What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

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

"Agonafer didn't know nothing about the community; I introduced him around and went to the Redevelopment Agency and helped him get his loan," says Washington, a merchants association opponent. "But now he thinks he's kingpin. He is from Ethiopia; he just happens to have black skin. But he's not African-American."

That Ethiopia is located in Africa and Shiferaw holds American citizenship seems to have little relevance to Washington.

Gus Harput, who owns Harput's Adidas store, is the third member of the Gang of Four. Harput, who has been in the Lower Fillmore for more than 25 years, is Turkish. Hard put to make any serious allegations, or even gripes, about him, members of the community who oppose the merchants association say that he's "not nice" and "has only his own business interests at heart."

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."

As a businessman, Harput says he can live with that criticism.

Steve Boyack, the blond-haired, blue-eyed general manager of the Fillmore Center, rounds out the Gang of Four. The Fillmore Center, which extends across 3 1/2 blocks along Fillmore Street, is a source of controversy in itself. But despite his current dispute with Washington over what appears to be a lawful eviction, Boyack is one of the neighborhood's most trusted individuals. As the general manager of one of the agency's key developments, he enjoys access to both the agency and the community.

"Steve has really stepped up," says London Breed, a newly appointed commissioner to the Redevelopment Agency and a longtime Fillmore resident. "He is one of the few people who I feel confident has the community's best interest at heart."

In March, Spencer and Shiferaw led a charge against the contractor that was running the Jazz Promotions Office. They accused Cultural ID and a subcontractor of "double dipping," or paying themselves twice for the same job. "When they found out there was this serious allegation and that things might not continue for the third year without a fight, [Cultural ID] decided it wasn't worth it for them if they couldn't abuse the system, so they left," Shiferaw says.

Ocampo adamantly denies the charges of double dipping. She says Cultural ID pulled out of the project because "[w]e felt we couldn't maintain the quality; it came down to that."

The Redevelopment Agency also emphatically denies the double-dipping allegations.

As is typical in the Fillmore, facts are in dispute, rumors abound, and opinions are plentiful.

"They did a wonderful job as far as I'm concerned. They weren't black and that's why people didn't like them, but they did their job and they hired people from the community to do some work," says Washington, who was among the neighborhood residents on the payroll of Cultural ID.

Shiferaw and Spencer remain adamant that there was wrongdoing that needs to be corrected.

After six months of riotous meetings, the Redevelopment Agency is trying to put the dispute over Cultural ID behind it and get the promotions office off the ground again.

On Sept. 6 the agency announced that it is looking for another contractor to take over the promotions office. After knocking Cultural ID out of the job, some say, the merchants association will be first in line to try to take over the $307,000 that remains in the promotions office budget.

Spencer, however, skirts the issue. "I just think things need to be done differently," he says. But another member of the merchants association confirms that it plans on applying for the promotions office contract.

"They're absolutely going for it," agrees Meskunas, who is not opposed to the merchants association. "I think that people don't like them is testament to the fact that they are doing something good."

Dozens of meetings and countless hours have been wasted on speculation over the merchants' plans. But the Redevelopment Agency's Rosen says "conflict-of-interest concerns" likely will eliminate the merchants from consideration as the promotions office contractor. "They're not going to get it," one agency staff member confirms.

Charles Spencer thinks -- and many observers agree -- that one of the most serious problems in the Lower Fillmore is the long-term "payola" relationship some people have established with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

"There are individuals in the community who benefit financially from their relationship with the agency. One of the things they [redevelopment officials] do to avoid doing what they are supposed to be doing is give people little contracts, some long term, some short term. We want to stop all of that, and anyone who was benefiting is not happy with us," he says.

It seems that's the way it's always been in the Fillmore. "We don't call them bribes," says one community member who admits he has made a lot of money from the agency over the last 20 years. "We call it payback. They destroyed this community, so the way I see it, I deserve whatever they are giving out."

Community payouts often come in the form of "outreach" or "consulting" contracts for very little actual consulting or outreach.

"That's the way the agency has always done business," says Meskunas. "They give people money to be quiet and sign on the dotted line. And that's habit-forming."

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