The opening of Yoshi’s Jazz Club on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street this week is being widely heralded as signaling the transformation of a long-beleaguered community. Yoshi’s is the anchor venue for the heavily-hyped “Fillmore Jazz Preservation District,” the linchpin of the Redevelopment Agency’s last-ditch effort to justify their demolition of a once-thriving African-American neighborhood. But a visit to Fillmore Street will leave most observers deflated rather than exhilarated. Yoshi’s is surrounded by Agency-backed fast food businesses like Panda Express and Subway, and this section of Fillmore lacks the economic vitality and street energy that preceded the Redevelopment wrecking balls. While the Agency’s attempt to recreate a jazz district four decades after it killed the original one may be well-meaning, it's a reminder of the lack of vision that has dominated Redevelopment’s efforts in the Fillmore since the ill-fated urban renewal process began nearly forty years ago.
Having read in our local media about the remarkable transformation of the Fillmore District with the imminent opening of Yoshi’s and the launching of the Jazz District, I went down to the area to investigate. To my lack of surprise, the area remained dominated by fast-food sites and devoid of exciting street life, and was little changed except for the presence of Yoshi’s and other music establishments that will increase nighttime activity in the area.
But I defy anyone to compare the Fillmore in the 1960’s with the current version and conclude that the area is improved. It certainly does not reflect the type of improvements one would expect from the Redevelopment Agency’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars diverted from San Francisco’s general fund and spent on the Fillmore’s “renewal.”
The Redevelopment Agency’s devastating demolition of SRO’s and Victorians in SOMA, and accompanying displacement of thousands of low-income tenants, was designed to create space for a convention center and to bring upscale consumers close to downtown retail businesses. As terrible as the social and human costs of what Chester Hartman aptly described as the “Yerba Buena Land Grab,” its proponents -- which included legendary ILWU leader Harry Bridges -- at least could make a case that there was a purpose to their madness.
Not so with the Fillmore.
The Redevelopment Agency never had a clear reason for displacing Western Addition residents and demolishing Fillmore Street’s historic buildings -- which is why most observers attribute the government’s action to a desire to what was described at the time as “Negro removal.” And while the Agency never succeeded in driving all blacks from the Fillmore, it did destroy the African-American community’s strongest neighborhood economic base.
With the Agency’s tenure in the Western Addition mercifully ending in 2009, its last hope for claiming it accomplished something on the economic development front lies with its Historic Jazz District. Flags announcing the District are everywhere on Fillmore, but nobody will confuse the area with Bourbon Street, or with any true historic jazz neighborhood.
Nor is Yoshi’s or the Jazz District likely to bring many African-American customers back to nighttime activities in the Fillmore. The predominately white audience for today’s jazz venues was a widely discussed topic in response to the San Francisco Chronicle’s criticism of Yoshi’s earlier this year.
On June 2, 2007, the Chronicle wrote a front-page piece criticizing Yoshi’s for putting out a 10th Anniversary CD with no African-American artists. I defended
Yoshi's, noting that the Chronicle was oversimplifying a complex issue regarding jazz.
An outgrowth of the Yoshi’s controversy was a Bay Area-wide discussion of the lack of African-American attendance at jazz venues. For reasons related to economics (Yoshi’s ticket prices reportedly range from $30-$75), cultural changes, and simple music taste, it is unlikely that African-Americans will be flocking to hear jazz in the Fillmore.
As Chris Smith observes in the current San Francisco Magazine
, “if you want to revitalize a black neighborhood, a hip-hop preservation district would make more sense.” But the Agency would be afraid to expand hip-hop for the same reasons that it would not have backed jazz in the music’s heyday -- incendiary and often subversive art forms are what Redevelopment Agencies are created to extinguish, not promote.
The most logical beneficiaries of Yoshi’s and the Jazz District are the many quality restaurants on Fillmore lying north of Redevelopment’s border. It is not far afield to conclude that these Pacific Heights establishments will gain far more Yoshi’s spillover than the less costly restaurants on Divisadero, or other nearby African-American owned establishments.
The Fillmore is one of the least improved commercial strips in San Francisco over the past three decades. Such is the power of Redevelopment to stifle creativity, and we can only be thankful that other areas once targeted for Redevelopment -- such as the Mission -- escaped the Fillmore’s fate.
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