Book chapter excerpted and lightly adapted, with permission of Chris Carlsson and Lisa Ruth Elliott, editors, from “Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978,” published by City Lights Books, 2011. Copyright Rachel Brahinsky.
The Western Addition in the 1970s was still a hotbed for black radicalism, a center for the Black Panther Party, the welfare rights movement, and emergent civil rights groups. Activists had their hands in many pots, and were deeply connected to important organizations, movements, and religious institutions throughout the city and nationally. At the same time, and not coincidentally, it was a community in crisis, reeling from decades of fighting with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) over the fate of the community’s housing stock and its once-thriving business district.
The neighborhood struggle was set off against a backdrop of rising downtown skylines, symbolic of the influx of corporate-backed development capital flooding into the city, which was angling to flow rapidly into the village-like neighborhoods. Simply put, the Western Addition/Fillmore District community was locked in a battle for the right to exist in San Francisco.
In conversation with Laura Wenus, host of our radio show and podcast “Civic,” author Rachel Brahinsky details the fraught history of redevelopment in San Francisco and how the program’s legacy of displacing low-income communities of color has haunted contemporary redevelopment efforts.
Although significant aspects of the city’s redevelopment scheme for the area were already completed or well underway before the mid-’60s, the decade of the ’70s was a time when community members amplified their struggle for permanence, drawing on the larger narratives of ethnic solidarity and sustainability that were ascending in San Francisco and nationally.
Looking back from the 2000s as an outsider, it’s difficult to call much about the redevelopment plan a success. A walk down the drab beige, cement-heavy, lower Fillmore — a study in contrasts between a few remaining low-rent businesses and high-end restaurants that pay homage to the decimated 1940s Jazz district — reveals a muffled sense of place. The neighborhood would feel entirely different had the Victorians that once lined these streets remained, as they do just a few blocks to the north, south, and west. Much more urgently: it’s not just the buildings that would be different — the population, had the city done more to fund rehabilitation than demolition, might be quite different as well.
On the other hand, without the multiple complexes of affordable housing that now fill out the community, most black families — and nearly all of the low-income families that still live there outside of federal public housing — would probably be long gone from the Fillmore. These were mostly built through the Redevelopment Agency in the middle years of the long period of redevelopment that stretched from 1948 all the way to 2009. Much of this housing was a concession from the agency in response to intense community pressure. Residents had revolted quite dramatically in the 1960s, laying bodies in front of bulldozers and clogging the SFRA’s top-down demolition program with lawsuits. Through the ’70s, residents worked to embed humane values in the bureaucracy, with some positive results. These facts are just some of many contradictions that make up the socio-geographic landscape of the Fillmore District.
Conversations with activists, pastors, and residents who have remained since the ’70s uncover something of a community-scale existential crisis that is intimately connected to a larger demographic shift underway in San Francisco today. As the numbers of African Americans in the city decline year by year (since the peak in 1970), the city’s black cultural and economic base has eroded tremendously.
In the 2000s a mayoral task force convened to study the “black exodus,” which largely stems from the nexus of rising housing costs with the continued erosion of the black community’s economic stability. It’s a story that has played out in many northern cities, where black families have moved to the more affordable suburban fringes, but the speed of San Francisco’s African American dispersal has been unmatched nationally — and it essentially began here the moment the first bulldozers hit the Fillmore in 1953.
Most accounts of urban renewal blame a walled-in imperial Redevelopment Agency, which is an appropriate and easy target — since most of the key players are gone from the spotlight or have died. But the agency was not the only player, and a look at the ’70s uncovers a time of both dynamic opposition and determined cooperation in the black community as it struggled to both be a “community” and to reform and challenge the top-down politics that characterized urban planning in the 1950s and ’60s.
[…] A 1974 independent documentary film built the case against redevelopment with a sharp critique of the city’s plans by a young Arnold Townsend (later to become Rev. Townsend). “The problems of urban decay that face the Fillmore… were manufactured,” he insisted, noting that the first public step in the crusade to tear down the Fillmore was a newspaper campaign highlighting isolated examples of deterioration and extreme overcrowding. Images of boarded-up businesses and vacant lots shared space on the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle with 1940s and ’50s headlines reading “San Francisco Slum Areas Breed Disease,” “More Blighted Housing Found in SF,” and “City Planners to Move 10,000 Out of Slum Area.”
Those headlines presaged the initiation of a complete re-scaping of the neighborhood, a concept that was first hatched back in the 1940s when business leaders formed an alliance focused on revamping a few key neighborhoods. It was one prominent variation of a nationwide effort to restore land values in US central cities following the Great Depression and World War II. The racial and political overtones of the choices made (in terms of which neighborhoods would be targeted for change) set off decades of community response. What had been pitched nationally as “urban renewal” was re-christened by writer James Baldwin as “Negro removal.”
Indeed, many redevelopment zones selected in San Francisco were working-class areas, often home to people of color, including the old produce market near the Embarcadero (now developed as the Golden Gateway), South of Market (which was home to working-class single room occupancy hotel dwellers and gay leather bars), two massive portions of the Western Addition, which by then was largely (but not entirely) African American and Japanese-American, and Hunters Point Hill, by then a largely African American community overlooking the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
City planners and mayors legally justified their claims to these spaces by naming them “blighted,” and called for an urban reclaiming in the name of the public good. The public that would benefit the most from these new land claims was a specific group, narrowly defined. As best described in Chester Hartman’s epic City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco, a downtown-government coalition emerged to promote a very specifically targeted urban makeover. The rise of business-class leaders as de facto urban planners was solidified through the formation of the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee and the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which promoted targeted neighborhood revivals that emphasized demolition rather than preservation. Redevelopment czar M. Justin Herman, by most accounts a brilliant and autocratic official, was the agency’s most infamous figurehead.
City officials — organized after passage of the federal 1949 Housing Act through the new Redevelopment Agency — first identified what would be named Western Addition A-1 by the mid-’50s, basically in tandem with the City’s plan to widen Geary Street into a four-lane boulevard at the intersection of Fillmore Street. The 44-block area of A-1 included a small chunk of lower Fillmore Street, spanning from Japantown out to St. Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of Geary and Gough (the Japantown mall, many nearby hotels, and the massive cathedral were all products of the A-1 plan).
It was just one piece of what had become the City’s primary majority African American neighborhood, during the population boom that came with the World War II labor surge — and with the forced removal and extended incarceration of Japanese-American families in isolated camps during the war. Property owners in the district, once the area was named blighted and targeted for demolition, stopped or slowed repairs in anticipation of the neighborhood overhaul. While SFRA policies called for the purchase of structures and payment to families to leave rentals, displaced families and businesses reported dealing with intimidation tactics and years-long struggles to get loans or other support to keep their structures whole, struggles that typically ended with their displacement. Many were not technically evicted, but they argue that by virtue of facing a system that refused to help them invest and develop, their properties crumbled and were then easily devalued as slum structures by the SFRA.
By the mid-’60s, most of the A-1 demolition was complete, with 4,000 people displaced — and Geary Street had become a “Mason-Dixon Line” dividing a working-class and largely African American lower Fillmore from the generally white and increasingly wealthy Pacific Heights. By then a larger zone, A-2, was also underway. The new project increased the SFRA zone by 60 square blocks, from Van Ness Avenue on the east side to St. Joseph’s Street to the west (near Masonic), and north to south from Bush to Grove Streets.
The A-2 program did not move forward with the same pace and vigor as A-1, largely because the A-1 experience politicized the community — and because an A-1-related lawsuit forced the SFRA to promise replacement homes for the displaced. The trick of holding the SFRA (or any agency) to that goal is still a problem today, but a 1968 lawsuit was one of many legal efforts nationally that gave displacees a legal promise of relocation assistance.
The fight against A-1 had offered a template for resistance in the next round. The fight over A-2 would be materially different, with more community participation and more affordable housing built. Still the SFRA would demolish hundreds of structures by 1970, displacing 10,000-13,000 people.
Politics and Networks
The double blows to civil rights politics represented in the slayings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 was felt in the Fillmore. Residents had become increasingly radicalized through the formation of the Western Addition Community Organization (WACO) a few years earlier, in a political milieu that was heavily inflected with the national and international movements of the times. There were cooperative houses where residents tried carving out alternative lifestyles. James Farmer’s Congress of Racial Equality had an active local chapter, and many residents were embroiled in the San Francisco State College (later University) fight for ethnic studies programming that erupted that same year. The Black Panther Party had an office on Fillmore Street, near the intersection of Eddy Street (on the block where Yoshi’s jazz club was for many years; now the Fillmore Heritage Center), alongside neighbors who had played a key role in electing a young and relatively radical African American candidate, Willie Brown, to the very white California State Assembly back in 1964.
In the context of the federal War on Poverty, which created funding streams for social programs, many of the keystone ideas of the affordable housing movement emerged during this time, and the Western Addition housing battles — which influenced policymakers like Brown and US Congressman Phil Burton — played a key role. This included policies like inclusionary zoning (which requires a portion of new housing developments contribute to a city’s affordable housing stock), local hiring requirements (so that development projects employ local residents), and the mandate that governments provide replacement housing for redevelopment evictees.
The black community in the Fillmore was largely made of three wings, as activist Wade “Speedy” Woods remembers it. The ministers and few remaining business owners made up one flank; the Afro-centric cultural nationalists (following Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga) formed another; Woods was part of a third, politicized wing, made up of the Panthers and many others who were focused on class struggle. The three were not necessarily at odds with each other; it was a time during which African American politics was consciously expanding and evolving. All three camps were connected to the greater Bay Area black political scene, where black people were challenging the white power structures of the East Bay (gaining some institutional success through the election of black — and self-proclaimed socialist — Ron Dellums to the US Congress in 1970).
Terry Collins, who migrated from Indiana via Los Angeles in 1967, remembers study groups where people read Marx’s “Capital,” and where political consciousness was crafted through a collective process. Collins was sucked into the redevelopment fight immediately, and became an active member of WACO. “We watched Victorians on Gough Street ripped to the ground. I actually cried,” he remembers now.
A group steeped in Saul Alinsky’s organizing model, and inspired by the anti-bulldozer writings of Jane Jacobs, WACO was the central organization for radical anti-SFRA activism. (Herman opposed WACO, calling it a “passing flurry of proletarianism.”) Collins had linked up with WACO as a member of the Black Students Union (BSU), based at San Francisco State. The SF State branch was a largely working-class group, part of a national web of BSUs, devoted to tying student members to local community struggles. (The BSU mission had been sealed at the 1967 Black Youth Conference in Los Angeles — the same event that spawned the boycott threat against the 1968 Olympics.) Graduates from this time were among the founders of KPOO radio (89.5 FM), the first black-owned independent station in the western US.
One of the key figures in the community was Mary Rogers, a neighborhood icon self-schooled in redevelopment legalese. Rogers was one of many residents who risked their lives in front of the city’s bulldozers, and she remained an outspoken advocate until her death in 2006.
“Mary was the one,” remembers Collins. “She knew more about this stuff than anybody. She saved so many houses. A lot of the 236 [federally funded affordable] housing was because of her. She was involved in education, housing, welfare rights, everything.” Rogers was part of a political cohort that included many female leaders, as Collins recalls: “There were a lot of women who were really something in those days, really strong women who’d get out and fight against any injustice: Inez Andres, Lily Ransom, so many others.”
This story was featured in our summer 2019 print edition. Buy it here!