What's the History of San Francisco's Fillmore Neighborhood?

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Race and Restitution in San Francisco’s Fillmore District

San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood is a jumble of tenement housing, manicured office buildings, and high rises with apartments that sell for upwards of two million dollars. An epicenter for small business and medical offices, the neighborhood resembles business districts across the country. The place’s effect is reserved, quiet, slightly plastic. At night, music seeps from posh jazz clubs with $100 steak dinners.

While the music creates an atmosphere, the neighborhood nevertheless draws few tourists, and residents rarely mingle on the sidewalks. The Fillmore wasn’t always like this. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the district was a mecca for black identity development. The roads of the Fillmore boasted generous Victorian mansions, Chinese bait shops, and ethnic markets. Neighbors helped each other. Newspapers like the Sun Reporter focused on black issues and businesses owned and run by African Americans thrived.

Back then, the live sounds of jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald melded with the communal chatter coming from Bop City, one of San Francisco’s burgeoning jazz venues. Young African Americans were partly drawn to the Fillmore because it was an apex for generating the new sounds that jazz demanded. Jazz musicians took themselves seriously. They were creating a music totally their own. This music so moved its listeners their lives were changed.

John Handy, a saxaphonist, describes how jazz was a communal effort in which younger artists regularly drew from and were taught by older ones--an opportunity for mentorship. The experience was transformational and spawned new talent:

Bop City because of its inclusion of all this new,

different music became kind of like a school. It was

a conservatory, a classroom, a performance room;

it was all that in one. It was also a place where you

learned the behavior, the modus operandi of just how

to handle yourself in that kind of company…

It's unutterable. Sometimes people would get up and the

world would come to an end because of what they were

doing; the music was that good…

Sometimes a person would play an idea that you'd like to

duplicate or build from. That's how I really learned to play, by

watching other people play the saxophone.

This neighborhood’s identity was shaped by a communal understanding of cultural longing. Through jazz, a music all about freedom, African American elders schooled their young ones in the art of improvisation--a skill much needed to navigate an era of racial intolerance and hatred.

That was before San Francisco’s Redevelopment Authority utilized an imminent domain argument in order to dislocate over 4,000 blacks from the neighborhood. With little more than a promise to compensate the families in the future, the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority managed to wheedle, bribe, and buy the African Fillmore families into leaving the homes they had often inhabited for over 40 years.

The Redevelopment Authority was a result of a post World War II desire to update the cities of the United States. In 1949 Truman signed an act that offered federal dollars for the enhancement of cities. Many cities acted immediately to take advantage of the funds. Like other cities, San Francisco focused its attentions on black neighborhoods. The project would eventually affect close to 20,000 residents and demolition would encompass hundreds of city acres owned or rented by blacks.

In order to justify the removal of the families from the area, the Redevelopment Authority depicted the Fillmore as a “blight,” and a “slum.” George Christopher, then mayor of San Francisco, made the argument that while the neighborhood wasn‘t currently a slum, it was very possible that in the near future the neighborhood could turn into one. The razing of the territory, he suggested, was a necessary preventative step. The city would literally bulldoze the entire neighborhood and replace it with a hotel, a grocery store, and other amenities that would draw whites into the area.

Charles Collins, a former resident of the neighborhood, describes the overarching racist implications of the process:

You saw wrecking companies come in and just wholesale

destroy blocks upon blocks upon blocks with tractors, bulldozers,

cranes, wrecking balls. We also saw this incredible line that

goes all the way up along the Geary Corridor. It's like a Mason-Dixon Line.

The Geary Corridor is a huge dividing line that separated the

black community from what was north, and from Pacific Heights.

The central freeway system in San Francisco came right through

areas of low income.

Such geographical racism created some of the most severe physical and mental barriers for blacks of the time. Again physically segregated from the white majority, blacks found themselves to be no match for the Redevelopment Authority. The Fillmore residents experienced prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion on multiple fronts. First came the removal of property rights and lack of compensation. Contracts were broken, promises unfulfilled, public transportation removed from the area. Blacks were excluded from city decision-making meetings.

Eventually, any hope the Fillmore families had about returning to their neighborhood dissipated. With little means for recourse and the Redevelopment Authority applying professionally honed pressure, families in the Fillmore slowly began to depart. Their property rights were fully removed, if there were any property rights at all, effectively creating an outbreak of homeless and at risk families. But, removing families from their homes resulted in effects more devastating even than homelessness. The Fillmore represented to these individuals how there existed a place where they could truly feel at home. It was the smelly fish shops, the barber fronts, the chatter on street corners that comprised the neighborhood, and removing people from their homes comprised a full scale assault on the collective identity of the neighborhood, while black families were forcibly dislocated in order to provide space for an influx of white opportunists and home-buyers. Imagine the effects of the mass migration of 4,000 city residents into outlying areas of the city.

Bolin, Grenesky, and Collins point out how cities and their urban cores often represent the geographical control of privileged whites over ethnic minorities (2005). ‘Spacial purification,” they assert, is the process by which people of privilege wall out perceived risks of crime or illness (161). Noam Chomsky (2007)discusses the mannerisms of societies based on institutional or personal conquest:

When you conquer somebody and suppress them,

You have to have a reason. You can’t just say, “I’m

A son of a bitch and want to rob them..” You have

To say it’s for their good, they deserve it, or they

Actually benefit from it. We’re helping them. (124)

Much of San Francisco’s Redevelopment Authority’s plan displayed transparent racism, obviously dividing neighborhoods on racial and class lines, and systemizing the breaking up of stable communities. Preaching its devotion to the good of the black community, the Redevelopment Authority simultaneously took increasing action to rid the city of what it considered to be the problem--the black Fillmore community.

After being bulldozed in preparation for “redevelopment,” the Fillmore was ironically left in disrepair for years after its black exodus. In the 1980’s, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein won a congressional lobby to raise a grocery store, a business center, and hundreds of new apartments in the area. The African Americans who had been expelled from the Fillmore could little afford the exorbitant rental prices in the area (http://www.pbs.org/kqed/fillmore/learning/time.html, para 49).

Today, African Americans currently living in the San Francisco bay area continue to experience the housing crisis brought upon them by mass migrations of white homeowners moving into the city. It is not unusual to see San Francisco apartments renting on Craigslist for upwards of $8,000 per month. The current day Fillmore sports few Afro centric businesses, and little is left of what was once the Fillmore’s jazz heyday. In portions of the neighborhood, crime remains rampant. It is difficult to gauge the situations of the families who left the Fillmore. The majority of them simply disappeared. Others grew too old to continue petitioning the city for a return of their housing.

Today, the children of the Fillmore families are beginning to return to the Redevelopment Authority with demands for the return of their ancestors' homes. They are hoping the city will finally make good on its promise to allow them into the frays of San Francisco’s expensive housing markets, and they are understandably asking for some form of restitution.

Restitution is concrete activity by the inflicting group with the intent of restoring finances, properties, or relations as partial restitution for the crimes of the past. Many believe monetary restitution is necessary to forge a path to reconciliation. In this view, justice without restoration is no justice at all. Restitution in the form of monetary compensation, accountability, and other measurable offerings acknowledges how all history intertwines, so it is impossible to consider the situations of black families in the 21st century without addressing the historical limitations imposed upon them by whites. Poverty, the lack of childcare, homelessness and a host of other issues affecting San Francisco beg a new look at how restitution can be played out in the real world--and whether the city is seriously capable of engaging in the difficult work of reconciliation.

Martin Woollacott, writing for the Guardian Newspaper, noted that restitution historically occurs when the decendants of the oppressors have a change of heart. This change, he says, is often predicated by factors such as the anger of the oppressed, but it cannot be forced (2002). For Wollacott, restitution is constituted by concrete efforts to both confront the past and mend the future. It includes, he says, aspects of grievance, apology, and compensation that are both vital to the life of the community and observant of collective solutions (2002).

For people involved with the Fillmore, the process of restitution could be both systematic through legislative navigation of the housing crisis, and cultural through the offerance programs that address the personal and familial aspects of racism that led to the destruction of the Fillmore in the first place.

Audrey Thompson, in her essay “Caring and Colortalk” asserts that it is unwise to address racism on a theoretical basis without deeply considering the environmental concerns of black families (Walker and Snarrey, 2004). It is necessary, she says, for black mothers to teach their children how to navigate a “public sphere” that is generally hostile toward them (33). It is necessary for both black and whites to reconsider white agency and its affects on individuals (33). The hidden claims whites make to social authority and social supremacy must be examined in light of how they have affected populations like the Fillmore.

These claims and their resulting institutionalization should be examined carefully for the flaws of racism, while being redrawn in the context of social betterment for black families. Interconnectedness, the politics of kindness, and a will for social betterment may be the only way for Americans to begin healing, or if not healing, remembering the past. Most importantly, this journey begins with relationships, the kinds of relations that occur when we begin examining our histories in the open. Whites, like blacks, need to remember.

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Bolin, B., Greneski, S., & Collins, T. (2005). The geography of despair: environmental racism and the making of south phoenix, Arizona. Human Ecology Review 12(2), 156-157.

Chomsky, N. (2007). What we say goes: Conversations on u.s. power in a changing

world. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Cone, J. (1975). God of the oppressed. New York: Maryknoll.

D,Souza, D. (1995). The end of racism. New York: The Free Press.

Shipler, D. (1997). A century of strangers. New York: Knopf

Stein, P. (2008, October 15). The fillmore. Retrieved October 15, 2008 from PBS website http://www.pbs.org/kqed/fillmore/learning/people/pettus.html

Walker, S. , & Snarey, J. (2004). Racing moral development. New York: Teachers

College Press.

Race and restitution in 1

Race and Restitution in San Francisco’s Fillmore Neighborhood: a Study of Urban Renewal and Race Oppression

Jenny Snyder

Course: Race, History and Inequality in the Social Context

October 20, 2008

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