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SF Housing Activist-Poet Tackles Gentrification in Verse

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Cool Don't Live Here No More, writer Tony Robles's new collection of poetry about an evolving San Francisco, begins like this:

We interrupt your regularly
Scheduled program to bring
You this Ellis Act alert

Mom and Pop are missing,
Pry open your eyes
Let your ears hear

Mom is seventy-nine and Pop
Is eighty-two and have lived
In San Francisco all their lives

Mom and Pop—unplugged,
Displaced in a city of wireless wires
Where friends that never were are
Flung into heaps of the unfriended,
Replaced by holograms that begat
Other holograms that slither behind
Tinted glass bus windows

And then, a few stanzas later:

We looked for Mom and Pop
In the book of landlords
And that book, whose edges
Were a knife, whose pages were
Not stained by a single memory,
Read only one name: Ellis

The Ellis Act—a California law that lays out the conditions under which landlords are allowed to evict tenants—sparks news reports and lawsuits more often than poetry. But the poems and short prose pieces in Tony Robles' new collection, subtitled "A Letter to San Francisco," take as their subject matter many of the controversial and seemingly technical housing and development issues of today's San Francisco: the Ellis Act and evictions, the influx of tech employees to the Bay Area, the rise of housing prices, and the tension between development and affordability. For Robles, who is a housing activist as well as a poet, tenant advocacy and poetry are entwined endeavors. "There's no separation between the activism work and the poetry," he says. "They live together."

Robles was born and grew up in San Francisco, and the development of this particular collection, as evocative of the moment as it feels, was a long process—30 years of living in San Francisco and "experiencing a lot of ups and downs in the workplace and in general," Robles says. "Thirty years to get to where the words and the lines were meaningful."

Robles is half black and half Filipino, and "both my communities were bulldozed," he says. The Fillmore District, where much of his family lived, was razed by the city in what officials later admitted was an ill-considered attempt at urban renewal. And the International Hotel, or I-Hotel, was demolished in 1981 after a long battle over the eviction of its tenants, many of them Filipino. Robles's uncle, Al Robles, a fellow housing activist-slash-poet, was deeply involved in protests over the I-Hotel evictions, and Robles credits him with inspiring both facets of his own work. Robles (who is also the author of two children's books, Lakas and the Manilatown Fish and Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel, about San Francisco) is currently board president of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, which held a commemoration of the eviction of the I-Hotel last week. "When you grow up hearing those stories from your relatives…it still resonates in a myriad of ways." Cool Don't Live Here No More ends with a poem called "I-Hotel Nation."

As his uncle once did, Robles devotes much of his activism work—work he "would do…even if I wasn't being paid for it"—to tenants facing eviction. He recites the names of elderly Bay Area residents like Elaine Turner and Ron Lickers, both of whom died earlier this year following Ellis Act evictions. "If you take an elder who's been on rent control for 30 years and their rent is $900, [and] buy them out for $20,000, it might last them a year or two, but it's not going to stretch that far," Robles says. When it comes to affordable housing, "the city is really out of whack….I don't see where this is sustainable."

Voters will be able to have some input into the housing wars through a November ballot measure proposing a referendum on market rate housing in the Mission. Robles, meanwhile, also believes in approaching the Bay Area housing crisis through direct action: "There are things people can do to help their neighbors." Robles and his wife, Lisa Gray-Garcia, now live in Oakland, and have begun what they call "a revolutionary form of housing," a co-housing project of sorts, operating on a "sweat equity model" in East Oakland. They call the project Homefulness.

One of Robles's clear goals is to help those who have lived for years in San Francisco—"the city that/was and still is/to those that remain/the city that was/the city before/the artisans came," as he describes it in one poem. That city can sometimes feel hidden beneath the more talked-about San Francisco of the "artisans." "A lot of people who have lived in San Francisco for a long time feel they aren't listened to, aren't taken seriously," Robles says. The poetry, like the activism and the attempt to create a new community in East Oakland, is "just articulating what people who've been here for a long time are feeling."

· Cool Don't Live Here No More [SPD Books]
· San Francisco archive [Curbed]