SoMa’s Kapwa Gardens Provides a Lush Space for Community Growth

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Visitors during the opening reception for Kapwa Gardens; the converted lot opens to the public on April 14. (Alvaro Batista)

Hella calamansi trees, a revamped school bus painted with a giant bird’s head and flowing curls of colorful feathers, and turquoise-purple everything—that’s what you’ll find at 967 Mission Street in San Francisco, an old parking lot turned art and wellness pop-up.

Since last year, the community has come together every weekend to lay the foundation brick by brick—or in this case, with seeds and paint—to create Kapwa Gardens, an 8,777-square-foot lot reimagined by Kultivate Labs, a San Francisco economic development and arts organization, in response to the chaos of pandemic.

In hopes of recovering from the mental, physical and economic devastations of COVID-19, Kultivate Labs Executive Director Desi Danganan and his team pivoted from their original blueprint, which Danganan describes as a smaller version of the night market Undiscovered SF, to work with our new normal—one where we’re six feet apart. “Our underlying premise was how can we heal our community from this pandemic,” he says, “and then build space designed that facilitates that as well as programming on top of it.”

Kapwa Gardens will host "Test and Stretch" events on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. (Alvaro Batista)

With financial recovery in mind, the lot can fit up to three food trucks or vendors, host fitness classes and live performances, exhibit artists’ work and even act as a COVID-19 testing or vaccination site. This allows for a vast multitude of income streams for business owners or artists, all while providing locals with a mini getaway in the heart of SoMa.

Kapwa in Tagalog literally translates to neighbor and is rooted in togetherness. It only makes sense to include this in the project’s name, since it was fully built by volunteers.

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“If you were a raver, I would say kapwa is PLUR—peace, love, unity and respect,” Danganan explains. “It means a lot of things to different people, but in essence, it’s deep empathy. And once you have empathy, you have that inner-connectedness and understand the notion of bayanihan and collaboration.”

Desi Danganan at the opening reception for Kapwa Gardens the weekend of April 10, 2021. (Miguel Carrion)

Fostering a sense of connectedness within the Filipino diaspora is something Danganan’s been interested in for decades. After high school he had an internship at the Los Angeles nonprofit SIPA (Search To Involve Pilipino Americans), where he was a mentee of the late Dr. Dawn Mabalon. “One of the segments she taught was ‘Why is there no Manilatown [in San Francisco]?’ and it stuck with me,” Danganan says. “Growing up Asian American, there’s Chinatown and Japantown, and like where are we? Why are we so invisible?”

From the 1920s to the 1970s, there was a Manilatown where many Filipinos found solace, a three-block neighborhood by Kearny and Jackson Streets. It was most recognized by its landmark, the International Hotel. Following evictions in 1977, I-Hotel tenants, who were largely Filipino, became displaced, and the community moved to various neighborhoods—including Excelsior, Daly City and SoMa.

It wasn’t until 2016 that San Francisco recognized SOMA Pilipinas as the city’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District. The designated area includes the Bayanihan Community Center, Bindlestiff Studio—the only black-box theater dedicated to Filipino American artists—and Arkipelago Books. Since then, the development of SOMA Pilipinas has continued to blossom through Undiscovered SF; go-to restaurants like Senor Sisig and OX & Tiger; and despite the pandemic’s efforts to slow the roll, Kapwa Gardens.

A colorfully painted bus divides the space at Kapwa Gardens. (Alvaro Batista)

“It’s a reflection of our resilience,” Danganan says of the now-lush lot. “Back in the Motherland, we had the Pacific Ring of Fire. Disasters and calamities can happen almost every year, yet our peoples back there, they rebuild, and they move forward. So, during the pandemic while the world contracted, our community remained resilient and kept growing.”

Kapwa Gardens doesn’t rock the traditional Philippine flag colors—red, blue and yellow—but symbols of Filipino culture are sprinkled throughout the space. There are calamansi trees donated by a variety of supporters. Once the sweet but sour citrus fruit is ready, they’re free for all guests to collect and enjoy. And there’s a sarimanok, a legendary bird of Philippine mythology, painted on a school bus by artists Sami See and Kristian Kabuay.

The space will open to the public on April 14 and is already set for a variety of outdoor activities and events, including “Test and Stretch,” a coronavirus test and yoga class combo; a plant-based foodie festival called OMG (short for Oh My Gulay, or vegetables); and Danganan says to expect a daytime collaboration with the SoMa bar Monarch in the future.

Discordia Gameshow performs at the opening reception for Kapwa Gardens. (Alvaro Batista)

Kultivate Labs’ next endeavor, Republika SF, is already in the works. Republika SF will be a community cultural center located on the ground floor of the Mission Street Garage. Currently, the space is utilized as artists’ studios and a livestreaming hub where Balay Kreative streams virtual DJ sets and cooking demos.

Between rushing to buy toilet paper and baking more bread, the pandemic brought together locals from all walks of life to build Kapwa Gardens. “It’s a beacon of hope for other communities as well that we can survive this and come out better,” Danganan says. “In the long term, what I’m hoping is that the garden not only grows in the sense of more foliage, but really sets the seeds of developing a new Filipino cultural district.”

While SOMA Pilipinas continues to blossom, San Francisco’s bayanihan—or community spirit—is in full bloom.

Kapwa Gardens is open Wednesday—Sunday, 10am–6pm at 967 Mission Street, San Francisco. Details here.