District Five extends from Van Ness Avenue to the Inner Sunset like a bright-colored patchwork quilt. On the eastern border lies Hayes Valley, which the Chronicle calls a haven for haute couture. On the west, the comfortable, multi-million-dollar Victorians of Ashbury Heights. And across the center, dividing east from west, the SFGate’s “bohemian chic” Divisadero corridor.
Interspersed among these up-and-coming neighborhoods is a trio of older patches. Their colors have begun to fade, but they are still three of the most significant places in all of San Francisco.
One month the residents were here; the next month they were gone. In 1940 a close-knit village of 5,000 people lived in the Western Addition area centering on Buchanan Street between Geary Boulevard and Pine Street. Then came Pearl Harbor. In May 1942, the evacuation notices went up: “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” Within days, the houses and businesses of Japantown were empty.
When residents returned after the war — and a lot of them did — their houses had new occupants; their business establishments had new signs over the door. Looking for ways to rebuild, they ran into new perils, as a flood of redevelopment swept through the Western Addition. And when it turned out that money for rebuilding was indeed available — from several Japanese corporations — many people feared that Japantown would be turned into an urban theme park for tourists.
Maybe they were right. On a recent sunny Saturday, the streets and shops of Japantown were packed with happy young people in costume, part of the San Francisco Anime & Cosplay Festival, with a Japanese emcee in the Peace Plaza who could have been standing on a stage in Tokyo.
The Western Addition
Once called the Harlem of the West, in the 1940s the area centering on Fillmore Street and Geary Boulevard was “a thriving business district containing dozens of African American-owned businesses, including barbershops, billiards parlors, cleaners, shoeshine stands, barbeque restaurants, record stores and various other stores and offices,” according to photographers Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts.
Not at all, said a San Francisco community redevelopment study issued in 1947. It was “a wide stretch of urban blight, breeding grounds for crime and delinquency, cancerous growths that threaten the vitality of the city.” The study complained particularly about the mixed-use quality of the neighborhood and the subdivision of large Victorians into tiny apartments.
Maybe they were both right. In the housing-deficient postwar era, African Americans poured into the Western Addition, one of the few areas they could live in. A Planning Department historic context statement says, “By 1950, the Fillmore District’s 26 blocks, originally designed to accommodate 50-to-75 people per acre, were reportedly housing upwards of 200 people per acre.” By 1960, its black population was close to 50 percent.
In the aftermath of World War II, the buzzwords among city planners were “urban renewal” — essentially razing a “blighted” area, relocating the residents and rebuilding it. The 1947 study announced, “Nothing short of a clean sweep and a new start can make the district a genuinely good place in which to live.” This broom swept out 883 businesses and 4,729 households. The study said little about the fate of the displaced residents.
After 1960, the black population of San Francisco dropped from 10 percent to 6 percent. The “renewal” of the Fillmore is only one of the culprits, but an important one. Says former Mayor Willie Brown, “You look at the results and it does appear to be ‘Black Removal,’ but I think the motivation was pure commercial greed. But it was devastating to the Black community.”
In the 1990s, the city tried to undo the damage by creating a Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District. The Fillmore Heritage Center opened. And then, one by one, local clubs and restaurants closed. The Chronicle called the project “yet another revival effort that sputtered.”
Today the streets of the Fillmore are quiet. On a recent sunny Saturday, a smattering of mainly white middle-aged people lounged on benches near the farmers’ market, listening to a black jazz combo.
The Summer of Love launched this tiny working-class neighborhood onto TV screens all over the world. Haight Street became a psychedelic symbol of all that was good and all that was bad in the cultural changes rocking the United States in the 1960s.
San Francisco had tried for decades to erase the anything-goes image it had acquired during the Gold Rush. Except for an occasional labor disturbance, it had finally succeeded. But in 1967 the image came back, ten feet tall and wearing a flower in its long, flowing hair.
The city was unprepared for 100,000 visitors to descend on the Haight. A local bunch of activists and actors called the Diggers stepped in with free food and a free medical clinic. In the fall they staged the “Death of Hippie” funeral procession, with a coffin labeled, “Hippie — Son of Media.”
The media had done its work well. Music critic Joel Selvin recalled that, even in the summer of 1967, Gray Line tourist buses drove down Haight Street and “hippies ran alongside, holding up mirrors to the visitors.” Today you can sign up for a Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour, a Counterculture Hippie Tour Experience or a San Fran Free Spirit Tour.
Although a Whole Foods Market and a McDonald’s now mark the entrance to Haight Street, tourists still flock to its head shops and tattoo parlors. On a recent sunny Saturday, the smell of pot was in the air, but it was mixed with testosterone, not flower petals. Spaced-out clusters of people shared sidewalk space with collections of hyper-macho men and large dogs. The Haight is no Disneyland.
How do you design a patchwork of prospering new neighborhoods and aging theme parks to interact politically? Since 2000, District 5 has elected a series of progressive supervisors. But in 2012, in a spin-off of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s domestic violence soap opera, moderate London Breed defeated Mayor Ed Lee appointed interim supervisor Christina Olague. (Forgot so soon? Google it!) This year another progressive, tenant advocate Dean Preston, has popped up to challenge Breed. In a time of heightened moderate-progressive hostility, the results may be surprising.