What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

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

"Mr. Evans, I didn't talk while you were talking," she says.

But the all-blue Evans continues to walk around the small room, talking and cursing loudly as the committee tries to pretend the walking, talking, cursing, all-blue man isn't there. Finally, Armstrong has to interject again: "Mr. Evans, you're being rude."

"I'm rude?" he screams. "The Redevelopment Agency came in here and dismantled everything we had, and I'm rude? I can show you a whole new meaning of rude.

"And I don't give a fuck."

Washington, laughing, takes Evans out of the meeting room. But Evans is back before long, stepping to the microphone out of turn and, for the first time this evening, making some sense.

"Man, we are the reason, this committee is the reason things aren't happening," he says. "We are being buried alive here."

For decades, residents of the Lower Fillmore have wanted the Redevelopment Agency out of their neighborhood. On Jan. 1, 2009, they will get their wish. After 45 years, the agency will wrap up one of its longest and most contentious development projects. There is already rampant speculation about what will happen in the Lower Fillmore after the agency is gone.

Some say new business owners are coming into the area now, so they can gain control of whatever public money and projects remain in 2009. Others say some of the real troublemakers -- the "activists" who have lived off small contracts and payoffs from the agency for years -- will either leave the neighborhood or finally be quiet, once the agency and its funding are gone. Unfortunately, though, the most common reaction to the question "What will happen after 2009?" is a shrug that betrays a quiet fear: What if the Lower Fillmore can't sustain itself -- can't even be a real neighborhood -- without an evil Redevelopment Agency to fight?

Forty-five years ago, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency wanted to turn the Lower Fillmore into an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent. (Marcia Rosen, the agency's executive director, declined to provide a spending total for the project.) All that money has produced some new business fronts and housing but very little in the way of economic development or neighborhood cohesion. Many say the stagnation and divisiveness are no accident.

Indeed, a month of observation in the Lower Fillmore reveals a startling and indisputable reality: The turmoil that has monopolized Lower Fillmore life and agency business for years is anything but accidental.

"It's all by design," says Meskunas. "The agency created chaos in the community so they could do what they want. When [the agency] has us all fighting each other, they have us under their thumb."

But if the Redevelopment Agency has had malign effects on the neighborhood -- and it has -- resident activists have contributed to and prolonged the infighting, sometimes for financial gain. The Redevelopment Agency has for years passed out "consulting contracts" to squeaky neighborhood wheels, and the wheels have been happy to take the walking-around money and be quiet. Until it's time to agitate anew and obtain another "contract."

Repeat, for decades.

"That is the story of this neighborhood," says one community activist who asked not to be identified. "Intentions have become selfish, and hard work never pays off. All we are successful at doing is keeping anything good from happening here."

The Redevelopment Agency is busy working on its Fillmore exit strategy. It is desperately trying to start construction on the long-awaited Heritage Project, which would bring the nationally acclaimed Yoshi's jazz club to Fillmore and Eddy streets as part of a $68 million housing and entertainment development. Also, the agency is planning to create a community benefit district, which would bill commercial property owners for some of the services the agency has provided the neighborhood with for decades.

Many Lower Fillmore residents hope a community benefit district will finally allow an entity that is not the Redevelopment Agency to control the fate of the neighborhood. But others fear that the district will just become the neighborhood's new financial father figure and bête noire, and that when the agency finally leaves the Lower Fillmore there will be little but the district to ensure that the neighborhood is preserved as an African-American community.

Some residents aren't fearful about the future, but resigned to the fact that their efforts to reclaim the Lower Fillmore as a place of African-American culture have probably all been for naught. "When the so-called free market takes over, no one here is under any illusions about where this neighborhood is headed," says the Rev. Arnold Townsend. "Our folks have been run out of this town before."

But to prosper -- even to survive -- new blood and a lot less of the nasty "activism" that has long characterized the neighborhood might be just what the Lower Fillmore needs.

The Lower Fillmore neighborhood has a complicated history that encompasses the best and the worst of times for African-Americans in San Francisco. From the heyday of jazz legends such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Black Panther raids and the beginnings of cult leader Jim Jones, the Lower Fillmore has been through a lot in the last 40 years. But what defines this neighborhood now is its struggle against one of the most racist and ill-devised urban redevelopment efforts in the history of the United States.

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