The Fillmore’s clip, cut, and snip: Reggie Pettus of New Chicago Barbershop No. 3 speaks
35 years ago, if you were to step through the doors of New Chicago Barbershop No. 3 you’d probably find Reginald “Reggie” Pettus standing behind his classic barber’s chair. Today, Pettus can still be found in the shop on Fillmore Street, an area that has seen seismic changes in its community. Pettus and the shop are a part of the Fillmore’s African American past, but he wants people to know that the shop is part of the present, too.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, the now seventy-one year old Pettus came to the Fillmore District in 1958, when he enrolled at City College of San Francisco. “Half of my family was in Mobile, Alabama, the other half was in San Francisco, so when I graduated from high school I wanted to come out here to go to school, so that’s what I did,” said Pettus in a Guardian interview one summer afternoon at his shop.
Known for its doo-wop beginnings and its present day rhythmic hot spots, the Fillmore District is the place to be when it comes to absorbing San Francisco’s jazz culture. Home to the historic Fillmore theater, and popular jazz club Yoshi’s San Francisco, the Fillmore District brings in people of all ages and colors to enjoy its good times. But if you’re looking to get a handle on some parts of Fillmore history, you won't find it in the clubs.
1551 Fillmore: The place to be for a beard trim, haircut, and some neighborhood history
Pettus has been working in The New Chicago Barbershop No. 3, a business originally opened on Ellis Street by his uncle James “Mack” McMillan in 1968, for thirty five years. Another branch (Chicago Barbershop No. 2), is located on Divisadero Street.
Pettus said that he’s been a professional barber for thirty seven years, but has been cutting hair since he was a young adult, including the time when he served in the Air Force from 1960 to 1964. “I’ve always been [a barber]. When I was in high school I cut hair, when I was in the service I cut hair. So when I got out of the service and came to California, my uncle, he had a barbershop so I went to school and became a barber, a legal barber that is.”
This year marks the forty-forth year of business for the barbershop, a success that Pettus credits to the staff’s welcoming customer service. “We open on time; we treat all the customers the same way, whether they’re Willie Brown or somebody that has come off the street. The way we treat people. That’s why we’re still here.”
Nevertheless, the barbershop has faced tougher times as the years have progressed. Pettus described the current business flow to be “fair”. “It’s holding on, put it that way.” He was adamant about the reasons for the ongoing decrease in clientele for the shop. He said that during the mid ‘70s, redevelopment came in and tore down most of the buildings around the Fillmore (the neighborhood had been slated for redevelopment since 1948 by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and by 1956, 60 blocks were included in this designated blighted area). As a result, most of the middle-class African American population had moved out of the Fillmore by the '70s, resulting in a drop in business for the barbershop. “When they moved down, our business moved down,” said Pettus.
After the redevelopment, Pettus said that the makeup of the neighborhood had shifted. “Way back in the day it used to be mostly Afro Americans, Italians, and Asians. Now, after they tore all the buildings, then brought everything back, you got quite a few Koreans and Caucasians in comparison to Afro Americans.”
“We’re the only Afro Americans on this block,” Pettus said. He takes pride in the fact that the shop has stuck around, but at the same time Pettus knows that it's evidence of the lack of representation of African American businesses in the Fillmore District.
When asked what he'd change if he could tackle one aspect of the Fillmore’s future, Pettus responded “I would put more emphasis on having more Afro American people come back into the area, and let them know that we are still here too.”
Through the hardships that the New Chicago Barbershop No. 3 has faced, it has always been able to fall back on what it does best -- cut hair. One of Pettus’s fonder memories was when Willie Brown came to the shop during his time as mayor. Over the years the shop has served as barbers to local stars, visiting celebrities – and the everyday residents of the Fillmore.
As many of the shop’s neighbors come and go, the New Chicago Barbershop No. 3 carries on as the Fillmore District’s spot for a cut, clip, or snip. But its owner is humble about its importance in the neighborhood. When asked about what separates the barbershop from other businesses on Fillmore Street, Pettus jokingly answered, “We’ve been here the longest.”
Now retired, Pettus, who continues to live in the Fillmore, and still makes frequent stops to the shop on 1551 Fillmore Street.
Said Pettus, “I still do the same thing; I still deal with mostly the same people, and I enjoy it, I enjoy it.”
New Chicago Barbershop No. 3
1551 Fillmore, SF