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San Francisco’s Filipino cultural district eyes the dying Westfield mall

Chaz Bear, a musician who performs as Tory y Moi, symbolically hands over the keys to his jeepney to SOMA Pilipinas' Raquel Redondiez outside Executive Order on Mission Street on Aug. 1. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Undiscovered SF, the city’s preeminent Filipino block party, returns for its seventh season this month in Downtown San Francisco. Launching its ever-growing series of outdoor events (Aug. 19, Sept. 16 and Oct. 21) inside the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Heritage District, it’s a vehicle for chefs, makers and vendors to hawk their wares and a great way for people to see that, certain pessimistic narratives aside, SoMa is a thriving neighborhood where creative people live and work.

Having outgrown every venue it makes use of, Undiscovered transformed from a night market into a daytime party for the 2022 season. This year, 6,000 attendees are expected, partying at two stages and gorging on plenty of lechon, juicy pork belly cooked until the skin crackles. SPAM, long a staple of Filipino cuisine, is partnering with the organization to highlight its brand-new maple flavor.

Commemorating 50 years of hip-hop with DJ Neil Armstrong, rapper Rocky Rivera (with DJ Roza) and DJ Icy Ice, the cultural district and its preeminent event have labored mightily for seven years to demonstrate the community’s feistiness and its renewed commitment to the South of Market neighborhood.

Through spaces like Balay Kreative Studio and the wonderful, tropical-hued Kapwa Gardens, tireless organizations such as Kultivate Labs and Make It Mariko Events have made it their purpose to make Filipino culture accessible, with plenty of ube.

This year, musician Chaz Bear—who performs under the moniker Toro y Moi and who has Filipino ancestry—donated a vintage jeepney tour bus to the cultural district. The colorful stretched-out jeep of the sort that's ubiquitous in the Philippines will anchor the 30th annual Pistahan Parade, the massive, two-day celebration of Filipino culture at nearby Yerba Buena Gardens. Fans of the prolific chillwave pioneer may recognize it from the cover of his 2022 album Mahal, on which it is pictured parked in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I’m really excited to have it it move on to a new family that’s going to take care of it and use it to its full potential,” Bear said last week at a SOMA Pilipinas event at the Filipino-owned bar Executive Order.

Kapwa Gardens is a city-owned public space on Mission Street that's one of SOMA Pilipinas' most visible successes. | Courtesy of the Kapwa Gardens team | Source: Kapwa Gardens

The cultural district was established to uplift Filipinos in San Francisco—an ethnic group that's been pushed out of its neighborhood by gentrification not once but twice. Manilatown, centered on Kearny and Jackson streets, was more or less redeveloped out of existence, and numerous residential side streets in SoMa were later bulldozed to make way for SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Gardens.

Undiscovered’s ambitions remain undiminished—if anything, there’s a major push to highlight third-wave Filipino food and its surprising array of vegan options. But the block party has to contend with a tsunami of media coverage claiming that the flourishing, if troubled, neighborhood is actually a dangerous dystopia.

Then there’s the white elephant on its edge: a vast, multistory commercial property about to lose its tenant. Proposals for the Westfield Centre mall, which announced in June that it would not renew its lease, have included lab space and a soccer stadium—but Gina Rosales, the CEO of Make It Mariko has a less fanciful idea. Noting that cities like Montreal have created permanent infrastructure for festivals at an affordable scale, she claimed she could make magic with just one floor of the mall.

“If you gave me the top floor—which we’ve already activated for a holiday party—we could manage it as a venue and rent it out to community members for festivals all summer,” Rosales said. “Westfield is on the commercial corridor, so it’s part of the big vision. With that infrastructure, what creatives could do with that is amazing. Just trust us.”

Undiscovered SF Block Party

📍 Fifth and Minna streets, SF
🗓️ Aug. 19, Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 | noon-6pm
🔗 undiscoveredsf.com

Astrid Kane can be reached at astrid@sfstandard.com