The Hotel Owners Laundry Company (HOLC) Squat: 1984

Historical Essay

by Jeff Goldthorpe


Young squatters were the backbone of many direct actions during the 1984 Democratic Convention, such as the one pictured here on Union Square, part of the War Chest Tours.

Photo: Keith Holmes

Many of the squatter activists evicted from The Vats had moved to nearby 5th and Folsom Streets, (South of Market) where they moved into an abandoned building once operated by the Hotel Owners Laundry Company (nicknamed HOLC or "hole-see"). From April to late October 1984 the HOLC residents ran a very activist, political squat during the most politically tense period in San Francisco since the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. One major difference from the laissez-faire squatting at The Vats, according to HOLC resident Steve S., was that meetings were held twice weekly and two rules agreed on: no shooting drugs and everyone had to work. There was also distribution of free food, which was the initial attraction for Steve S:

"I don't think I had a dime at the time. I was living in Buena Vista Park, sleeping in poison oak, working at the soup kitchen, hanging out at Bound Together bookstore. I got there [to HOLC] on a Sunday and had a free meal. It was one of our first open house/free meal things. So I had the meal and thought, 'This is a pretty nice place,' so I brought my shit over there and I moved in."

"The place was a warehouse but the only places we used were the offices and the lounge room because the other areas were too big and cold and the place was covered in asbestos."

"Initially it was sort of a crash spot. There was electricity in the main room but we didn't turn it on because we hadn't put boards up over the windows. We thought the light would leak through." (Waltz, 1988: p. 6)

There were also instances of cooperation with neighbors:

"Steve (a HOLC neighbor) was like 75 years old, an old merchant seaman. He helped us get our electricity going, put in a hot water tank that we got from Kaliflower (a commune in the Mission.) He lived in the hotel next door. He knocked on the door and said, 'Hey, I know you're here and I don't care as long as you don't torch the place.' He taught us a lot about electricity and stuff." (Steve S. in Waltz, 1988: p. 6)

In line with punk's "do it yourself" ethic about music making, punks were developing home repair skills to fix up the squatted space. James Lull's ethnography of the San Francisco punk scene mentions the distribution of screw drivers, bolt cutters and crowbars among squatter groups to break into buildings and turn on electricity gas and water (1987: p. 231). The HOLC certainly was part of the punk scene in San Francisco. The ground floor was fixed up to serve as a skateboarding rink (Waltz p. 6). According to one account several bands such as MDC, Reagan Youth, the Exploited and DRI visited the squat. (Hinkle, 1984)

HOLC was also a part of a broader squatting activism. Steve S. speaks of meetings with people in other communities about squatting and of Wednesday night meetings at Bound Together, St. Anthony's Coffeehouse, the Hotel Harold and HOLC, where new sites would be discussed. (Waltz, 1988: p. 6) HOLC's immediate community also gathered at free soup kitchens. Many HOLC residents worked in such kitchens as well, according to John, a punk from New Zealand living there at the time of the eviction (another feature of the HOLC residents, beyond their age and frequent punk affiliations, was the high proportion of European nationals there who heard about HOLC through political/ squatter networks, see Hudson, 1984). While the punk and counter-cultural squatters existed in the same locales as the larger "street" and homeless population, and sought to reach out to them through food distribution and open meetings, there seem to have been few successful efforts to close the enormous cultural and political gaps that separated them. Certainly most of San Francisco's homeless cannot be considered voluntary marginals in the same sense as the squatter activists. Homelessness is usually more characterized by social isolation and shame than collectivity and active refusal to work.

Given this atmosphere of political and cultural activism, it is no wonder that HOLC residents "were getting all ready for the Democratic Convention and we fixed the place up". (Steve S.) Waltz describes HOLC, only a couple blocks away from the Moscone Center, as "a planning center for demonstrators during the 1984 Democratic Convention". (1988: p. 6)

The chaotic and marginalized state of the milieu did not allow for more organized manifestations than these occasional actions. There had been meetings of 60 to 80 people following the Convention at Bound Together bookstore or in a nearby park but no organized collective approach (other than squatting) was evolved to push the activism. Nonetheless, punk/anarchist protest had a public presence in the Bay Area for the first time.

The HOLC squat, which had become an activist center initiating other squats showing movies, distributing free food, had avoided any major police harassment during the Democratic Convention. But they were finally evicted in mid-October 1984. According to Waltz, it took the Hong Kong owners a long time to go through the proper legal procedures after they had been informed of the squat by a neighbor. (1988: p. 6) The HOLC squatters' high-profile activism got them into the local newspapers at the time of their eviction. Local columnist Warren Hinkle wrote of the scene in front of HOLC the day of their eviction:

"The ousted punk rockers just set up housekeeping outside. They had rugs on the sidewalk and couches and coffee tables set up like it was a damn living room... There was a great view of Twin Peaks from the punk rockers outdoor living room. There were plants and easy chairs and someone had drawn a clock and a telephone in chalk on the wall of the building to make it seem more like home." (1984)

The HOLC squatters were not as hapless as they might have seemed in Hinkle's column; they soon regrouped on the sidewalk of Clementina Alley between 1st and 2nd in front of an anarchistic live/work space known as "The Cave," (which also housed the subversive work 'zine Processed World) (Processed World's website) but were ousted within a half day. A few days later they moved to a nearby building at 6th and Folsom Streets, owned by the city's Recreation and Parks Department. But following a complaint signed by a Park-Rec manager October 22, the police kicked in the door of the new squat and charged in with their guns drawn. They arrested 29 people on charges of trespassing ("Police Roust Squatters Twice in One Week," 1984).

This squatter's network continued to fight, through the end of the year, without much success. Some of HOLC squatters went to a boarded-up coffin factory nearby and a group of women moved into an abandoned house in the Mission District; both squats were short lived. Others moved back to Polytechnic High (originally squatted in late 1982) but were soon run out by "commie"-hating skinheads who dominated the place. The squatter activists did not try to launch another high-profile occupation after HOLC, although some have continued squatting in small groups. (Waltz, 1988: p. 6) Newspaper coverage tended to be sympathetic; however broad support was not forthcoming. Small publications by squatters, such as Brix and Bottles, served as a voice for some squatters, but with distribution of a few dozens or hundreds, were basically newsletters for the immediate anarchist community.

December 8th, 1984, squatters and their supporters organized a punk/reggae concert in Civic Center Plaza in the name of "Rock Against Rent," for which 200-300 people showed up. In addition to many raps on stage about the squatters' experience thus far, a leaflet was distributed entitled "What is Squatting," which acknowledged that "we have to reach out to people in order to get support." But this beginning mobilization work began as most aggressive squatting was in decline. It was too little too late. The subcultural base for this activity was too small and too fragile in late 1984 to provide the necessary support for such offensive organizing against property relations. And other communities beyond the immediate punk or anarchist milieux were hardly touched in the first place.

from a Masters' Thesis in Sociology at San Francisco State University, 1988

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