner of 16th Street and Capp.

Mission Agenda is a 3-year-old community outreach program that focuses on improving conditions for the homeless and SRO residents throughout the city, and particularly along the 16th Street corridor. The Mission is the city's second largest SRO district (after the Tenderloin), with 56 residency hotels, most within a few blocks of the Mission Agenda office.

Locating the room that was supposed to contain Mission Agenda, and my dinner for the evening, I knocked tentatively on the open door to a room in which a man and a woman sat working diligently at their computers: "Hi. I'm looking for David."

The man threw me a brief glance before turning back to his work. The woman, however, shyly indicated that I was, in fact, in the right place. Hesitantly entering, I was reassured to see a connecting room containing a long folding table and several other dinner guests. After thanking the woman, who identified herself as Beverley, I turned back to introduce myself to the man at the computer, and extended my hand.

I believe it hung there for a very long five seconds before I reeled it back in.

Ah, yes. The Press was in the house.
Next door I met Chris Daly and Sarah Low in the middle of a heated game of gin rummy. At the far end of the table, Robert Ingalls was carving long slices of melon from fresh cantaloupes, then twisting paper-thin strips of prosciutto around them.

As I sat down in the middle of the table, trying to figure out who was who, Chris, a clean-cut young man in shorts and a T-shirt and one of Mission Agenda's two founders, yelled back to the front room, "Where's David? Tell him his reporter's here."

Richard Marquez, Mission Agenda's other founder, stepped in to introduce himself and help out. As the food slowly came together, Emmanual Smith, my welcoming friend from Scene 1, came in to join us. Bit by bit his veneer began to crack as he took the opportunity to outline the issues. Much to my surprise, for the rest of the evening Emmanual would prove to be my primary tour guide on the road to understanding the current state of San Francisco's low-income housing problems.

Also joining us was Bob Gray, an SRO resident who, along with Emmanual, was recently burned out of his home at the Thor Hotel. Bob asked Emmanual whether he'd seen his "bag of roaches": Apparently, after the fire Bob found a room in the Mission Hotel, where he passed some of his time killing and saving about 50 roaches a day. "I lost count after 250 or so," he told me. "They're in a big bag somewhere around here."

"I hope it's a Ziploc," said Sarah.
Just then, David burst in, bearing a seemingly endless number of dishes. Since there's no kitchen in the offices, David had been doing the cooking around the corner at a friend's place.

Meanwhile, Emmanual pointed out that of all the hotels that have burned in the last five years, none have been rebuilt. "The Leland, the Park, the Hartland," he said. "They're all right downtown. And ripe for gentrification. For example, the Park Hotel is right next door to Louis Vuitton and Wilkes Bashford."

"How many of these fires do you think were intentionally set for gentrification?" I asked.

"At least three that I would say I'm sure about," answered Emmanual. "But they're so well set that it doesn't appear to be arson. Here's the fire report," he added, passing me a summary of the 38 residential hotel fires since 1994.

"The way you set one of these fires, if you're an arsonist, is in the window well," he explained. "Then it burns up the sides, through the air well of the building, spreads across the attic, and through the roof. The thing is, to empty out a building of its tenants, all they have to do is burn a hole through the roof. By city building codes, if there's a hole in the roof the building is no longer inhabitable."

Chris helped set the table, joking proudly, "We got Chinette, which is a step up from our usual Walgreens." David loaded the plates with his first course, ziti with a delicious homemade sauce. "Everything is organic -- or imported from Italy," he advised.

Meanwhile, the tenants went on to explain that, once driven out by fire, they're forced to look for new places in the city's shrinking number of remaining hotels. And like other tenants in San Francisco these days, they find the rent they had locked in at a previous location can't possibly be found when moving to a new place.

"For an SRO room now," explained Richard, "you're talking anywhere from $500 to $600 a month, where two or three years ago it was only $300 a month."

"Rents in this town in general are ridiculous," added Emmanual. "And it's offered an opportunity for those unscrupulous enough to burn their properties."

A quick scan of the list I was holding was alarming:
Three fires at the Dudley Hotel in 1996 -- one a month, for three months straight.

Four fires at the Seneca in one year, between May of 1997 and May of 1998.
Next up was steamed asparagus in a French butter sauce.
Tony Hester, a scruffy old SRO tenant and late dinner arrival, shuffled in to take the seat next to me. "What is this, a food critic?" he asked sarcastically.

A moment later I introduced myself properly, upon which Tony immediately shared a story about the time he was sleeping on Fulton Street and woke up to find himself on fire.

"There are some vicious kids running around here," he said. "These were youngsters, middle to late teens. Four of them. I woke up. Something felt too warm. And I woke up. And sure enough my pants leg was on fire. They took off running on down the street. I'm lucky they didn't pour gasoline or lighter fluid on me, you know? I'm just thankful they didn't do it right. Or I wouldn't be here."

David passed around a pot filled with his own chicken in tarragon vinegar, with pieces of sauteed bread provencale on the side.

I turned to Richard and Chris to ask about their services and how the organization got started. Richard grew up in San Francisco, in the Excelsior District. Chris, on the other hand, is a Washington, D.C., transplant, a graduate of Duke University, and, as Emmanual joked, "a traitor to your race and your class."

As they began to describe their efforts on behalf of the homeless, including SRO advocacy, lobbying, and outreach, a man in a wheelchair rolled in to interrupt us. Chris took him into the front room to see what the problem was, while Richard explained how, after years of doing medical and social work across the city, he and Chris finally teamed up to create an organization that would truly deal with the problems on the front lines.

"There's never a dull moment. And never enough cash," he said, with obvious understatement.

Chris returned from helping the man in the wheelchair with his colostomy bag. "He took me for two bucks, too," he lamented. "But that's nothing. The other day Roland was in here, and he wanted me to help him fix his catheter. I told him, 'Roland, I'm sorry. But there are limits to the services which Mission Agenda offers.' "

Despite the laughter, all evidence was to the contrary.
But Richard was clearly frustrated. "And as you're having dinner with us, a guy comes in here with a mobile unit and a colostomy bag. And we're the only outfit in the whole fucking neighborhood that's open here, where people can come with any fucking problem -- you name it. From, 'You want to see a psychic healer?' to needing housing advocacy in an SRO. We're it, basically.

"You see, it's kind of a tragedy response. Because the people that are in these hotels are basically helpless. And when we talk to other nonprofits in the city, they say, 'You're trying to do what? How?' But the thing is -- which Chris has periodically reminded me of over the years -- I think what we're trying to do, really, is to build a movement. A poor people's movement. Block. By block. By block."

MAGIC (Mission Artists' Gentrification Insurrection Coalition) will hold a silent art auction to benefit Mission Agenda, and the Thor and Hartland Hotel residents' unions, May 30 at 5 p.m. at Artists' Television Access, 992 Valencia, S.F. Call 642-7532 for information, or call Mission Agenda at 436-9707.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

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Barry Levine

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