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The Fillmore

It Was Called "The Harlem of the West"-
Then Urban Renewal Came to Save It

Premieres on PBS June 11, 2001 at 10PM (check local listings).

If you know anything about San Francisco's Fillmore District, it's probably because it houses an auditorium of the same name, where the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead helped shape American music in the 1960s. But The Fillmore, a PBS documentary, goes even deeper to tell a dramatic story -- the rise and fall (and rise again?) of San Francisco's premier Black community, as it faced the nationwide juggernaut known as urban renewal.

The Fillmore is the fourth installment of KQED's Peabody Award-winning series Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco. Like the other episodes aired on PBS, The Fillmore represents the story not only of a neighborhood, but also of a whole social history. In the streets of the Fillmore can be found the stories of the Japanese in San Francisco, from internment to integration; the jazz heyday created by the arrival of thousands of Black workers during World War II; and the dramatic battle to save the neighborhood from the bulldozers of urban renewal, a struggle faced by neighborhoods across the country during the 1950s and 1960s -- and even today.

The 90 minute documentary, narrated by actor Ossie Davis, features music from the jazz greats who frequented the neighborhood in its prime: Count Basie, Etta James, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and others. The Fillmore showcases a remarkable group of on-camera storytellers, from mayors and musicians to journalists and community activists, who experienced the Fillmore as both the best and the worst of 20th century city life. The documentary also draws on an assembled archive of photographs, film and music of the neighborhood, helped in part by contributions from home movies and scrapbooks of longtime residents.

"Because the neighborhood in its prime was primarily African American and working class, it was often ignored or dropped from mainstream city history and photo records," says Peter L. Stein, the program's producer and writer. "On top of it, the Fillmore was largely bulldozed in the 1960s -- so in many senses we are telling the story of a lost world. But I've come to believe it is one of the great object lessons in American urban life."

The Fillmore chronicles key chapters in the neighborhood's history, starting with the great earthquake and fire of 1906. The Western Addition (as the neighborhood is often called) was spared from devastation; for a brief time it became the city's central commercial district, boasted a vibrant Jewish immigrant culture and eventually became home to one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any neighborhood in the nation.

But World War II dramatically changed the district. Some 5,000 Japanese residents were forcibly relocated within weeks of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor -- only to be replaced by thousands of African Americans coming to San Francisco for war jobs. The Black population of San Francisco grew tenfold between 1940 and 1950, and made the Fillmore San Francisco's first large -- and visible -- black community.

Out of these circumstances, the neighborhood took on a brand-new character as "the Harlem of the West," with its own churches, theaters, grocery stores, restaurants, nightclubs and newspapers. The documentary shines a spotlight on the jazz heyday in the Fillmore, which drew the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday into its clubs. The nightspots of the era, such as Bop City, the Long Bar, the New Orleans Swing Club, the Blue Mirror and the Booker T. Washington Hotel, to name a few, put the neighborhood on the map.

But even as San Francisco was discovering, for the first time, its black voice, the Fillmore was being labeled a "slum," and much of the neighborhood -- 64 square blocks -- was targeted for "urban renewal." A massive federal program in cities across America during the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal hit the Fillmore hard, making it one of the largest redevelopment projects in the Western United States. Coming less than 20 years after the neighborhood's Japanese residents were forcibly removed, the first wave of redevelopment displaced some 6,000 residents, to make room for the Japan Trade Center and the massive boulevard along Geary Street. The second wave affected nearly 14,000 more. The documentary retraces the battle that erupted between San Francisco Redevelopment Agency director M. Justin Herman and Fillmore District residents, who watched the neighborhood's decline into a troubled inner-city zone marked by dozens of leveled blocks sitting vacant for more than a decade.

"Many people have ascribed racist motives to redevelopment," says Rick Butler, who directed the documentary. "There was a phrase at the time: 'Urban renewal equals Negro removal' -- and quite a few of our interviewees point out that whether it was deliberate or not, the Black presence in San Francisco practically disappeared with the bulldozing of the Fillmore."

An effort is under way today to make a Jazz Historic District in the Fillmore, as the neighborhood gradually gentrifies along with the rest of the city. Stein hopes the documentary can add some context to the discussions taking place in cities around the country regarding how we live together: "By taking a close look at this one example, with its repeated history of good intentions gone horribly wrong, we can try to get a handle on what's been lost and how not to do it again. Because at the end of the day, we're all still trying to figure out how we can share this place."

The Fillmore
has been honored with the following awards to date:

EMMY Award, Outstanding documentary (1999-2000, California Region)
Gold Plaque, Chicago International Film Festival's TVFest Television and Video Competition (2001)




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