Fillmore Pre-WWII and WWII Era
WWII devastated America and Americans alike. But the devastation applied more so to Japanese Americans who resided specifically on the West coast; because of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the country of Japan, Japanese Americans were seen as the enemy, and to quell the fears of the non-Asian population, the U.S. government decided to put all people of Japanese descent into what we know as internment camps. One of the cities that was affected by this act was San Francisco; home to thousands of Japanese Americans, 5,000 of which resided in the Fillmore District.
The Fillmore District wasn’t always predominately Japanese American, prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire, the neighborhood was formerly known as “The Western Addition”. The main residents in the neighborhood were Jewish immigrants and they created a strong and vibrant Jewish culture throughout the area. The start of the changes that happened to the neighborhood began with the earthquake of 1906. While the rest of the city of San Francisco was devastated in the aftermath of the earthquake, the Fillmore area itself was pretty much spared of destruction. City officials, needing to find places where city business could continue uninterrupted, chose the Fillmore neighborhood as a brief location for the city’s commercial district.
During WWII, and after the Fillmore’s 5,000 Japanese American residents were relocated, African Americans moved in and took up residence in the vacant houses and businesses once owned by the Japanese, thus giving birth to the jazz and music reputation that the Fillmore is known for now. As the War went on, the African American population grew to a point that made the area the most visible African American community in the city of San Francisco. But just like the former Japanese American community was forced out, so were the African Americans. City officials decided that redevelopment would be a good idea for the area, pricing out the majority of residents in the area. Currently, the area is trying to hold onto the musical history amid the gentrification that is occurring in the area now.
Fillmore Post-WWII Era
After the Japanese community was forcibly annihilated from the Fillmore during World War II internment, an influx of African American communities began to flock to this once ritzy jazz neighborhood. The Fillmore, along with Bayview-Hunter’s Point District, became discrimination-free havens for the black community. The black middle-class, who were eager to expand into Victorian homes in the 40s and 50s, moved into the Fillmore to subvert societal expectations in creating a stronger presence in the social and business network of the neighborhood. According to the African American Historical and Cultural Society, by 1950 there were 15,000 blacks in the Western Addition, and nearly 50,000 in San Francisco. Thus, the Fillmore became what was known as the “Harlem West,” which marked the rise of the jazz scene that included soulful legends like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. All of which would perform at the formerly Bill Graham-owned Fillmore Auditorium from the 40s to the late 60s. Then, at the expense of the neighborhood’s cultural and social identity, the heavy hand of city redevelopment intervened.
The once thriving black community in the Fillmore became short-lived as Mayor George Christopher and San Francisco Redevelopment Agency leader Justin Herman spearheaded the neighborhood’s redevelopment plan. The predominantly black community was declared to be blighted in the late 40s and expanded to 60 square blocks by 1956. The SFRDA employed an imminent domain law that forced landowners to sell at depressed prices. It was this ugly and mostly concede process that destroyed 883 businesses and 2500 Victorian homes, as well as moved out 4,700 African American families, according to an article from news publication site Soul Of America. In an interview with KQED, Reggie Petus, the owner of New Chicago Barber Shop on Fillmore Street, said that “a long time ago, it used to be years and years back, we used to call it the Fillmore. Now we call it the ‘No More’.” This redevelopment plan sparked one of the first instances of gentrification in the Fillmore. By the late 60s, most of the jazz clubs, including the renowned Fillmore Auditorium had either closed or relocated to other parts of San Francisco.
Now with this portion of cleared land, culturally neutered buildings like high-rises and low-rise public housing were built. The black middleclass fragmented to other parts of the Bay Area including the Oakland Hills and Berkeley; the remaining middleclass leaving for the suburbs became a deluge of former Fillmore inhabitants. Poorer families stayed in the lower residential projects in the Fillmore or simply moved to Bayview-Hunters Point. The 70s also saw more signals of gentrification as housing prices in the city shot up, which presented a choice between gentrification for the neighborhood’s South of Geary Boulevard area or some other redevelopment elsewhere.
More recent plans aimed to re-establish the Fillmore’s cultural identity with the most noteworthy being Mayor Willie Brown’s revitalization of the neighborhood’s entertainment district. From 1994 to 2003, we saw the reopening of The Fillmore Auditorium, which is now referred to as The Fillmore. We also saw openings like Rasselas jazz vlub, 1300 on Fillmore and Yoshi’s, which bolstered a sort of cultural revival that is still, to this very day, in an ongoing process.