What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

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

In the 1950s, a portion of San Francisco's Western Addition -- once a thriving African-American neighborhood famous for its jazz -- became one of the nation's first large-scale urban renewal projects.

Fillmore Street, between McAllister and Geary, used to be packed with black-owned businesses -- restaurants, TV repair shops, cleaners, butcher shops, and jazz clubs. Once known as the "Harlem of the West," the Fillmore neighborhood was home to nearly two dozen jazz venues in the 1940s and '50s, including the Blue Mirror, Jimbo's Bop City, and the Booker T. Washington Hotel lounge. All the major jazz stars of the day -- Fitzgerald, Holiday, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus -- played these clubs, drawing huge crowds to the neighborhood.

The Lower Fillmore was also home to famous poets and artists. Violinist Yehudi Menduhin and poet Maya Angelou both grew up on Fillmore Street.

Barbara Meskunas of the advisory 
Gabriela Hasbun
Barbara Meskunas of the advisory committee.
Mary Rogers, 80, is known as the mother of 
the Lower Fillmore.
Gabriela Hasbun
Mary Rogers, 80, is known as the mother of the Lower Fillmore.

"I remember when you could look down from the top of the hill at Fell [Street] and see all the shiny neon lights from the clubs and black businesses," says Ace Washington, who has lived in the Lower Fillmore for most of his life.

In its prime, the Fillmore was the third largest commercial district in San Francisco.

But after World War II, a massive federal program called urban renewal affected major cities all over the country. In an effort to modernize parts of the city, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was founded in 1948. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the agency worked on redevelopment projects A-1 and A-2, both in the Western Addition, the largest such efforts in the western United States.

The plans to redevelop the Western Addition were accelerated in 1959 when Justin Herman became the executive director of the agency. Though Herman is often villainized by local residents as the destroyer of their community, he famously predicted in 1960 that "[w]ithout adequate housing for the poor, critics will rightly condemn urban renewal as a land-grab for the rich and a heartless push-out for the poor and nonwhites."

Residents of the Lower Fillmore still refer to the Redevelopment Agency's efforts in their neighborhood as "Negro removal" rather than urban renewal. Using eminent domain, the power of government agencies to acquire property for public use, the city's redevelopment effort displaced thousands of African-Americans and razed dozens of city blocks.

Most frustrating for the 14,000 black residents who were forced out of their Western Addition homes was that decades after their homes were destroyed, the land remained vacant. By 1970, most of the area along lower Fillmore Street, which Herman designated the A-2 project, had been cleared. (The first home was torn down in 1953.) But plans to build in the neighborhood continually fell through. Investors considered the area "commercially unviable," and it fast turned into a troubled inner-city shooting gallery.

Many neighborhood business owners had similar frustrations. Beginning in the early 1950s, businesses were forced to move out, with the Redevelopment Agency creating a Certificate of Preference program that gave displaced businesses the first chance to move back to the Western Addition when redevelopment construction was complete. But it took the agency almost 20 years to rebuild storefronts -- and even longer in some cases. And as of 2001, only 5 percent of the preference certificates had been used.

The anger and frustration that came with the destruction of much of the Western Addition organized itself into community activism. The Western Addition Community Organization was formed in 1967; that year, it filed a lawsuit that temporarily stopped development in the area until the agency submitted a federally certified plan for relocation of displaced residents.

"The whole issue in the first place was to get rid of us and put in high-rises and bring in upper- and middle-class folks out here. It was racist, so a lot of us refused to go, and we sued the agency and stopped all of that," says Mary Rogers.

Soon thereafter, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began to require that redevelopment projects have project area committees when displacement of residents was contemplated. The Western Addition Project Area Committee formed in 1968 with 40 members, 23 of whom were nominated by the Western Addition Community Organization.

But in 1983 the Redevelopment Agency closed out its agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. State law did not require project area committees, so there was no advisory group for the Lower Fillmore for almost 20 years. The current community advisory committee was formed by Mayor Willie Brown in 2003.

"It's really extraordinary to have an advisory committee 40 years after the fact," the Redevelopment Agency's Marcia Rosen notes wryly.

Now, four decades after urban renewal flattened the Fillmore's jazz heyday, there are a few black-owned venues that have become successful. The Boom Boom Room and Rasselas Jazz Club are late-night jazz, blues, and soul favorites. Powell's Place still offers soul food classics. And in its new location, the New Chicago Barbershop continues to offer the old-fashioned atmosphere and "proper haircuts" it did when it emerged in 1952.

But those businesses are the exception to the depressing rule.

Most of the Fillmore scene from McAllister to Geary can be described as tasteless urban blandness. The salmon, yellow, and blue of the Fillmore Center stretch along 3 1/2 city blocks, 12 stories high. Streets are littered with trash; every night the Popeyes Chicken restaurant dumps its chicken grease outside. Between Ellis and O'Farrell streets, across from the Fillmore Center, an aesthetically challenged strip mall has emerged where national chains such as Foot Locker, Panda Express, and Domino's beat out local businesses for leases. No matter the time of day or the time of year, the Lower Fillmore's young can be found milling on nearly every street corner.

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