by Tony Robles
Iris Canada turns 100 in three days. Iris Canada, eviction fighter who has lived in San Francisco’s Black community on Page Street since the ‘40s. Iris, with history in her skin and stories welling up in her eyes. The trees outside her home bend to the left and right, seeking balance in anticipation of her 100 years – July 13, the day of her birth.
It is more important than the Golden Gate Bridge and all the gold dust fairytales peddled by get rich con-men and their schemes to pull the rugs and chairs out from under us. It is more important than Google and the tech shuttles, the cable cars and the box of rice-a-roni.
Iris speaks softly, so soft that you must listen carefully or you will miss what is important. Iris’ voice is a caress of butter on a warm slice of toast in a kitchen whose walls breathe stories.
“I was born in 1916, the same year the nineteenth amendment gave women the right to vote. When I was 13, the stock market crashed. At 25, I cried with my country when Pearl Harbor was bombed and I celebrated with my country when the war ended.
“I was 38 when Brown vs. Board of Education ended segregation in American schools. At the age of 53, I felt old, having endured six of the worst years our country had ever seen as its leaders were murdered: Fred Hampton, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers assassinated from 1963-69.
“I lived through Watergate, the oil crisis, Iran Contra and the assassination of Harvey Milk when I was 62. When I was 74 and had been collecting Social Security for 10 years, the U.S. was fighting the Gulf War. I was so proud that I voted to elect our first African-American president after my 92nd birthday.”
In three days, Iris turns 100. Did you expect to live this long? Did you imagine bearing witness to the Black community’s dwindling to 3 percent of the population of San Francisco? In your dreams, did you think that your building would be sold and that you would have to endure an Ellis Act eviction whose sole aim was to extricate you from your home? Iris, with a voice so soft – tell me.
“I have lived and continue to live a rich and full life. I have paid my taxes, worked to improve the health and life of families and community in neighborhoods locally. I have paid my dues.
“I am entitled to all the protections the laws allow for tenants and the elderly in the city of San Francisco. I am entitled to the quiet use and enjoyment of my home according to the protections of the state of California from harassment and disenfranchisement due to the greed of property speculators and landlords involved in the race to take over all viable space in San Francisco for personal gain for the highly privileged.
“I have been under siege, harassed continually by my own neighbors, attacked in my own home and fooled when I was well into my 80s into signing documents that did not benefit me by people who falsely claim to have my best interests at heart.”
Iris Canada, part of the great migration of Black folks to San Francisco. She first lived on the 800 block of Page Street, then moved to her current home at 670 Page, where she has lived since the ‘50s with her husband James, who was a deep sea diver in the military and later employed by United Airlines until his passing in the ‘80s.
Iris’ home has always been a home. Her original landlord, James Stephens, was a “gentleman who kept his word and realized his decisions affected the quality of life of his tenants.” Iris kept up the small garden whose bounty was shared among the tenants and Mr. Stephens. This was before sharing became known as tenancies in common (TICs).
When Mr. Stephens died, the building was sold to the current owner, Peter Owens, who, with his wife and brother, co-own Iris’ building. They invoked the Ellis Act to evict her. She fought to stay in her home, but the fight has resulted in her failing health, which included hospital stays.
Iris’s landlords and neighbors want to convert the building into condos. Iris refused to sign paperwork allowing them to do so. In response, the neighbors have made Iris’ living situation less than comfortable.
In three days, Iris turns 100.
Iris, we honor and celebrate your life. Thank you for being here. Thank you for staying on that block. Your mere presence brings us hope and pride.
Your presence runs deeper than the tourist landmarks that are flat postcard images when compared to the fullness of your life. Compared to you, the Transamerica building is a dunce cap, Coit Tower a crushed cigarette butt.
Attempts have been made to remove you from your home. It has caused tremendous stress on your 99-year-old body. Is this a birthday celebration or is it elder abuse?
The Elder Abuse Law, California Penal Code Section 368, reads: “Any person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any elder or dependent adult, willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured, or willfully causes or permits the elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health is endangered, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not to exceed six thousand dollars ($6,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years.”
You fought your eviction and won. Your landlord sued you for his court costs and the judge ruled in his favor, leaving you with a $164,000 bill that you must pay or be subjected to eviction. We are three days away from your 100th birthday. Again, is this a birthday celebration or is it elder abuse?
© 2016 Tony Robles. Tony is a housing rights advocate and the author of two children’s books and “Cool Don’t Live Here No More: A Letter to San Francisco,” published in 2015, which former San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman calls “the generational memory of San Francisco.” Tony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
we should be coming
to listen to your stories
sitting on the floor
in a dimly lit room
perhaps in silken candlelight
memories floating all around us
instead we’re with you
in a court room that wouldn’t
know justice if it fell from the sky
we’re out on the windy street
with our banners and slogans
trying desperately to be heard
you stand quietly watching
gripping your walker
that could never have imagined
that at your age you would
have to fight for your home
who doesn’t have to
say a word
to inspire us
© 2016 Tommi Avicolli Mecca. Tommi, writer, singer-songwriter, performance artist and director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, is best known as a radical queer activist who helped organize the first gay pride march in Philadelphia in 1972, organized shelters for homeless queer youth in the Castro in the late 90s, headed the politically influential Harvey Milk Club in the 2000s and now writes regularly for several online media. He can be reached at email@example.com.