Heart and Soul

A Southern standby helps bring buzz back to the revitalized Octavia Boulevard

This recent string of natural disasters has got me thinking about the enduring nature of places. Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods — they have a funny way of blowing into town and wiping the slate clean, like an eraser on a marker board. They take away not just the buildings and the trees and the street signs, but also the hum and buzz and breath of a community.

Growing up in San Francisco, I was only peripherally aware of the Urban Renewal bulldozer that razed the Fillmore District like a tornado. I would ride on the 6 Parnassus bus past closed-up shops, or drive under the shadow of the Central Freeway on the edge of the Fillmore, where a few sad, solitary Victorians stood withering in exhaust fumes like Willy Loman's house in Death of a Salesman, and I would think: Who would want to live there?

It wasn't always so. The Fillmore once thrived as a large and lively African-American neighborhood. A few vestiges of that era remain, but for the most part the slate has been wiped clean.

Then the other day I was strolling down the new Octavia Boulevard, which not long ago could have been the poster child for Urban Blight magazine, and I felt a small tremble. Not exactly a full-on vibration, but enough of a jolt to give me hope.

Lo and behold, the Fell Street offramp has morphed into the more genteel Market/ Octavia egress, and it just gets better from there. Sunlight now splashes wide sidewalks, where spiffed-up Victorians gleam beneath old-fashioned streetlamps and kids play on jungle gyms in nearby Hayes Green. Octavia has managed to accomplish more in one street than all of Mission Bay did with its acres of lofts and its Quiznos. It's put a heartbeat back in the 'hood.

In the middle sits J's Pots of Soul (203 Octavia, 861-3230), a 6-year-old cafe that makes you realize you can carve the guts out of a place, but you can't kill its spirit.

For years, J's sat first in the gloom of the freeway and then in the dust of construction, but it refused to throw in the towel. Regulars from the Lower Haight and the Fillmore endured noise, blocked sidewalks, and innumerable other obstacles just to get their fix of Southern-fried cooking. And now their stoicism is paying off. The inviting little storefront — not to mention the aroma of griddlecakes and fried chicken (something you rarely smell in San Francisco anymore) — has got people hanging U-turns.

On a recent sunny afternoon, as I gazed into the eyes of a pinup of Josephine Baker and Marvin Gaye sang sweetly in the background, I found myself happily pondering the likes of sweet potato pancakes, eggs with sausage and grits, salmon croquettes, and, yes, fried chicken wings.

I went with the chicken, which was offered with my choice of vegetables, sautéed cabbage, yams, mashed potatoes, pinto beans, or grits. The platter arrived with a wedge of hot corn bread — sweet, moist, and flecked with enough red pepper to give it real personality. My cabbage — sautéed in garlic with peppers — was disappointingly bland, but the yams glazed in cinnamon butter were tender and tasty, and the chicken wings hit the spot: a thin, crunchy layer of savory batter that pulled off in strips to reveal soft, slippery wing meat with just enough grease to make it authentic, but not so much that you wallow in it.

I sat there licking my fingers and savoring the scene long after I'd finished my plate, feeling the hum and buzz and breath of the Fillmore return.

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