A Changing Fillmore

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Justin Herman and 1960’s Redevelopment

Immediately after he was appointed to head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1959, Justin Herman accelerated the most devastating urban renewal in United States history. The SFRA was founded because of widespread interest in post-war modernization of cities.

Herman began phase one (A-1) of the Western Addition redevelopment project by turning two-lane Geary Street into four-lane Geary Boulevard. The site later became the Fillmore District’s unofficial border.

City planners cleared the north side of the new bustling Geary Boulevard to make room for the Japanese Trade and Culture Center. The project displaced four thousand Western Addition residents. The site stands today as Japantown’s east and west malls.


Three years after A-1 begins, Herman announces the beginning of Phase A-2. The project demolishes 60 square-blocks of Fillmore and Western Addition development and displaces approximately 13 thousand residents.

The Redevelopment Agency issued displaced businesses on Fillmore Street a “certificate of preference.” The document, signed by Herman, gave businesses first priority to obtain space at the newly rebuilt Fillmore Street. Four percent of the certificates were used.

After 10 years of planning, demolition and displacement, the Western Addition Redevelopment Project finished.

The city’s investors deemed the Fillmore as commercially unpromising. Most of the space remained parking lots or fields until the Redevelopment Agency began jazz preservation in 1994.

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A Changing Business Climate on Fillmore

Last August, the sudden closure of a popular jazz venue and Ethiopian restaurant marked the end of a sad chapter in the Fillmore District. In a neighborhood described by guidebooks as a “lively jazz district with robust Afro-centric culture,” three African-American owned businesses closed unexpectedly and several others publicized their struggle to stay open.

In 1999, Rassela’s Jazz Club’s owner, Agonafer Shiferaw, relocated his restaurant from Divisadero Street to Fillmore Street at the request of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. The SFRA wanted Rassela’s included in the Old Fillmore Jazz Preservation District, a recreation of the economically prosperous, African-American owned commercial area that existed before mid-20th century redevelopment.


But jazz preservation was poorly planned. The city funded two more jazz venues within one block of Rassela’s, and the restaurant could not keep up. After Shiferaw was denied loans from the Redevelopment Agency, his restaurant joined the lot of dark, boarded up storefronts that lined Fillmore Street.

“I believe that the closing of Rassela’s represents more than just the ending of another business venture in the commercially competitive atmosphere of San Francisco,” Shiferaw stated in an open letter to Mayor Edwin M. Lee. “I am saddened that the visionary promise of a revitalized, thriving, African-American commercial presence along Fillmore Street with a jazz ambience is fading, and fading fast.”

Confusion over who to blame for Fillmore Street’s economic disparity remains. Some interpret African-American business closure as “negro-removal,” a phrase inspired by 1960’s urban renewal. The redevelopment project destroyed 883 businesses in the Fillmore and surrounding areas, many of which were owned by African Americans.

Others point a finger at city officials who jumped at the opportunity to create an artificial jazz destination before the community could heal from the lost “Harlem of the West.”

But the Fillmore has turned over a new leaf. Since the city dissolved jazz preservation  early last year, a successful clothing boutique, a hip neighborhood watering hole and a James Beard award-winning restaurant have popped up on the corridor. The successes are scattered, but they reflect promise for a neighborhood trying to reestablish its identity.

Still, no one is sure what the next decade looks like for the Fillmore District. But this time around, the community will not stand by without a say in their neighborhood’s future.

Last year Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest black bookstore and one of the Fillmore’s  only surviving victorians after redevelopment, was purchased by wealthy real estate investors, Nishan and Suhaila Sweis.

When word got out that the bookstore would have to relocate, Fillmore residents immediately materialized the “Save Marcus Books” campaign. During the six months preceding a deal between the bookstore’s owners and Sweis family, supporters held meetings before the board of supervisors, held picket signs outside the Sweis’ church, and raised $1.6 million in private donations.

It was not long before Western Addition community activist Amy Farah Weiss got in on the action. Weiss and her colleagues at Neighbors Developing Divisadero, a non-profit giving a voice to residents and small business owners, organized a 1960’s-inspired musical procession starting from Marcus Books. The crowd marched eight blocks holding signs that read “we want to stay” and “stand up for your neighborhood.”


“It’s time to regard neighbors. We want to be part of planning,” said Weiss. “It’s the neighbors and the community that make a neighborhood and that bring culture. I don’t see why there must be this division between property owners who think about profits and residents who care about culture and community. Let’s mix that up a bit.”

The majority of businesses in the corridor are at the mercy of one of three property owners. District Five Supervisor London Breed, who grew up in the Fillmore, is working with all three to “mix it up.” – that is, substitute another city-funded jazz club or soul food restaurant for something that serves the community.

“I understand the Fillmore is not this ‘thriving jazz district,’”said Breed. “But why can’t it be this thriving art and music district? We could make it into that sort of destination, but we can’t when we bring things in that do not fit with the concept of what the neighborhood was intended to be.”

Breed teamed up with head of the Lower Fillmore Merchants Association and owner of 1300 on Fillmore, Monetta White, to host the Fillmore’s first businesses summit. They invited all businesses owners in the neighborhood, including those who are seeking a space for their business.

 “I think a lot of businesses are saying, ‘Hey, we have to get organized and get things done,’” said White. “We want economic development of our street and property owners that listen to the demands of the community.”

A number of corporations sent representatives to the business summit to see how they can aid in restoring and diversifying Lower Fillmore’s commercial area.

GAP Inc. sent their senior director of government public affairs, Debbie Mesloh, to connect with local merchants at the meeting. The corporation is looking to launch one of their online boutique brands as brick as mortar on lower Fillmore Street.

“We believe in the strength of small businesses in this city,” said Mesloh. “So we try to do as much economic development in San Francisco as we can. And we know that a brand name will often help other small businesses on the street.”

Breed and White will host summit meetings every few months. Their idea is to transform the Fillmore from a place to stop in for dinner or a show, to a destination for an entire afternoon of activities.

According to Breed, Fillmore merchants and city officials must leave urban renewal devastation and jazz era mistakes in the past to foster a diverse and thriving commercial area. This time, she hopes it will be one that develops a theme organically.

“Can we stop some of the current businesses from closing? I am going to really try my best,” said Breed. “What has happened in the past theres not much I am able to do about but move us forward to the future.”

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Support Small Businesses at Holiday Marketplace


It’s that time of year again.

For the Fillmore Holiday Marketplace, that is.

Tomorrow the lobby of Yoshi’s will be filled with small business vendors selling their holiday goodies.

Those who attend can choose from an array of gifts including food, artwork, jewelry, hats, clothing, soap, crafts, pet accessories and more.

The event is being put on by San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Urban Solutions and Infin8 Sync. Their goal is to strengthen small businesses in the Fillmore.

Admission is free.

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Recent Settlement May Keep Marcus Books in Fillmore

Today, co-owners of Marcus Books, Karen and Gregory Johnson announced to the press that they have come to a settlement with the new owners of the building where the bookstore is located.

The legal owners of 1712 Fillmore St., Nishan and Suhaila Sweis, have agreed to sell the property to San Francisco Community Landtrust at market price: $2.6 million. The bookstore already has $1.6 million from Westside Community Services, and they are looking to investors to raise the remaining one million. 


Attorney Julian Davis addressing the press at Marcus Books

“This is a very exciting opportunity, but it is just that. It is an opportunity to purchase the property,” said Marcus Books’ attorney Julian Davis. “When we do accomplish this – and we will accomplish this – it will be a rare victory for retaining cultural diversity in our city at a time of increasing economic displacement.”

 Beginning just before the holidays, interested individuals who earn at least $200,000 annually can  invest in the property via the online investment platform: fundraise.com

If $1 million is invested before February 28, 2014, the ownership will transfer to the San Francisco Community Landtrust, who will lease it to Karen and Greg Johnson, who will continue the legacy that is Marcus Books.

If the bookstore cannot raise $1 million in investments by the deadline in February, the Sweis family will retain ownership of the property, and Marcus Books at its location on Fillmore Street will be no longer.

Despite this heavy ultimatum, the Johnsons and the bookstore’s support team are staying optimistic.

“Anything is possible; That has been our credo,” said Greg Johnson. “We recognize that a million dollars is a lot of money. But again, it is only money.”


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Petition to Save Marcus Books


courtesy of Steve Rhodes Flickr



Those who are familiar with Marcus Books know of the book store’s instrumental value to the history and culture of Fillmore Street.

Even after the bookstore gained legal status as a San Francisco Historical Landmark, Marcus Books continues to fight new property owners for its location at 1712 Fillmore St.

To aid in the effort to save this legendary historical sight, individuals can sign a petition urging property owners Nishan and Suhaila Sweis to sell the property to Westside Community Services.

The petition needs 25,000 signatures before it is sent to the Sweis family. With just over 15 thousand who have already signed, the petition is more than half way to reaching its goal.

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Device Theft on the Rise: How to Keep your Phone Safe

Once again, the MUNI or BART train is running late. You left your book at home, so you take out your iPhone to cruise Twitter or catch up on the New York Times Sunday Edition. Your attention is so focused on the device in your lap, you may not notice the swift hand that snatches it away.

Theft of electronic devices, specifically smart phones, is reported more than any other crime in District 5, according to Officer Mike Walsh of San Francisco Police Department’s Northern Station. In the Fillmore District alone, 39 instances of petty theft were reported in the last month, according to crimereports.com.

To raise public awareness of this issue, the SFPD’s Northern Station is reaching out to people who live and work in the the Western Addition through newsletters, flyers and social media.

“Electronic devices continue to be the No. 1 choice of thieves on our streets and the thefts of these devices account for more than 80 percent of all robberies in the city,” says Capt. Greg McEachern of Northern Station. “The numbers are staggering, and unfortunately the recovery rate of these electronic devices is not very high.”

Because there is a slim chance of retrieving stolen devices, McEachern and the Northern Station are taking proactive measures by educating the public on what they can do to avoid becoming a victim of device theft.

Police at Northern Station want everyone to be aware of areas and conditions that are high-risk for cell phone theft before they walk around the Fillmore with a valuable electronic device. These include streets or public spaces that are quiet, dimly-lit, residential and also those with little foot traffic.

Police also advise the public against taking their phone out in public in any situation except an emergency.  The best way to avoid theft is to keep your device where it is not easily accessible. McEachern suggests storing your phone in a deep pocket or a purse.

After an individual takes all basic preventative measures to protect their electronic device, police suggest activating a tracking device on their smart phones. These tracking devices are free, and they usually come in the form of an application, such as Apple’s “Find My iPhone.” Once the tracking system is activated, it identifies the missing devices exact location.

If a stolen smartphone has Find My iPhone or a similar tracking system, the owner should call 911 immediately, and give the police their username and password along with a detailed description of the person who took it, according to the Northern Station’s October newsletter. Officers closest to the phone’s location will try to find and arrest the suspect.

“While we are not always able to recover every phone taken in a robbery, utilizing find my iPhone is instrumental in not only recovering the stolen phones but in taking a dangerous thief off of our streets,” said Cap. McEachern.

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