What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

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

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the Lower Fillmore, calls the Redevelopment Agency's efforts there "toxic."

"I think between now and 2009, San Francisco needs to decide if we really want more redevelopment project areas," he says. "I'm sure they will do better in the other parts of the city, but other neighborhoods need to learn from what happened to the Lower Fillmore."

In early 2003, as part of an effort to market the Lower Fillmore as a "premier entertainment destination," the Redevelopment Agency created a Jazz Promotions Office. According to the agency, the office would have the dual mission of re-establishing the jazz district and injecting new economic life into the struggling commercial corridor. After advertising the contract for months, the community advisory committee and the agency settled on a group out of San Jose called Cultural ID to run the office.

The Fillmore Center.
Gabriela Hasbun
The Fillmore Center.
Charles Spencer, Agonafer Shiferaw, Steve 
Boyack (all standing), and Gus Harput 
(seated) make up the so-called "Gang of 
Gabriela Hasbun
Charles Spencer, Agonafer Shiferaw, Steve Boyack (all standing), and Gus Harput (seated) make up the so-called "Gang of Four."

Despite some community concerns over the choice of Cultural ID -- the company's employees weren't black, and many Fillmore residents thought they were too young for the job -- most observers agree that the promotions office was a success in its first two years.

"We all knew that the promotions office was something done by the Redevelopment Agency to appease the community," says Ace Washington. "It was like they were saying, 'There, we did something for you. Even though it's not people of your color running things, it's for you.'"

Caroline Ocampo, the director of Cultural ID, says in the first year the promotions office was a "complete success," bringing 31,000 visitors to the neighborhood and organizing a 30-week-long farmers' market. The office also established events -- including weekly jazz concerts called "Fillmore Fridays" and what was hoped to be the community's signature event, the Big Band Duel and BBQ Festival -- that drew 8,000 people in its first year.

Still, some wondered how concerts and a farmers' market were solving problems in the Lower Fillmore, where retail and office vacancy rates are high, property ownership is low, and crime and unemployment are almost continuously on the rise.

"They had some good ideas," says Rogers, who was initially skeptical of the group. "It's just that there were some other things that should be going on along Fillmore."

Ocampo says the promotions office also helped create the Jazz Preservation District Merchants Association -- the same group that accused the office of fraud and drove Cultural ID out of the neighborhood only a short time later.

"When the project started, there was no merchants association," Ocampo says. By the second year, she says, and with the help of Cultural ID, the merchants association was becoming more professional. "By the third year their expectations were different, and they felt they had the power to renegotiate," she says.

But there had long been a merchants association in the Lower Fillmore. It just so happened that at the time Cultural ID came in, the members of the association were fighting amongst themselves over boundaries and membership.

Former merchants association president Jim Larkin says that he stepped down and helped usher Charles Spencer, the owner of the famed New Chicago Barbershop, into the position of president in hopes that Spencer, who was new to the area, could find a middle ground among the feuding merchants. "Once he got it, he turned on us," Larkin says.

Spencer and the other merchants along Fillmore Street decided to limit membership as a way of creating a stronger merchants association, which Spencer says is good for the whole community.

For good or ill, Spencer and the merchants along Fillmore worked with the promotions office to redefine the association's membership to consist only of businesses that front on Fillmore Street. Entrepreneurs and nonprofits in the rest of the Western Addition are no longer welcome in the association, and, as of May, Cultural ID is no longer running the Jazz Promotions Office.

Charles Spencer came to the Lower Fillmore three years ago. He bought the New Chicago Barbershop from longtime Fillmore resident Reggie Pettus, who still cuts hair there. It's fair to say that Spencer has been the source of his share of controversy.

A soft-spoken but aggressive man, he rarely looks opponents in the eye and has a natural way of avoiding questions. Many in the neighborhood suspect that he's up to something. But no one seems to be able to put a finger on what that something might be. In the absence of firm charges, many lifelong Fillmore residents spit the word "newcomer" at him with a wickedness that is typically reserved for much harsher words.

But other than Spencer not being a lifelong resident, these residents can't really articulate why they don't like him. They just don't.

Spencer was first elected president of the merchants association in March 2004 and was re-elected in March 2005, though some claim the association's recent elections were "bogus" and "fixed," without being able to provide any real evidence of impropriety. He is closely allied with a group of three other merchants who have earned the less than loving nickname "The Gang of Four."

Agonafer Shiferaw is the owner of Rasselas Jazz Club on Fillmore and Geary. Shiferaw got Rasselas off the ground with a $1 million loan from the Redevelopment Agency in 1998. He has been as outspoken as anyone about the agency's failures, but like Spencer, Shiferaw has plenty of neighborhood foes. Though African-American, Shiferaw suffers from a new kind of racism in the Fillmore. "They don't see him as black; they see him as successful and one of Them," one community advisory committee member explains.

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