Devastation and hope in the Fillmore
James Baldwin said it most eloquently and publicly: "Urban renewal ... means Negro removal" during a 1963 TV interview on meeting a boy displaced by the Fillmore-area redevelopment projects of the '50s and '60s. Wondering what happened to the Fillmore's vibrant jazz, blues, and R&B clubs which once drew musical giants like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and fostered local neophytes like Etta James and Chet Baker? Look to the two phases of the Western Addition Project, which swept over at least 30 blocks and affected more than 17,000 residents from 1953 to 1967.
Long before the bulldozers arrived, the Fillmore was renowned as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco, a magnet for Japanese and Filipino immigrants. A few African American families had been living in the neighborhood prior to the 1906 earthquake, and when World War II brought the removal and internment of the Fillmore's Japanese and Japanese American residents, the African American population exploded as workers moved from the South to the West Coast to work in the shipyards. Their arrival led to the blossoming of black-owned businesses and the Fillmore music scene. Hollywood stars could be spotted in back rooms, experimental filmmaker Harry Smith painted murals on the walls of Bop City, and marquee names such as Lionel Hampton would jam with local talents like Jerome Richardson and Vernon Alley and take them on the road.
Yet after the war, despite the early protests of community leaders, the Fillmore was slated for redevelopment one of many "modernization" projects spurred by US redevelopment agencies created in the late '40s that inevitably pinpointed neighborhoods populated by the poor and people of color. The two-lane Geary Avenue was transformed into a six-lane thoroughfare to speed commuters toward the Financial District, thousands were forced to move, and by 1967, when the Western Addition Community Organization managed to win a lawsuit against the city to stop demolition, only two venues had survived: the third incarnation of Jack's Tavern, currently the Boom Boom Room, and the Majestic Ballroom, now the Fillmore.
More than 5,000 displaced people were left with "certificates of preference" promising dislocated residents and business owners spots when they returned, which few did. Instead, many moved away and lost contact with the Redevelopment Agency, chalking up their losses to false promises; still others have fought to have their certificates honored, such as Leola King, the owner of jazz-era nightspot the Blue Mirror (see "A Half-Century of Lies," 3/21/07).
King lives just down the street from the Fillmore Heritage Center, which houses Yoshi's, the Jazz Heritage Center, and 1300 on Fillmore. It's the final piece of the puzzle and fills the last remaining lot left by the redevelopment begun in 1953 more than 50 years after the fact.
As the devastated dirt lots have remained barren for decades, the Fillmore has become more associated with crime and shattered dreams than the hot sounds and wild times of the 1940s and '50s. When the Fillmore Center, with its Safeway, was finally built in the late '80s, the community hoped for an economic renaissance which never quite arrived, old-timer Reggie Pettus of the New Chicago Barber Shop recalls. Jazz in all its permutations continues. And the oft-cited villain of the piece, the Redevelopment Agency, has attempted to redress its wrongs, producing booklets about the Fillmore's musical heritage to spur developers to build in the neighborhood renamed the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District.
"The signs here always cracked me down because there's nothing left to preserve!" says Elizabeth Pepin, coauthor of Harlem of the West (Chronicle, 2006), who initially learned about the neighborhood at the behest of Bill Graham as the Fillmore theater's day manager in the late '80s. "It's all been bulldozed down. It shouldn't be called 'preservation district.' It should be called 'resurrection district.'<0x2009>"
All that's left are memories and photos, which she and coauthor Lewis Watts gathered for their book and curated for 1300 on Fillmore's walls. Pepin has done her share of work for the agency and the neighborhood, helping to fill the empty storefronts with posters of the area's musical history, and is all too familiar with its fumbles. "The Redevelopment Agency just can't get out of its own way a disaster over and over again. Even the best intentions for example, they hired me to do these names." She points to the monikers of local musicians like John Handy on the bricks of the sidewalk, running perpendicular to pedestrian traffic. "Why did they turn them this way? You put them the other way so people can read them as they're walking, and then they're so small nobody notices them!"
Still, she has her hopes, like everyone else who loves the Fillmore: "I want it so badly to succeed." The arrivals of Yoshi's and 1300 on Fillmore are exciting, she agrees, though she wonders whether the old scene can truly be re-created. "One, when jazz was here in the '40s and '50s, it was superaffordable. Two, it was the music of the day, the rap music of the day, and all the people went out and danced," she explains. "It does worry me that everyone is pinning their hopes on this one corner to bring back everything else."
"Oddly enough, the Fillmore jazz district is probably more well-known in Europe among jazz collectors than in our own backyard," says Guardian contributor and cohost of KUSF's Friday Night Session Tomas Palermo. He believes the area's jazz history should be included as part of the core curriculum at SF public high schools, and he urges Yoshi's San Francisco and other "jacket-and-tie" jazz outlets to "open up to new sounds," citing London's Jazz Cafe, which books everyone from Roy Ayers to 4hero. He agrees with other watchers: the last parcel of land razed by the redevelopment wrecking crews shouldn't become yet another exclusive club for the moneyed elite who roll down Fillmore from Pacific Heights and across the bridges. It has to be accessible to the community and the creatives who once made it what it was and what it could be, taking it even further from what Pettus once described as "Fillmo no mo'." "Now," Pettus says, taking a break from cutting heads, "it's 'Fillmore maybe!'"