Static change
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 of town.

"This attempt to meet the [1906] 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 the TV.

"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 serve blacks.

"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 all.

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 steve@sfbg.com.


March 24, 2004