What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

Could it be the activists who claim they're trying to rebuild it?

It's a windy Wednesday evening in September, and despite initial attempts at civility, the quarrelsome dynamics of the Lower Fillmore are once again playing out in public. "I want to move beyond the misunderstandings," begins Barbara Meskunas, chairwoman of the budget and finance subcommittee of the neighborhood's redevelopment advisory group. "And I want to keep order here."

The issue before the subcommittee is money. There is not going to be order.

The five neighborhood residents on the subcommittee are fishing for financial information from the Redevelopment Agency's Western Addition project manager, Gaynell Armstrong. They want to know just how much money is left for the redevelopment project that leveled and then rebuilt much of the Western Addition neighborhood. The project began in 1964 and will be completed in 2009.

Mary Rogers, 80, known as the mother of the Lower Fillmore, has been a community activist fighting against redevelopment since the mid-1960s. After some largely uninformative banter among redevelopment staff and subcommittee members, Rogers, the chair of the community advisory committee, steps to the microphone and sums up at least part of the general discontent filling the room.

"I'm not confused; you all are confused," she says, stopping to draw a large breath into a tiny frame that's mostly hidden by the wooden podium; her voice is loud, strong. "I don't know why this staff keeps dictating to this community. I don't like being used. I'm being screwed here, and no one will even kiss me."

She pauses.

"I'm sick of this," she announces, sitting down and beginning to breathe into a hand-held oxygen machine.

The meeting moves on to the process for hiring a new contractor to run the Lower Fillmore promotions office, which sponsors events aimed at drawing foot traffic to the neighborhood's commercial strip. The firm that had been running the promotions office, Cultural ID of San Jose, was forced out by the Jazz Preservation District Merchants Association in May. Charles Spencer, merchants association president, owner of the New Chicago Barbershop, and member of the subcommittee, led the charge against Cultural ID, loudly alleging financial wrongdoing and garnering enough community support to cause the group's resignation.

As redevelopment staffers explain the bid package for soliciting a new promotions management firm, however, Spencer is nowhere to be found. He strolls in 40 minutes late, after most of the concerns he'd been barking about for months are off the table. When it comes time to vote on seeking bids, he abstains.

Other committee members roll their eyes.

Steve Boyack, general manager of the Fillmore Center, a huge housing and retail complex that extends through much of the Lower Fillmore, leaves the room. Suddenly, Ace Washington, a neighborhood resident who videotapes all the subcommittee's meetings of his own volition, starts jumping around and waving his hands, trying to get the committee's attention.

It seems that Boyack evicted Washington and his organization, Brothers for Change, from the Fillmore Center that morning. Washington is determined to make the eviction into official neighborhood business.

"I'm appalled that this committee just sat by and let Mr. Boyack walk out of here," Washington says, but it's clear the subcommittee isn't going to get into the eviction. Even in defeat, Washington raises his voice and succeeds in temporarily revving up the small crowd.

The next order of business is the Redevelopment Agency's proposal for putting up Christmas lights and a holiday tree in the Lower Fillmore. After a staff member reveals that the agency proposes to spend between $20,000 and $30,000 on the lights and tree, the audience goes ballistic.

"Thirty thousand dollars? How can we keep putting the emphasis on celebrations when so many kids are dying?" says Daniel Landry, a member of Brothers for Change, a group that focuses on violence prevention in the Western Addition, and a familiar face at neighborhood meetings. Landry and three or four of his cohorts take every opportunity to bring up the violence in the Lower Fillmore and then demand that redevelopment funds be immediately rerouted to deal with the "youth problem."

There is, of course, no chance of this happening. The Redevelopment Agency is the real estate arm of city development, selling bonds to finance infrastructure improvements in "blighted" areas of the city and paying off the bonds with taxes from the affected areas. Redevelopment money can only be used for specific things. Law enforcement and social services are not, in general, some of those things.

But in the Lower Fillmore, many of the neighborhood's social ills -- drugs, violence, unemployment -- are seen as the Redevelopment Agency's fault. When the agency bulldozed the neighborhood 40 years ago, residents say, it was a thriving African-American community. Today it is a mess, and people regularly demand payback, whether it is plausible, or reasonable, or even possible.

As the meeting pushes its way past the two-hour mark, Randall Evans, another neighborhood activist who routinely focuses on the area's social ills, brings a new and irrelevant question to the fore: "Are you going to the funerals?" he asks. "Are you? Are you?"

When Meskunas finally answers, "No," Evans launches into a tirade. Dressed in a blue suit, a long blue overcoat, and a blue fedora, he commands so much attention that he forces the Redevelopment Agency's Armstrong to go straight to grade-school tactics.

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