In the lazy hours of a late Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of customers passed under the dark green awning of Polynesian Island Luau. According to its patrons, the takeout-style restaurant and retail shop — where shark tooth necklaces dangle from the ceiling, racks of floral shirts line the walls, and the owner’s granddaughter runs the register on the weekends — is the last of its kind in the Bay Area.
“I come here whenever I can,” said Lori Peneueta, 40, who drove from Sacramento to visit the market, which straddles Geneva Avenue on the border of San Francisco and Daly City. “This is a part of my heritage, and it’s one of the only places I can really feel that.”
To the left of the 22-year-old business, there’s a KFC and a Taco Bell. Across the street, the hulking mass of a Dollar Tree. Sitting beside a four-lane highway, Polynesian Island Luau has witnessed the decline of nearby Visitacion Valley’s once-vibrant Pacific Islander community. But now, it may have a front-row seat for its comeback.
After more than seven years of on-the-ground organizing, the neighborhood stands poised to become part of a new Pacific Islander Cultural District. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt legislation creating such a district, making it the 10th cultural district in the city.
Polynesian Island Luau owner Lafi Conway, right, chats with a customer of her takeout-style restaurant and retail shop Friday, Nov. 11, 2022.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
“There are a lot of Pacific Islanders across the area, so to have a place of our own would be really cool,” Polynesian Island Luau employee Thana Puni, 18, said from behind a tray of steaming plantains coated in coconut cream. “I would feel great if (the district) happens.”
Since the inception of the program in 2018, San Francisco has recognized cultural districts in Japantown, the Castro and the Mission to both honor and preserve diverse communities. Pacific Islander leaders hope the recognition and resources that come with such a designation will mark a turning point in a community long forgotten by the city.
“My goal is that 100 years from now, our community doesn’t have to suffer anymore,” said Gaynor Siataga, the director of San Francisco’s Pacific Islander Community Hub, a new community-based organization in Bayview. “They can go somewhere they belong, somewhere people understand them, and have some sense of identity and belonging here in this wonderful city.”
But with generations of entrenched disparities — and the risk of losing more community members to rising costs of living — those pushing for the cultural district know that this week’s vote is just the beginning.
Floral shirts and fabrics hang from the walls of Polynesian Island Luau on the northern edge of Daly City, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
A small community with a deep history
According to data from the 2020 census, the Pacific Islander community makes up just 0.4% of San Francisco’s population. Despite its size, the population has roots in the city more than a century old.
In the mid-1800s, Native Hawaiians made up 10% of the population in Yerba Buena, the settlement that later became San Francisco, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. During World Wars I and II, the U.S. military recruited Samoans, Tongans, Fijians and other islanders as it expanded its reach across the Pacific. But once World War II ended, many of the employment opportunities did too — leading to an exodus of Pacific Islanders to San Francisco.
Some came for jobs at the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. Others were recruited to work in farms in and around the city. Still others were sponsored by the Mormon Church, encouraged toward the city for missionary labor after helping build a temple in Hawaii.
By 1985, San Francisco’s Pacific Islander population reached its peak, according to the cultural district’s “resolution document,” which was drafted by community leaders to make a case for the cultural district. But as of the 2020 census, San Francisco’s Pacific Islander community numbered just over 2,150. And in the past decade, the number of Pacific Islanders in Visitacion Valley — the neighborhood where the community first took root — dropped by more than 50%, from 33 people to 15.
In the years since peak migration, the community hasn’t just dissolved in size. It’s also been hit by stark socioeconomic challenges.
Even before the pandemic, 29% of the Pacific Islander community in San Francisco lived below the poverty line with a median per capita income of just $25,930 — the lowest of any ethnic or racial group — according to a 2020 report from the Regional Pacific Islander Taskforce. That data found nearly 15% of the community was unemployed, and nearly 23% lived in overcrowded households. According to the cultural district’s resolution statement, 73% of Pacific Islanders in San Francisco are now in public housing.
“I grew up with, and in, those disparities,” Siataga said. “But when I saw the data, it broke my heart.”
Reliance on public housing, she added, “has been generational. That’s our reality and it’s been our reality, and it’s sad because we know that our ancestors that migrated here came for that American dream. And yet, we’re still stagnant.”
Those disparities exacerbated with the pandemic. Pacific Islanders in California contracted COVID-19 at nearly twice the state’s overall rate. By May 2020, the community had the highest death rate of any racial or ethnic group.
Mareta Eelua, left, and Faye Ia assemble candy lei five days before a Nov. 15 hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to establish a Pacific Islander Cultural District in the city.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
Today, city data shows the COVID-19 case rate for Pacific Islanders still outstrips all other communities: it’s more than double the rate of the city’s American Indian, Black and Hispanic populations, and more than four times that of white San Franciscans.
According to those pushing for the Pacific Islander Cultural District, these statistics are, in part, due to a lack of culturally attuned resources. For 20 years, there was just one fully funded community-based organization serving the population — the Samoan Community Development Center. But Siataga said that despite critical efforts, the organization wasn’t meeting the full range of services Pacific Islanders needed.
Because of that, community leaders say Pacific Islanders became “invisible” across the Bay Area, sinking toward the lowest levels of the city’s socioeconomic indicators.
Efforts with, for and by the community
During the initial phases of the pandemic, five of San Francisco’s Pacific Islander-serving organizations formed the SALLT Association, which aimed to strategically fill gaps they saw widening across the community. By coordinating across entities, SALLT began providing COVID-19 response services, counseling, employment assistance, housing support, language and translation services, and other programming, working alongside the Samoan Community Development Center to do so.
During the same year, Siataga — who has both Samoan and Latino roots — suggested creating a cultural district in the area after seeing its success for the Latino population in the Mission. But while the Latino community in San Francisco was growing, the Pacific Islander community was shrinking. With such small numbers, many felt like accomplishing such recognition would be impossible, Siataga said.
“At first, it was really challenging,” said Siataga, speaking of the first time she mentioned setting up a cultural district. “This community has never seen the resources, support or backing that other communities have seen, so when I first started talking about the cultural district, (the community) said things like: ‘That’ll never happen.’”
Still, she and others got to work.
Siataga encouraged elders to write down their stories, which they compiled into the district’s resolution document to demonstrate the community’s impact on San Francisco and their legacy dating back decades. They got in touch with Supervisor Shamman Walton, whose district encompasses the southeast corner of San Francisco home to many Pacific Islanders. And they dug into the data, trying to better understand what the Pacific Islander community was up against — a difficult task when across not just the city, but also the state, Pacific Islanders were consistently being grouped with the larger Asian community.
Palusami, a popular Polynesian delicacy made with beef, coconut milk and taro leaves, sit wrapped behind a counter at Polynesian Island Luau on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. Customers sometimes travel from quite a distance for the traditional Samoan food.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
By disaggregating that data, a clearer picture of the community’s challenges began to emerge, allowing leaders like Siataga to better pitch the mission of a cultural district and the things it could accomplish.
According to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, cultural districts provide a funnel for representative policymaking, helping leaders from minority communities take a seat at the city’s decision-making tables. They allot funding to employ those in charge of the cultural district, who together work on a specifically tailored three-year plan.
The Pacific Islander Cultural District will receive the typical annual funding award for cultural districts: $230,000 of hotel tax funds to support the team coordinating the vision for community-led social programs, services and resources in the new district.
Tino Felise, the neighborhood program coordinator at the Samoan Community Development Center, said the cultural district will focus on affordable housing, entrepreneurship and retail development, particularly for smaller mom-and-pop stores.
“Hopefully, establishing this cultural district will help us re-establish our population and make sure this is a place Pacific Islanders can continue to call home,” said Felise, who worked with Siataga to get the cultural district proposed.
Some of this work will draw on the successes of other cultural districts. In the Mission, the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District has implemented policies to halt displacement and gentrification, according to Calle 24 Council President Eric Arguello.
Polynesian Island Luau has been selling its merchandise from a storefront on the border of San Francisco and Daly City for more than two decades.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
By placing “special use protections” on incoming development in the Mission, the district has reduced the number of large renovations in the area — developments that would make it impossible for smaller, community-owned businesses to eventually take over those spaces, Arguello said.
“The legislation helped us maintain a healthier balance to protect smaller businesses, and helped us stabilize rent by maintaining smaller spaces for mom and pop stores,” Arguello said.
Still, Arguello noted, each cultural district is led by the needs of that community — and each has its own challenges and solutions.
“The coolest thing about this is that it’s all going to be done by the community,” said Iose Iulio, a housing specialist at the Bayview YMCA, and part of the team behind the Pacific Islander Cultural District. “When you listen to the community and what they really need and want, it’s more likely that they will use the services you provide.”
In some ways, Polynesan Island Luau is San Francisco’s Pacific Islander community in a nutshell. It’s held on in a rapidly changing city, and it’s been witness to inconceivable challenges. But still, it’s standing — and it’s ready to welcome its community back home.
“We get people coming from as far as Seattle to taste our food,” said Lafi Faletoese, the granddaughter of Lafi Wilson, Polynesian Island Luau’s owner. “But there are so few (Pacific Islander-owned businesses), a lot of people don’t know about us. … (Having the Pacific Islander Cultural District) would bring a lot more needed recognition for each and every Polynesian culture that exists.”
Elissa Miolene is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. Twitter: @elissamio