Fillmore Redevelopment Recounted in Open Air ‘Museum’

The Museum of the Hidden City tells the story of the planned Black cultural and entertainment district that never came to fruition.

Museums are closed in San Francisco, but neighborhoods remain open. Put one and one together, mix in a little technology, and you get the Museum of the Hidden City. The part walking tour, part podcast, part augmented reality experience tells the story of urban renewal in the Fillmore — which manifested as the government-led demolition of San Francisco’s Black cultural hub. 

The Museum of the Hidden City is a 75 minute academic and literary exploration of one of the darkest and most significant moments in San Francisco’s history. While there remain some lingering issues with the tech, and a few stops that may or may not stay open as public health rules change, this tour is an engaging, novel way to learn about the city, all while keeping your distance from others. And the stories it tells — about racism, affordable housing, and the evolution of neighborhoods — feel profoundly relevant. 

Tour participants need only a fully-charged smartphone, headphones, and some good walking shoes. iPhone users will need an iPhone 8 or newer to engage with the few segments of the tour that use augmented reality by overlaying historic photos on the current landscape via your smartphone screen. But people with older phones can still take a “lite” version of the tour. Just download the app, and show up on the Geary side of St. Mary’s Cathedral Monday through Saturday (the app has more detailed recommendations about timing.) 

Your hosts — fictionalized characters based on Helena Hamilton, daughter of redevelopment leader Wilbur Hamilton, and “the Architect,” a composite of architects and developers from the urban renewal era — will take it from there. The tour that follows takes participants inside the Cathedral, through the courtyards of various housing developments, into the Japantown Center, and along several blocks of Fillmore Street. The tour’s hosts, voiced by Tianna Bratcher and Samuel Getachew of the arts education non-profit  Youth Speaks, infuse their descriptions of the neighborhood’s history with original spoken word poetry that links the struggles of the past to issues of today. 

Michael Epstein — whose company, Walking Cinema, produced the tour with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities — selected these two characters because they were “caught in the middle” of the city’s urban renewal plans. As leader of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in the 1970s and ’80s, Helena’s father, Reverend Wilbur Hamilton, who was Black, abetted the destruction of his own neighborhood, even as he fought to make the best of the situation for the African American community. The Architect’s character evolves considerably over the course of the tour, at first proudly expressing the utopian potential of building a new neighborhood from scratch, only to acknowledge the wisdom that comes from listening to local residents and business owners as things start to go wrong.  

Augmented reality helps map these characters’ development. At St. Mary’s, the Architect shows how the cathedral’s design can be broken down into “modulors,” units of measurement invented by early modern architect Le Corbusier. Later on, inside an unassuming office building off Fillmore Street (which is, remarkably, publicly accessible), images of the neighborhood’s destruction are projected onto a pair of religious murals. They are the last vestiges of Helena’s grandfather’s congregation, whose demolition her father, Wilbur, authorized. 

Mapping the decline of the Black population in the Fillmore with augmented reality (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

But the most striking moments come from the characters’ ruminations on the urban landscape. 

On the pedestrian bridge crossing the Geary Expressway near Steiner, which is itself slated for demolition soon, Helena finds a metaphor for her father’s identity, as a “shaky bridge between two worlds.” On Fillmore Street, the Architect contrasts the apparent chaos of the neighborhood’s legendary jazz scene with the forced order of modernist urban planning. 

Among the quiet and rather lifeless pedestrian walkways that weave between the neighborhood’s modernist housing blocks, the Architect reflects on having built “a palace fit for the builders and not the residents, fashioned a paradise for a community that didn’t ask for it. Whatever happened to the community we came here to serve?” 

The tour explains in vivid detail how that community was, literally and figuratively, flattened. Some 2,500 Victorian houses were destroyed across 80 blocks, displacing approximately 20,000 people and 800 businesses, the majority of them Black. James Baldwin’s famous quote about urban renewal being “negro removal,” which you’ll hear on the tour, was directly referencing San Francisco. 

The overall narrative is based on archival research and interviews with more than 30 people, including the real life Helena Hamilton and Bob Herman, a local architect and cousin of San Francisco’s redevelopment czar, Justin Herman. The voice of Arnold Townsend, a leader of the community movement that fought and successfully slowed urban renewal in the late 1960s and `70s, is interspersed throughout.  

At the tour’s final stop, the Fillmore Center, Townsend suggests that the biggest tragedy of the Fillmore’s redevelopment is the lack of a Black cultural and retail district, akin to the Japantown Center across the street.

“I have this recurring nightmare that children from some school are on a bus on a field trip,” Townsend says. The tour goes to the Russian and Jewish shops of the Richmond, into Chinatown and the Mission District, and to the Vietnamese community on Hyde Street. As they’re driving, one kid asks the teacher, where’s the shopping district for Black people? The teacher answers, they don’t have one. 

“What does that do to the opinion those kids have of Black people?” Townsend says. “What does that do to the opinions that Black children have of Black people?” 

A 1971 pamphlet describing the vision for the Black Cultural and Trade Center (Photo: Walking Cinema)

In fact, such a place was once part of the urban renewal plan: The Fillmore Center site south of Geary Boulevard was conceived as a shopping and entertainment district “with an emphasis on Black history and culture,” which would someday become a “national focal point for Black Americans.” A group of Black developers, including a couple of 49ers players, created plans for the center, but were never able to secure financing due to discrimination from banks and other business partners. 

So the Fillmore Center site sat vacant for years, until white mega-developer Don Tishman came along with a conventional residential project that included virtually no retail or community-facing spaces. Tishman, not the Black developers or the Black community, got to create a new micro-neighborhood from scratch — on land that the government bulldozed. 

Despite so much pain and wrongdoing, the Fillmore’s redevelopment still holds some worthwhile lessons for the present, which the tour recounts. Thanks to pressure from activists like Townsend, about 50 percent of the housing that was built as part of the neighborhood’s redevelopment is owned by non-profits, and to this day, rented at below market rates. That’s a stark contrast to surrounding Victorian neighborhoods like the Haight and Hayes Valley, which remain physically intact but financially out of reach to most people. 

And it’s one of the reasons why the lack of a Black retail and cultural hub is such a crucial part of the history of urban renewal in the Fillmore. There actually was and still is a decent amount of affordable housing in the neighborhood, but few churches, entertainment venues and small businesses to root the Black community in place. That helps explain why the city’s Black population increased until 1970, after the most drastic elements of the Fillmore’s redevelopment had been carried out. The bulldozers did their damage, but so did the buildings that took their place. 

These are some of the historical complexities Epstein and his team are hoping to tease out in the next three episodes of the Museum of the Hidden City, which will explore urban renewal and affordable housing programs in the Tenderloin, Bayview, and Mid-Market. After taking the Fillmore tour, participants will be asked to donate money so Walking Cinema can complete the subsequent episodes. 

Even with museums, schools, and libraries closed, San Francisco’s neighborhoods have a lot more to teach us. 

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