Despite profound physical
and sociopolitical changes in the region, the Fillmore retains the mixed-use
multiculturalism of the '50s.
By Steven T. Jones
IT'S HARD TO believe little O'Looney's Market my neighborhood
stop for a six-pack or some groceries was in the same spot on
Haight Street, with the same name, throughout the 1950s. Such stability
is rare in the Fillmore District, which has changed faces and names
many times over since then.
On any Sunday in the '50s, little kids would be streaming out of Sacred
Heart Church at Fell and Fillmore Streets starched white dress
shirts contrasting with black faces, expressions weary from sitting
through Rev. John Mills's sermon asking Mom for a treat from
O'Looney's. Passing the Diner and John's Barber Shop and the almost-uniformly
African American faces of their working-class neighbors, they'd turn
right on Haight. Instead of hearing live jazz coming from today's Café
International a Sunday staple they'd see shoppers walking
out of Denham's Department Store. Instead of today's beer drinkers at
Toronado, they'd see men waiting for a trim in Fred's Midtown Barber
Shop, while women got their hair straightened next door at Delrey's
Beauty Shoppe. A couple doors down, Colonial Florist would be blooming
where the darkened, graffitied Noc Noc Bar is now. They'd pass moviegoers
at the Midtown Theatre, instead of today's redeveloped Theatre Lofts.
And finally, Mr. O'Looney would greet them with a smile and candy.
Researching my newly adopted neighborhood at the library, I discovered
that only O'Looney's and Sacred Heart have remained unchanged, although
many churches, markets, and liquor stores are still doing their things
under new names. But food, booze, and God aren't the only constant forces
in this dynamic neighborhood, as I learned once my library work gave
way to walking the streets and talking to old-timers about the way things
used to be.
• • •
The history of my neighborhood and the profound changes to the
urban landscape that started just as the '50s ended really begins
after the big earthquake and fire of 1906. Many of the homeless refugees
of disaster-ravaged downtown crowded into the Western Addition, and
Fillmore Street became the main commercial strip for San Francisco.
Aging houses were supplemented by makeshift flats and shops thrown up
to accommodate the burgeoning, multicultural population. But as other
parts of the city were rebuilt, the Fillmore became the low-rent part
"This attempt to meet the  emergency marked the beginning
of decline in the district," reads 1947's Western Addition
District Redevelopment Study, put out by the San Francisco Planning
Commission. This pamphlet marked the first step in a process that resulted
in most of the district being bulldozed and rebuilt two decades later.
Yet the "decline" of the Fillmore has always been relative.
It's true that going into the '50s, the area had high rates of unemployment,
poverty, and crime. As a result there was massive white flight from
the area throughout the '50s, particularly in my neighborhood, which
has been known as Haight-Fillmore, Midtown, the Lower Haight, or just
"the south side of the Mo'," as lifelong Fillmore resident
Maestro Curtis calls it.
Census figures for the tract around the intersection of Fillmore and
Haight show there was one black resident for every 30 white residents
in 1950, and by 1960 it was one black for every two whites. For the
Western Addition as a whole which included the up-and-coming
enclave of Pacific Heights the white population sank from 56,720
in 1950 to 28,632 a decade later, while the nonwhite population climbed
from 25,931 to 33,637.
In the 1950s the Fillmore was an early multicultural community with
few overt racial conflicts. It boasted a growing live music scene that
would make it a world-renowned jazz hub, along with great and affordable
ethnic restaurants that drew patrons from all over the city. It was
also a model for urban residential density that might have forestalled
the sprawl-based patterns we've instead pursued. Yet the neighborhood's
changing demographics were viewed with distrust by many whites in the
still-segregated country: to them, the Mo' was the slums.
In the planning documents of the time, the Fillmore was harshly demonized.
A 1947 study by the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association
compared the white and well-off Marina District to the "poor and
wretched living conditions" of the Fillmore, which "degrade
the minds, bodies, and spirits of the people who must accept them as
a background for their daily lives." Even though race isn't mentioned
in the document, it's hard to miss it as the subtext in passages like
this: "This is the Geary-Fillmore District. It is gray, brown,
and an indeterminate shade of dirty black. Ancient two-story dwellings
crowd upon one another, row upon row of crumbling 'carpenter's gothic'
houses sit crazily above stores, behind shops, next to commercial establishments."
But seen from the inside, the Fillmore was far from "an indeterminate
shade of dirty black."
• • •
Barbers know things. They hear how attitudes in the community change,
and they often stick around the neighborhood long enough to see how
it progresses through the decades. And my neighborhood has a couple
of sage, old barbers: "Mack," at a shop on Haight he didn't
want me to identify, and Earl Blanchard, at the spot at Haight and Pierce
Streets labeled simply "Barber Shop" but which some call "Earl's."
Both men take the long view, holding that the neighborhood has cycled
through many business and generational changes, but today it remains
essentially what it has always been: a gritty mix of colors and flavors,
of commercial and residential spots right next to each other, a community
where reasonable rents maintain a multicultural mix of young transplants
and those who grew up here and stayed.
"Fillmore, it's like any other city after 25 or 30 years,
everything changes over," says Blanchard, 84, sitting in his barber
chair in the empty shop, lazily alternating his glances between me and
"It had a different feel because we were young then," he
tells me, warming to the topic. "But it's about the same. You look
at life differently when you get older." He lived in maybe 10 places
around the Western Addition between 1946 and 1952, when he bought a
home in the Ingleside District. And he's been a barber in the Fillmore
since '54. He speaks matter-of-factly about his experiences, about segregation
and how many white-owned businesses, even in the Fillmore, wouldn't
"I'd go into a place, and he didn't want to serve me. Other places,
they'd just ignore you," Blanchard says. "But I had so many
places I could go and have fun, so if I couldn't go some places, it
wouldn't bother me."
He remembers the hot and popular jazz spots along Fillmore from the
'50s: New Orleans Swing Club, Texas Playhouse, Jack's. And along the
way, he'd fill up on barbecue from one of the half-dozen spots that
gave the street a smoky-sweet smell, probably the same smell Memphis
Minnie's gives the 500 block of Haight today.
It was Fillmore Street's last hurrah as an authentic commercial center,
the decade before the redevelopment began and sterile enterprises like
the Safeway shopping center at Webster and Geary and meticulously landscaped
sidewalks gave an artificial feel to much of Fillmore, and shifted the
strip's focal point of organically gritty mixed urban uses closer to
Haight Street, where I now live.
• • •
Another good way to gauge how my neighborhood has changed since the
'50s is to talk to people born during those years, like Maestro Curtis
and Rick Washington, each almost 50, who were shaped by the culture
of that era and have watched the changes that have taken place since.
Washington went to elementary school at Sacred Heart and seems to know
everyone in the neighborhood. He's a curious mix of quiet homebody and
neighborhood historian, reverent and respectful of local elders,
and still best friends with a junkie, one of his childhood friends,
who lives in the nearby housing projects.
Washington introduced me to Charles, an elderly landowner who still
does all the landscaping for his Page Street apartment building, and
to 81-year-old former Muni driver Leroy Daigle, who lives next door
to Washington, where he spends his days playing chess and watching television
in a fully stocked barroom at the back of his always-open garage.
"Everything has changed," Daigle tells me. "The youth
changed, I changed, we all changed." But he's fuzzy on the details,
and Washington seems more inclined to agree with Blanchard the barber
that the neighborhood has gone through cycles and stages but still retains
the basic feel from his youth.
Curtis, a professional musician, remembers the neighborhood for its
live music everyone seemed to play an instrument, and there were
always notes in the air. In his formative years, Curtis says, it was
high-profile pimps like Fillmore Slim and Ike the Pimp, and the Black
Panthers with their guns and revolutionary rhetoric, who layered over
the neighborhood of his youth and altered its culture. "That was
the hood. It was very colorful," he says with big smile. "This
is where the music revolution took place. And the sexual revolution.
It was right here."
Curtis draws a distinction between the Haight-Ashbury and the Fillmore,
but he says both rebelled against the conventional strictures of the
1950s, and he feels a similar energy building today, as young people
and artists react to the resurgent conservatism of the Bush years.
"It's bubbling here," Curtis says.
The actions of some old-timers speak louder than their words. I met
Hank on the 400 block of Haight, known as "the block" among
the young African Americans who hang out there every day and night,
sitting on their stoops or their cars, playing boom boxes, socializing,
drinking beer, and maybe buying or selling a little weed. Washington
is wary of the block and avoids it. But Hank, who moved to the neighborhood
after being discharged from the army in the late '50s, says it's always
had a lively social scene. And it's always been a tough neighborhood:
"If you didn't live in the neighborhood," Hank tells me, "you
didn't hang out in the neighborhood."
That changed with redevelopment, but not necessarily for the better.
"They told the people they could move back in after redevelopment,
but they couldn't move back, because the prices were too high,"
he tells me. Unlike the wholesale changeover further up Fillmore, redevelopment
was sporadic around Haight Street and didn't really touch the block.
To Hank, the block has always been the block, even if he doesn't live
here anymore, having moved to Arguello Boulevard years ago. He continues
to sit here in his wheelchair, taking in the scene as a more or less
permanent fixture. Hank gets taken to kidney dialysis every day, so
he has his ride drop him at Haight and Fillmore afterward, where he
spends his day before getting picked up in the late afternoon.
"Best thing to do here is see nothing and know nothing,"
Hank says with a sly smile and a playful sort of mischievousness, the
streetwise youth from the '50s equally at home in the neighborhood of
today on a block that has changed immensely, and not much at
Nearby, a mural at Haight and Fillmore seems to echo Hank's experience:
"Roots are still alive," it reads.
E-mail Steven T. Jones at email@example.com.