What Happened to the Fillmore?

Feb 18 at 6am

By Jamal Frederick

I was born in a neighborhood that I will always be achingly in love with: the Fillmore. When I say, “The Fillmore,” my heart feels warmer, my voice feels more soulful, and the beat in my step is right on time. Long before expensive restaurants, luxury grocery stores, shops with local handmade crafts, and $4 toast could be found in the neighborhood, the Fillmore was known for its jazz, its danger and grit, its colorful people, and its sovereign swing. Am I the authority on the Fillmore and all the beautiful history it contains? No. Do I sometimes struggle with teary-eyed heartache as things change? Yes. But I’m not here to cry; I’m here to celebrate. I just want to introduce you to the Fillmore as I know it.

When I was growing up in the Fillmore in the late ’80s, many people said “the Fillmore” and “Western Addition” interchangeably, but most people referred to it as “the Fillmore.” These days, recent San Franciscans know the Fillmore as just a small span along the main street, but it used to include Lower Pacific Heights, NOPA, Japantown, and Hayes Valley. The Fillmore was more like its own small city within the city.

I lived in the Fillmore when the crack epidemic was beginning to show its colors through much of the area. I played Ninja Turtles in a tiny apartment a few blocks from the drug-dealing and prostitution, but my father kept me clean, dressed, and fed, and he kept good music around me like armor. He made me feel safe in our tiny home, even though outside, just down the block, was a constellation of bleak realities and a pervasive darkness that we couldn’t ignore. Still, even though I knew it existed out there, I was safe and at home within my world.

And everyone around me had their own worlds too. For some, the Fillmore was an exhausting struggle. For others, it was a beautiful Victorian filled with sunlight and comfort, or a growing family-owned business, or being part of an ethnic culture with its own beautiful patterns. There was no singular narrative, but however the Fillmore was described, it meant something – something very real and true, and something you were proud of. I remember talking with pan-African brothers at the barbershop, getting southern-style BBQ and Korean ice cream, and going to Japantown to play Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” at the arcade. I felt I had traveled the world in this area. A varied beautiful world of experiences, perspectives, and expressions, with each person and culture writing his or her own story inked in its own honest poetry. 

My Virginia-born father moved to San Francisco after his service in the military and met my mother there. After a few years and probably a few cognacs, I was born. We lived in a few places in the Fillmore, but after the rents continued to rise and a lawsuit with a landlord, my parents felt it was time to move out of the city.

I now live in Antioch, where my wife and I purchased a home and started a family. I’m fortunate to be close to my hometown; I still visit often. Every time I return, I report back to my family how things have changed, which buildings have been replaced, and what new developments are in progress. I have my issues and opinions about gentrification, but I remember the dark elements that permeated in this beautiful neighborhood, and as comfortable as my soapbox may be, I can’t argue with less crime and less poverty. I’ve been proud that being from a tougher area has allowed me to develop a stronger resolve, but I’ve never been proud of witnessing people die and become the victims of addiction.

Much of the Fillmore’s legacy lies in being the epicenter San Francisco’s African American community, business, and culture. Being African American myself, this is something I’ve always taken great pride in, but sadly the black demographic has drastically disappeared. The urban-renewal project in 1948, combined with decades of exponentially rising housing prices and the parceling off, renaming, and “improving” of only certain areas of what was once the Fillmore, has nearly eliminated the city’s black middle class and its black population as a whole. I try to keep race out of these discussions, but when it seems that your community has been systematically removed, it’s hard to not be offended. To share a proximate lineage with a people who created something so beautiful and authentic and to watch them become unjustly excluded from any future benefits feels heartbreaking.

But not all change is bad, right? Over the years, I’ve enjoyed much of the new atmosphere, the new restaurants and shops, but through all of my enjoyment, I’ve felt the culture shift. I’ve experienced many instances in which it felt like the stores, cafes, and restaurants made the neighborhood hip, a place to be. A common feeling of its former and longtime residents is that the people of the Fillmore were what once created the area’s mystique and culture. Through all its trumpeting fanfare and tough moments, it was the people who once made it hip.  

Though very beautiful, these days, what I knew as the Fillmore seems like just another one of San Francisco’s rapidly developing neighborhoods, seemingly being sketched from a gorgeous but homogenous template. Even though some of its diversity remains, what I fear is that uniformity will envelop the Fillmore piece by piece, mitigating the range of its character and stripping it of what made it so special in the first place. I can’t say that all culture and personality have been lost. There have been many strides made to revitalize the abbreviated Fillmore. The jazz district, new music venues, and businesses have moved in the direction of teaching its rich heritage; but it all feels too late. The people are gone. The preservation, in my opinion, feels like artifact preservation, more of a museum and a commercial rebranding of the area. There are banners hanging along Fillmore Street that read “The Soul of the City,” and every time I see one them, I just want to rip it down in a fit.

The Fillmore should serve as a cautionary tale to San Francisco. Change is inevitable, but when change replaces people, it also erases culture. Being critical about gentrification isn’t about casting blame. It’s about wanting to build something together, and feeling like we all must be included. The old and new residents need to engage, discuss, share ideas, learn from each other, create new culture, and create new San Franciscans who will continue to uphold this city’s beautiful tradition. To preserve this city, you must include the people. All the people.

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