What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

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

Supervisor Mirkarimi agrees. "There is a strange co-dependency between the agency and people of the [Lower Fillmore]. Weaning people off of that is going to be a difficult process."

Because the agency's books offer vague work descriptions, it is hard to know who is paid for what and why. Under titles of "consulting" and "production," thousands of dollars are paid out each year to residents in the Lower Fillmore.

When asked about records that would show who had been hired by various agency contractors, Rosen confirmed that her agency doesn't keep such documentation. "Why would we?" she asked. Redevelopment Agency contractors do presumably keep the records, but state and local open-government laws that would require them to be made public do not apply to most contractors.

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

Caroline Ocampo of Cultural ID says in her first year with the promotions office, the firm gave $60,000 in subcontracts to neighborhood residents. "Some people made $80, some got $15,000, but they all did legitimate work to get it," she says.

Part of the economic development plan in the Lower Fillmore asks that contractors hire people from the community when they are qualified for the work. "It was really frustrating," Ocampo says. "They'd say, 'Why isn't more money going to Western Addition people?' Then when money and jobs would go to people in the community, they would say, 'Why is it going to those people in the community?'"

Despite all of its foes, the merchants association might be the only group in the neighborhood capable of changing the culture of the Fillmore. The merchants are organized. They are working to increase retail development, homeownership, and black business interests -- all of which could help to stabilize the Lower Fillmore.

On the other hand, many of the "activists" who have spent decades decrying the Redevelopment Agency (and now the merchants association) have also been profiting, via consulting contracts, from lackadaisical redevelopment efforts to "revitalize" the neighborhood.

In the end, it's clear that personal grudges account for much of the decision-making and red-flag-waving in the Lower Fillmore.

And no one is safe from the grudgemongering. Mary Rogers, seemingly the beloved mother of the Lower Fillmore, gets it, too.

Rogers knows the ins and outs of the Redevelopment Agency like the back of her own hand. She commands respect and has an intimidating presence, especially for an old woman who travels in a wheelchair. She has fought for positive change in the Lower Fillmore for more than 40 years. She was successful in the '60s and '70s. In recent years, it's fair to say, her efforts have plateaued.

Many say Rogers has been less effective as an activist because she too is on the payroll of some Redevelopment Agency vendors, including MJM Management, which cleans the streets in the Lower Fillmore. Others say she's less effective because she's been sick, or because she's old.

"Mary Rogers has got one foot in the grave, but she don't want to pass it on, so we've got to take it from her," Ace Washington says. "The agency just uses Mary Rogers to rubber-stamp bad decisions."

But other opinions abound.

"Mary Rogers is the real devil of this community," says Harput of the merchants association.

"I don't always agree with her, but no one has their heart in this community more than Mary," counters redevelopment commissioner Breed.

Even with a three-year deadline looming over its head, the Lower Fillmore is abuzz with talk of everyone and everything -- except serious plans for the survival of the community after 2009.


Marcia Rosen says that 41 years after it started, the Lower Fillmore project is 92 percent complete. The Western Addition A-2 project area is made up of 72 city blocks, totaling 277 acres. Since 1964, the agency has built or rehabilitated 7,000 units of housing, more than half of which serve low-income families, senior citizens, or people with AIDS. It has also created a commercial strip between Eddy and Geary, constructed and designed an urban streetscape, and contributed funding to several art, film, and jazz development construction projects.

But few, if any, of the agency's goals for economic revitalization have been reached.

The Human Rights Commission on African American Parity published a report called "The Unfinished Agenda" that detailed the economic status of African-Americans in San Francisco between 1964 and 1990. And in 1994 then-Mayor Frank Jordan's Fillmore/Western Addition economic development task force commissioned a retail development plan that described the area's economic problems and offered possible solutions.

Like "The Unfinished Agenda," the plan urged the Redevelopment Agency to focus on economic revitalization, vacancy rates, and leasing trends; on small business loans; and on the creation of a central theme for marketing the area.

But of all the economic problems facing the Lower Fillmore, the agency made good on just one of those recommendations -- creating a theme for the area. The Fillmore Jazz Preservation District became the agency's marketing scheme, and the Jazz Promotions Office its instrument.

Armstrong, the new project manager for the area, acknowledges that there has only been one small business loan issued by the agency so far, though more than $800,000 remains available for similar loans. "Their master lease program was also very ineffective," Boyack says. (The program provides permanent affordable-housing options for residents.) The Western Addition has the lowest homeownership rate of any neighborhood in San Francisco, and there are only a few black-owned businesses in the Lower Fillmore.

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