The Presidio Landmark: Occupied by the 1%
"Is this place haunted?" I was asked this question a thousand times. I was the doorman and the curious would walk in and look around inquisitively. It was a typical western lens--a former hospital where noises are heard inside and out. "Is it haunted?" they'd ask again. "Only by the living" I'd answer then go back to my doorman duties knowing that the building was alive with the spirits of ancestors. The call of the ravens outside echo the cries of indigenous Ohlone peoples, Filipinos, merchant seamen and many spirits from all over the world whose desecrated graves cry out for justice.
The edifice I refer to is the Presidio Landmark Apartments, located in the city’s Presidio on Wedemeyer St. near 14th Ave. I was working at this insular, hermetically sealed, self-aggrandizing, pseudo palace—home to CEO’s and hedge funders—in the capacity of door attendant. My brown face was the first you’d see when walking through the French doors. There I would sit, donning a somewhat comical habiliment of tan dockers, innocuous (save for the itching) cotton candy blue shirt, bottomed off with clunky Timberland shoes. The Presidio Landmark—an ideal locale for one of those obnoxious Lexus Christmas commercials—home to some of the city’s highest rents--nearly $3000 a month for a “junior” one bedroom, $3200-3800 for a one-bedroom, upwards of $4000-5000 for a 2 bedroom, and $7000+ for a multi-floor townhome located in the periphery. The building casts an ominous presence when approached. It is situated on a grassy slope, adorned with foliage including succulents, native plants, African varieties—underneath canopy-like palm trees, impassive and pale, stripped of their natural skin. One gets the impression when approaching this fortress-like structure that something is terribly wrong. This home of the upwardly mobile, the hedge funders, gentrifiers of neighborhoods—this colonized place sits on the ancestral home of Native people. It is the structure that was once known as the Merchant Marine and Public Health Service Hospitals. It was a place that provided free care to native people, including native Hawaiians, people with leprosy, merchant marines and people who didn’t have access to decent healthcare. It is part of the 42 acre Public Health Service District. It is the place that was abandoned in the mid 80’s when it was decommissioned by the Reagan administration. It is a place whose cries can be heard, a place where ancestral spirits cry out for justice against land grabbing developers like Forest City, who, with the Presidio Trust, took the sacred Ohlone land to satisfy its voracious corporate hunger. The Presidio Landmark: home to the 1%.
The Presidio Landmark marketing propaganda boasts that it is ideally situated in a national park, yet accessible to the city via the Presidigo Shuttle and various Muni lines. Upon walking inside, one is taken by the antiseptic environment, accentuated by chemically concocted aromas that are hatched in some lab and delivered via UPS. The simulated odors are birch, pine and various flowers—imitations of the natural smells that emanate from the trees and plant life a few feet outside. This aerosol-like goodness is transmitted via a black box the size of a toaster.
Directly behind the property is the long-forgotten graves of more than 600 merchant seaman/sailors whose remains were covered over by landfill in its use as a dump site. The cemetery goes back some 135 years. The Presidio powers that be use words such as “revitalization” and “restoration” yet there is no memorial marking the presence of the remains. The cemetery was known as “Landfill 8”, where the remains of mariners from 43 countries were interred, who died of TB, scurvy, malaria, syphilis and leprosy. In 1952 the hospital was expanded and the remains were declared to have been moved but that was not the case. The remains of mariners who had worked in harsh conditions and died of various diseases were covered with hazardous wastes from the military and other sources. In 1989, in the process of the Presidio being transferred to the National Park Service, archeologists discovered that coffins had not been removed from landfill 8. The ominous shadow cast by the Presidio Landmark over the desecrated remains of working class people highlights the sharp class divisions that have always existed in this country.
It’s in the lobby area of the Presidio Landmark that you’ll find the working class. The lobby desk is staffed by a door attendant and afterhours security guards. The door staff works in a controlled environment that radiates a nurse Ratchet feel, under the supervision of an Experience Manager--basically a glorified concierge--whose mission is to ensure that tenants (Management refers to them as residents) have a "seamless" experience in their domiciles and community spaces. “New York style door attendant” is the phrase used to describe the person whose job it is to watch the door—which is what I did—although I don’t see why a New York style door attendant should be coveted any more than a San Francisco style door attendant—after all, San Francisco is birthplace to me and most of the other door staff as well as some of the maintenance staff. But this is not surprising since the majority of tenants are not actually from San Francisco—but not to fret, they occasionally morph into locals upon stumbling into a neighborhood Chinese bakery for a pork bun.
The desk is made of marble that is painfully and incessantly buffed and polished. Much attention is paid to the marble—the leasing agents opine about the building having its “original” marble walls, stairs and misc. accoutrements. Nothing, if anything, is mentioned of the former occupants of this converted hospital, the Ohlone people or the cemetery located in the rear of the property. In fact, management instructs all staff not to breach those subjects. The closest you come to any historical lens is when new tenants move in. They are given a set of gifts, including a small box of chocolate, referenced by Junipero Serra’s notorious sweet tooth, having sent a request to Mexico for chocolate (as well as small blanket with the property logo—a cluster of acorns—stitched in). The gift of chocolate is in homage to Serra, a sort of Whitman’s sampler for the colonizer at heart. In typical corporate fashion, the history of indigenous people is erased, doesn’t exist—which is metaphorically illustrated by the compulsive cleaning of the place. Management was bent out of shape when it was observed that security officers had left behind “droplets” on the bathroom floor after voiding and so-called marks on the porcelain. The toilets are of the water-saving variety and residual marks can sometimes take up to 6 flushes to remove. It reached a level of absurdity when the maintenance supervisor came up with the fatuous suggestion that people take a toilet brush and swish a little after using. A memo was circulated. It’s as though the past must be exorcized with every wipe of marble or tile. I’d sit, tightlipped as the residents—Executive Directors, CEO’s, pharmaceutical salespeople, lawyers—would drop by, engaging me in a dose of obligatory chit chat prior to their jog—at which time they’d drop me their home and BMW keys—to hold for safekeeping.
In the lobby was where I first encountered “J”, an Iraq war veteran who’d served in the air force. There was an opening for a door attendant and “J” was one of the first applicants. He arrived 30 minutes before his interview, portend of his strict vigilance to the clock. He walked in, rail thin, protruding ears, wire-rimmed glasses accentuated by a bow tie that seemed to bloom in the reflective light. He was hyper self-conscious, asking me several times if he looked presentable. During our interaction, he said “yes sir” many times. I insisted he call me Tony. “Yes sir” he responded. He was from the deep-south, and, like the rest of us, struggling to make it, living with a roommate in an SRO hotel downtown. The doorman job provided part time hours, which, in the depths of a recession, was the only employment he could find. Prior to his interview, he showed me meticulous and copious notes he taken about the property—the number of units, the square footage, the corporate headquarters of the developer, its green features etc. I was a bit ashamed since I didn’t take time to research the data and ended up the fulltime door attendant. “J” was predictably hired. We shared the front desk with the security guards and other door staff under the ubiquitous corporate dictum of Forest City in far off Cleveland.
The Presidio has a long his/herstory of land theft and genocide against native people. The land was home to thousands of Muwekma Ohlone people. During the 1700’s the Presidio was colonized with its original inhabitants enslaved and sequestered in missions by the Spanish. It was thought that the numbers of Ohlone were irrelevant—resulting in their being dropped from the registry of officially recognized Indian nations. The land was under control of Spain, followed by Mexico, then by the US in 1848. It was a US army base until its closure in 1994 as part of the congressional military reduction program. The Ohlone fought to reclaim this land that was now excess federal land that, in accordance with federal law, should be turned over to the original inhabitants. The US Army, however, did not think this applied to their case. In 1996 congress created the Presidio Trust to oversee and manage the land (80%) and coastal areas (20%). The trust was mandated to make the Presidio financially self-sufficient by 2013. The Presidio was the launching area of US military engagements in the Pacific. The colonization of my own people—Filipinos—by the US was launched from the Presidio in the Spanish-American War, the precursor to the Philippine American War where thousands of Filipinos were tortured and slaughtered—ending up in mass graves. The Presidio is now home to various non-profit and for profit organizations: the Walt Disney Museum, Lucas Films and the newly renovated Merchant Marine Hospital now known as the Presidio Landmark Apartments.
“Don’t ever drop the flag” a voice warns as I hold the tightly folded American flag at the base of the pole. The janitor and I perform the flag raising ritual, looking out for the maintenance supervisor—an orbicular army veteran whose life seems to revolve around the work orders that are constantly generated—problems with appliances and plumbing, fire alarms and the ever popular sauna. We are keenly aware of the matrix of cameras strategically situated about the property. We string the flag up and watch it rise in the wind. I walk the lobby fluffing the pillows, wiping the windows for the thousandth time while the guests file in. In the lobby are leather chairs with pincushion-like pillows. A fireplace blares all day regardless of weather. Fresh copies of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal sit on the coffee table daily. Near the window a protruding rack displays that literary cornerstone of local culture—7x7 Magazine. I once, in an attempt to vary the journalistic offering, put a copy of the Bay View Newspaper on the coffee table, which was promptly snatched by another desk attendant—a man of color. Much affection is bestowed upon this individual, who I will refer to as Tom. Tom was always able to avail himself to any request. Somewhat stout in stature but muscular in smile, he seemed to be in a perpetual hurry to refill the coffee canisters and restock the creamers (affectionately known as mini-moo’s) in the complimentary gourmet coffee station. He would move around admirably in a shuffle/hobble motion that could be described as a shlobble. That, coupled with his endearing and perpetual head bobbing could be further described as a schlobobble. He covered much ground.
I sit at the desk and the potential renters file in. They are easy to spot—mostly young, professional, with an air of comfort and privilege that is disconcerting. One such person walked in and beheld the surroundings as if he’d stepped through the pearly gates. “It’s so beautiful” he says, his soft face betraying his middle age. “Yeah, a real Taj Mahal” I say, sarcastically. “Oh, it’s more beautiful than that” he replied. I leave him to breathe the synthetic cypress aroma. But there is trouble in the palace. “J” is still coming to work energized by a working-poor man’s diet of coffee, candy bars and cigarettes. I get word that his roommate has moved out of his SRO Hotel, leaving him with rent he cannot afford. This, coupled with his unspoken-about war experience, job demands and good natured need for approbation leave him jumpy and irritable. He is well-liked, the most polite person I have ever met. But I get the feeling that he is beginning to tire of being so polite. I often wonder how he feels to have to greet and offer pleasantries to residents who saunter by with paychecks of $10,000 a month complaining that the water in the sauna is too cold or that the coffee is weaker since the switch from Peets to another micro beanery. I wonder how he feels not to earn enough to survive on after risking his life in the military that only the rich have profited from.
The Presidio Landmark is made up of 154 units and it is filling up. There are occasional lulls at the front desk and I think about the houseless people that lived in this place prior to its evisceration. Much was made of the building’s condition during its abandonment—graffiti strewn with the innards that made up a medical facility—beds, machines, medical devices of all types. Visitors would walk in and remark that the renovated building is a vast improvement to the homeless and drug infested eyesore that stood on the grassy hill with its unsightly wings. They are taken by the décor and halcyon façade. I walk the lower level, site of the former hospital morgue. The developer, with astounding incogitance and morbidity, has converted this space into a dining area/wine cellar, fitness center, replete with weights, exercise balls, treadmills and, of course, flat screen TV’s. A short walk from the fitness room, still within the former morgue, is the management office where the property manager and leasing agents do the corporate bidding to the backdrop of hits supplied by that radio station of the revolution, 96.5 (no argument here) KOIT. I recall an office birthday party in the management office with expensive Italian cake and conversation of substance. One of the leasing agents—a young African American woman—was being transferred to another Forest City property in Oakland, to deal with section 8 applicants (a coincidence!). As she ate her cake, she declared that section 8 folks have an unpleasant smell (To say they “Stank” would have been too crude). Laughter ensued as cake was stuffed into faces in this place where rents are strategically set just above market rate--to exclude the section 8 program.
The “M” Word
“J” is still working at the property but he has been reprimanded for mentioning the word “mold”. A resident reported finding what he or she thought was mold in their unit. “J” wrote a work request as such but was told to never mention the word “Mold”. All work orders are seen under the ubiquitous eye of the corporate office, with response times and outcomes under heavy scrutiny. Mold, if reported, involves an expensive process to confirm and abate. Policy is not to mention the “M” word at all. The resulting vituperation has put “J” more on edge, every misstep turning into a federal case—each scrutiny edging him to a greater degree of impuissance. He is then requested to clean the guest kitchen area—for money—by a resident who had had a dinner party and, for some reason, couldn’t clean up after herself. He did a thorough job and was paid by the resident. The management office got wind and called “J” into the office. “J’s” meeting with management ended up with his firing. Apparently, there is some kind of rule against taking gratuities from residents. But “J” confided to management his personal challenges in securing housing in San Francisco, expressing the need for more work hours. At this, he was fired. We were told to call the police if he set foot on the property. I remember seeing his items that he had left behind—a certificate from the armed forces and his degree in agricultural science from the University of Arkansas that he carried around. He also left behind some candy--chocolate covered pecans that his mother had sent him for the holidays. After he was fired, those pieces were eaten in the management office kitchen. “J” is now homeless, often seen at the Montgomery Street Bart station.
The best people I met in the place were working folk. I can’t forget the cleaning ladies that would come in—Chinese and Raza—they were hard working low-wage workers. I remember one of them remarking that the CEO, whose unit she cleaned, never tipped. The door attendant was to not get too close with the outside “help”. But I would offer coffee and water or words or laughter—anything that would resemble a bit of realness in the din of that lobby. And sometimes folks would return, folks who had worked in the place when it was a hospital. Those folks had memories to treasure and I would never tire hearing them. But my connection to the working class landed me in a bit of trouble when, during the Labor Day weekend, I posted a quote by Abe Lincoln regarding Labor on the community website:
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.
Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have
existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior
Capital, and deserves the much higher consideration”
I was taken aside by my co-door attendant (Also a man of color…Tom) and informed that there were complaints about the quote by a few residents and that I should keep my personal opinions about this subject to myself. There was one resident who liked the quote and thought it was appropriate--a nice older man who was always respectful of me. However, I didn’t know that Abe Lincoln would cause such a fuss in a place that raises the flag daily and insists that one never drops it. But it all begs the question of “J”. Where was the patriotism when he was fired, or when he brought up the subject of his homelessness? Where was the flag then? We are told not to drop the flag but where was the altruistic patriotism when “J” got dropped, fired at will?
As for my own case, I was terminated for accepting a gratuity from a taxi driver for a pick up to SFO. Funny thing was that I was not present when the driver arrived. I left an envelope for him to leave the few bucks for me—which I had instructed “Tom” to accept. In typical Tom fashion, he reported it to the property manager. I was called in for a “meeting”. But prior to that meeting, a member of the maintenance department (the building manager's personal buddy from Seattle) was off site, maybe eating lunch, and called the manager who I heard say, “Ok…don’t worry, I’ll clock you in”. This is, of course, prohibited via company rules and regulations—of which there are hundreds if not thousands, and are unequally applied between management and staff. I witnessed his violation in flagrante delicto (in the act). I was fired for taking a gratuity that i never received. As for the property manager, he is still there, comfortably and gainfully employed by the Landmark, occupied by the 1%, a place haunted by the living.