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THE FILMORE DISTRICT: HARLEM OF THE WEST

The gentrification that is happening in San Francisco has been notable, especially in the Mission district. San Francisco has become a desirable home for many, driving up the renting and housing prices to a ludicrous new extreme. Longtime residents of San Francisco are being kicked out of their homes to make place for new restaurants and expensive condominiums. This pattern of resident evacuations is one that is too common, and can be observed throughout San Francisco’s history. The gentrification in Mission district reminds me of that of the Fillmore District.

The Fillmore District was one of the small areas of San Francisco that was not affected by the 1906 earthquake. During that time, the Japanese accounted for the majority of the population with about 5000 Japanese. They created Japan Town which to this day still exisst. Just like many ethnic groups living in the Bay Area, the Japanese faced discrimination. On February 19th 1942, president Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which forcefully removed all Japanese out of their homes into concentration camps leaving behind their belongings and businesses. The Fillmore became a ghost town and all that was left was empty houses and memories.

The vacant buildings were soon filled by African Americans who were migrating to the West. The African American population in San Francisco grew from 4,800 to 43,000 during the World War II decade, and a majority settled in the Fillmore District. The Fillmore, for the first time, became known as a Black district. This large migration of African Americans to San Francisco and other areas of California was mostly due to the increase in jobs in the shipbuilding and wartime industry during WWII and because African Americans were attempting to escape the Jim Crow south. By the end of the war, local residents called Fillmore the “Harlem of the West.”

African Americans contributed considerably to the growing Jazz culture in the U.S, and the Fillmore District was one of the birthplace of the Jazz scene. The migrant workers brought their music and social traditions with them and soon new clubs sat alongside the earlier establishments and supported a flourishing musical scene that featured acts such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Lionel Hampton, Redd Foxx, Charlie Parker, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Miles Davis. In 1962, Malcolm X, one of a growing number of political speakers, was the headliner at the Fillmore Auditorium. New black owned businesses also emerged. It contained 183 black-owned businesses, including 29 jazz, blues and supper clubs.

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In the 1970s however, the city government of San Francisco established the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (RDA) which initiated a redevelopment project that focused mostly on the Fillmore district. They created an urban renewal program that left many residents of the Fillmore without homes. Under A-1 and A-2 redevelopment plans, the African Americans living in the Fillmore were required to evacuate their homes so that the city could build newly renovated homes. The plan ended up expelling up to 13,500 residents, destroying 4,522 households and 5,000 low rent housing units. Programs such as Western Addition Community Organization (WACO) were successful in protesting against the RDA projects, however the RDA justified their actions by offering previous residents certificate’s to come back to their homes after the redevelopments were completed. 96% of the certificates went unused because when many of the previous residents came back, they were welcomed with a major increase in rent. Many of the black owned businesses, churches and jazz clubs closed down and relocated. Nearly all the buildings were bulldozed and the lots lay barren for more the 30 years.

The economic boom that was promised by the RDA projects was unsuccessful. Many investors did not want to open up new stores due to proposition 14 and the racial stigma created by the RDA about Fillmore being a “bad” neighborhood.  This urban renewal program was extremely discriminatory and only worked towards gentrifying the black community.

Popular venues such as Sheba Piano Lounge, The Boom Boom Room (formerly Jack’s Tavern), Rasselas Jazz Club, Yoshi’s Jazz Club, and Chicago’s Barber Shop are all that is left standing today. As you walk through the streets of the Fillmore, there is a clear inequality disparity between rich and poor caused by the displacement of innocent people from their homes by the Redevelopment Agency.

The Bay Area and San Francisco has been a melting pot of different ethnicity’s and that is why it has thrived and is culturally rich. Diversity is very important, when people work together they learn about each other and the xenophobia is eliminated as a result. Communities prosper and the overall capital of the city improves as well. With the steady decline of the Black population in San Francisco it is important that this issue is addressed.

Sources: 

http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/fillmore-district-san-francisco

http://www.thefillmoredistrict.com/history

MichelleOwino View All

Food Blogger Michelle Owino is one of the Contributors for the Bay Area Munchies column.

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