What's Really Wrong With the Lower Fillmore?

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

It's a windy Wednesday evening in September, and despite initial attempts at civility, the quarrelsome dynamics of the Lower Fillmore are once again playing out in public. "I want to move beyond the misunderstandings," begins Barbara Meskunas, chairwoman of the budget and finance subcommittee of the neighborhood's redevelopment advisory group. "And I want to keep order here."

The issue before the subcommittee is money. There is not going to be order.

The five neighborhood residents on the subcommittee are fishing for financial information from the Redevelopment Agency's Western Addition project manager, Gaynell Armstrong. They want to know just how much money is left for the redevelopment project that leveled and then rebuilt much of the Western Addition neighborhood. The project began in 1964 and will be completed in 2009.

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."
Community activist Ace Washington.
Gabriela Hasbun
Community activist Ace Washington.
Gaynell Armstrong of the Redevelopment 
Gabriela Hasbun
Gaynell Armstrong of the Redevelopment Agency.
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.

Mary Rogers, 80, known as the mother of the Lower Fillmore, has been a community activist fighting against redevelopment since the mid-1960s. After some largely uninformative banter among redevelopment staff and subcommittee members, Rogers, the chair of the community advisory committee, steps to the microphone and sums up at least part of the general discontent filling the room.

"I'm not confused; you all are confused," she says, stopping to draw a large breath into a tiny frame that's mostly hidden by the wooden podium; her voice is loud, strong. "I don't know why this staff keeps dictating to this community. I don't like being used. I'm being screwed here, and no one will even kiss me."

She pauses.

"I'm sick of this," she announces, sitting down and beginning to breathe into a hand-held oxygen machine.

The meeting moves on to the process for hiring a new contractor to run the Lower Fillmore promotions office, which sponsors events aimed at drawing foot traffic to the neighborhood's commercial strip. The firm that had been running the promotions office, Cultural ID of San Jose, was forced out by the Jazz Preservation District Merchants Association in May. Charles Spencer, merchants association president, owner of the New Chicago Barbershop, and member of the subcommittee, led the charge against Cultural ID, loudly alleging financial wrongdoing and garnering enough community support to cause the group's resignation.

As redevelopment staffers explain the bid package for soliciting a new promotions management firm, however, Spencer is nowhere to be found. He strolls in 40 minutes late, after most of the concerns he'd been barking about for months are off the table. When it comes time to vote on seeking bids, he abstains.

Other committee members roll their eyes.

Steve Boyack, general manager of the Fillmore Center, a huge housing and retail complex that extends through much of the Lower Fillmore, leaves the room. Suddenly, Ace Washington, a neighborhood resident who videotapes all the subcommittee's meetings of his own volition, starts jumping around and waving his hands, trying to get the committee's attention.

It seems that Boyack evicted Washington and his organization, Brothers for Change, from the Fillmore Center that morning. Washington is determined to make the eviction into official neighborhood business.

"I'm appalled that this committee just sat by and let Mr. Boyack walk out of here," Washington says, but it's clear the subcommittee isn't going to get into the eviction. Even in defeat, Washington raises his voice and succeeds in temporarily revving up the small crowd.

The next order of business is the Redevelopment Agency's proposal for putting up Christmas lights and a holiday tree in the Lower Fillmore. After a staff member reveals that the agency proposes to spend between $20,000 and $30,000 on the lights and tree, the audience goes ballistic.

"Thirty thousand dollars? How can we keep putting the emphasis on celebrations when so many kids are dying?" says Daniel Landry, a member of Brothers for Change, a group that focuses on violence prevention in the Western Addition, and a familiar face at neighborhood meetings. Landry and three or four of his cohorts take every opportunity to bring up the violence in the Lower Fillmore and then demand that redevelopment funds be immediately rerouted to deal with the "youth problem."

There is, of course, no chance of this happening. The Redevelopment Agency is the real estate arm of city development, selling bonds to finance infrastructure improvements in "blighted" areas of the city and paying off the bonds with taxes from the affected areas. Redevelopment money can only be used for specific things. Law enforcement and social services are not, in general, some of those things.

But in the Lower Fillmore, many of the neighborhood's social ills -- drugs, violence, unemployment -- are seen as the Redevelopment Agency's fault. When the agency bulldozed the neighborhood 40 years ago, residents say, it was a thriving African-American community. Today it is a mess, and people regularly demand payback, whether it is plausible, or reasonable, or even possible.

As the meeting pushes its way past the two-hour mark, Randall Evans, another neighborhood activist who routinely focuses on the area's social ills, brings a new and irrelevant question to the fore: "Are you going to the funerals?" he asks. "Are you? Are you?"

When Meskunas finally answers, "No," Evans launches into a tirade. Dressed in a blue suit, a long blue overcoat, and a blue fedora, he commands so much attention that he forces the Redevelopment Agency's Armstrong to go straight to grade-school tactics.

"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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

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.

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.

Many in the community attribute the lack of economic progress to a racist attitude that is supposedly prevalent at the Redevelopment Agency.

"It's these liberal progressive personalities in the agency; they think that they are doing us a favor. This attitude of 'We know what is best for you' is counterproductive and racist," says Shiferaw.

"I can agree with that, because I've experienced that attitude myself," says commissioner Breed. "The agency is there to do a job, and I think many people there do not expect the community aspect to be so time-consuming and controversial. People who went to school for development and turn into community liaisons don't always know how to handle it."

But neither racism nor mere mismanagement seems to fully explain the near abandonment of the "economic revitalization" component of the redevelopment effort. For example, even though 40 years of redevelopment have produced little such revitalization, the agency's primary focus in the last three years of the project will remain on the physical development of the remaining empty parcels of property in the area.

On this score, there actually seems to be some good news.

After more than 11 years of development talks, Michael Johnson of Fillmore Development Associates confirmed last week that a deal to develop the long-empty corner of Fillmore and Eddy streets closed early this month. The so-called Heritage Project will house a 28,000-square-foot nightclub and restaurant to be run by the owners of the famous Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland. The 12-story building will also feature a 352-seat music hall, a French/West Indian fusion restaurant, a jazz heritage center, 80 condominiums, and a 125-space underground parking garage.

"We secured all $68 million in public and private funding," Johnson says. The project is scheduled to break ground sometime this week and, he says, will take about 18 months to complete.

Because this is the Lower Fillmore, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a major new development on a disused vacant lot.

Spencer says that big projects are not the answer to the neighborhood's problems and redevelopment needs. He thinks the agency should make an effort to keep the neighborhood cleaner, revamp its loan program for small businesses, and focus on homeownership for black families.

The Rev. Townsend agrees. "The agency doesn't even recognize that they are responsible for economic development in this area," he says. "Before the Redevelopment Agency came in, the black businesses were thriving and growing. The agency aborted our chances for success and now they have the responsibility to restore some of that. Redevelopment is more than just putting up buildings."

The Redevelopment Agency's primary effort at preparing the Lower Fillmore for the day when it is no longer a redevelopment zone has been the creation of a community benefit district. The agency hired New City America, a San Diego-based firm, to determine whether such a district would be successful in the Lower Fillmore.

Marco LiMandri, president of New City America, has created 38 benefit districts throughout California. He says that creating such a district in the Lower Fillmore will be more difficult than in other areas. "We have to realize the whole history of the Fillmore," LiMandri says. "What we are trying to do is move forward and move the Fillmore into the future."

If property owners decide that they want to fund the benefit district, it will be done through assessments based on property values. New City America will work with property owners to write a management district plan that will detail all of the services the owners want to provide.

"We don't tell them how to do it or who should do it," LiMandri says. "That's up to them." LiMandri says he hopes to have the process set up by April 2006.

In other areas around San Francisco where benefit districts have emerged, it has been commercial property owners who pay special assessments -- and who control what the money is spent on. But in the Lower Fillmore, residents -- many of whom own no property and who will pay no assessments -- are already vying for some kind of control.

"The [benefit district] doesn't concern the whole community, just the business owners. That isn't right. Hopefully all the stakeholders in this community will have representation on that board," says Rogers.

The benefit district aside, as the Redevelopment Agency plots its exit, the Lower Fillmore is fighting the agency to the bitter end.

Members of the merchants association have continued their grumbling about the promotions office and drawn the attention of a civil grand jury that apparently plans to investigate a range of complaints about the Redevelopment Agency.

And some residents are agitating publicly for the resignation of agency Executive Director Rosen. "I don't know any single black leader in this community who hasn't advised the mayor that we need major administrative change at the agency, and we've been ignored," Shiferaw says. (The Mayor's Office did not return calls or e-mails about the Western Addition redevelopment project.)

Meanwhile, the community advisory committee and its various subcommittees have already scheduled meeting after meeting to deal with the benefit district and all the other issues surrounding the Redevelopment Agency's 2009 departure.

If the past predicts the future, in meetings over the next months and years, Lower Fillmore activists will talk over each other and at each other endlessly. When no progress occurs, they will blame the Redevelopment Agency and each other. They will snipe about money and gripe about the malicious beginnings of redevelopment in their neighborhood. They will reminisce about the good old days, when neighborhood efforts actually created position change.

And through it all, one reality will likely remain unvoiced, circling constantly under the surface of the discourse: An absence of the kind of activism that has characterized the neighborhood for nearly 40 years might be the one thing that the Lower Fillmore of the future really needs.

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