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The Lightening of San Fransisco

Krissy Clark

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Red Powell's Shoe Shine Parlor
(Reprinted with permission of Chronicle Books, courtesy of The Red Powell/Reggie Pettus Collection.)
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It's the first weekend of March. February's over, and Black History Month is over too. That's not so important for the Reverend Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco NAACP. He presides over one of the city's oldest African-American churches founded in the gold rush.

Last Sunday, Brown did note the final days of February in his sermon. But it really came to life, not when he talked about the end of Black History Month. His sermon came to life when he talked about the end of something else.

"You better march until black folk get back in San Francisco," he preached. "You better march until the jazz district really belongs to us!" At this point he was starting to shout. "You'd better march until we've really got Africa town!" At this point, he was gesticulating wildly, knocking over a chalice of wine at the pulpit. "Like there's Japantown, like there's Chinatown, like there's Italian town and the Mission and the Financial District. You better march!" The congregation was on its feet, cheering.

Rev. Brown is not concerned with the end of Black History Month. He's concerned with what you might call the end of black history, period, end of sentence. At least, black history in San Francisco. And he's not the only one. So are San Francisco city officials.

After Brown's sermon, the whole church seems to want to shake his hand. They are mostly older folks, in suits, big jewel-toned hats or dashikis. Rev. Brown greets them all with a big smile. But privately, he admits, when he looks out at his congregants, he gets a little sad.

"Times gone by gave us audiences when the sanctuary was packed," he says, "people down in the gym and in the youth buildings on Easter Sunday. But in the past 15 years we haven't put down one chair for an overflow crowd."

Brown says it's hard to watch the aging flocks and emptier pews. Especially when he remembers what was what this city was as a teenager in the 1950s. Third Baptist Church is in the Fillmore, a few blocks from Downtown. In those days black culture flourished. People called it the Harlem of the West. "It was the hub of the black community," Brown says, "the haven for jazz, black businesses. But back then there were more African-Americans in this city."

In fact, San Francisco's black population rose steadily in the middle of the 20th century. But it's made a U-turn in the last 40 years. In 1970, 96,000 African Americans lived here. Today, only 50,000 do and two-thirds of them are in public or subsidized housing. Most live in the Fillmore or Bayview-Hunters Point, both neighborhoods that are poor and dangerous.

"Look at them kids across the street," Crystal Low says, motioning to a street corner in Bayview, with a dozen young men hanging out. "Look at them. It's bad! It's true!" Low is a blunt 16 year old, and she says that neighborhoods like hers are known for their violence, not their culture.

"This is a cool neighborhood. There's just a lot of black people so it's crazy. You know when you get too many black people together, they don't get along. So it's crazy. Four of my cousins just got killed," she says. They were killed in the course of a few months. They were between the ages of 17 and 22.

A big part of this change has to do with what demographers call the "out-migration of the African-American middle class," or black flight. It's happening right now in many northern and west coast cities: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. It's happening most dramatically in San Francisco.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, San Francisco boasted a thriving black middle class. Thousands of families had come from the South during World War II, to work in the shipyards and other war-time jobs. A lot of them moved to the Fillmore. Black entrepreneurs started opening up shops, grocery stores and night clubs.

Marie Harrison lived in the Fillmore with her mom and eight siblings and remebers it well. "It makes a difference when you know everybody. I knew my neighbors, I could drop my coats and clothes at the cleaner and pick 'em up, and I'd tell them, 'Pay you next week, pay you on Friday when I get paid, but I need the coat now, or I need the dress.' You know what I mean? My mother, if she were alive, she would probably say it was like family."

Jazz clubs. like Jimbo's Bop City, Mini's Can Do club and the Texas Playhouse lined the streets. The stages had homegrown talent like Etta James, and visiting greats like John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon.

But by the 1960s, the buildings showed signs of wear. Pockets of crime had cropped up. The neighborhood was a perfect target for urban redevelopment. Or, as author James Baldwin put it sarcastically, "when you say 'redevelopment,' you mean, San Francisco is reclaiming this property, to build it up, which means Negroes have to go."

Sixty square blocks in the heart of the neighborhood were razed and 13,000 people, mostly black, had to move out. Some new housing and shopping centers were built. Other blocks stayed empty for decades.

Despite their good intentions, if city officials had purposely designed a plan to destroy a neighborhood, they could hardly have done a better job. Displaced families got gold certificates from the city, promising first dibs on new houses, once they were built. But Marie Harrison says that didn't help her mother. "She never got a notice to come back, to even see if she wanted to come back. So my mother ended up in public housing."

Many black families left the city altogether. The "Harlem of the West" was gone.

Today, Marie Harrison still lives in San Francisco. She and her husband worked multiple jobs to buy a house in Bayview -- the city's other historically black neighborhood. Gang violence is a problem. So, she says when the tech bubble hit the city in the late 1990s and housing boomed, she watched her neighbors, and her son, start to leave.

Harrison does the math and counts eight families -- all black -- who've sold houses on her street in the last 10 years. Sometimes she wonders to herself, "Where are all these people going?"

Many are going to cheaper suburbs in California, and back to the South, according to Fred Blackwell, the current chief of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency -- the same agency that displaced thousands of blacks from the Fillmore 40 years ago. Now, he's working to redevelop Bayview, Harrison's neighborhood, too.

Blackwell says he's not going to make the same mistakes his agency made in the 1960s. He's also in charge of a new city initiative called the African-American Out-Migration Task Force. "You've got people leaving at similar rates in the Latino community and the Asian community and the white community. But the difference is that you've got a replacement community moving in. And that's not the case with the African-American community."

Blackwell is African-American himself. He says San Francisco hopes to keep blacks in the city with affordable housing and more economic opportunities. But, he says, the city also needs to draw new black residents and that's hard. He cites recent surveys where "a lot of African-Americans felt that although San Francisco has a reputation as a progressive and liberal town, that reputation didn't translate into a feeling that African-American folks were welcome with open arms in this city."

And that brings us back to the Fillmore, or, the Historic Fillmore Jazz District, as it's now officially known, part of a government effort to remind and celebrate the black history of the city. New restaurants and jazz clubs are opening. Some black owned, but not nearly as many as in the 50s and 60s. New condos are up for sale, around $450,000 a pop. A few are subsidized, and some have gone to long-ago displaced Fillmore residents who could prove they'd once had those golden certificates.

Peter Fitzsimmons is the head of the Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center, which is part of the revitalization effort. He grew up in the Fillmore and I ask him to give me a tour of the neighborhood now. These days it's an odd place: none of the Victorian charm of most of the city. It's mostly modern buildings. A few blocks south are some old housing projects where violent crime is rampant. A few blocks north is a swanky, mostly white neighborhood. In between, a Jazz Walk of Fame runs along the sidewalk. Every half block or so, you see a pink granite paving stone carved with a name.

Fitzsimmons stoops down to look at one. "It's got," he pauses and squints, "so and so lived in the Fillmore." The letters are tiny, and almost impossible to make out. We finally decipher the words "Al Smith." "A piano player," Fitzsimmons explains.

He admits the entries on the Walk of Fame are a little hard to read. "But when you do find one, and you Google it, and you read up on them, it'll blow your mind about who some of these people really were."

If you do Google the history of the Fillmore district, you'll read that before African-Americans lived here, it was mostly Japanese-American and before that: it was Russian Jews. And long before that, the Miwok and Ohlone tribes called it home.

A city is layers of change. It's layers of people moving in and out. It's layers of history. San Francisco's challenge now is to find a way that the city's rich African-American history isn't something you have to Google, but something that's obvious. Right out there on the street.


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  • By Michael Harris


    Until the name William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. is embraced by the NAACP in San Francisco it will be impossible to have an adult conversation about how the future unfolds.

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