Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jews of the Fillmore

Peter Stein, now Director of the SF Jewish Film Festival did a documentary called The Fillmore in 2001. The documentary will be part of the MAGNES installation with the working title Jews of the Fillmore due to open in late spring 2009 at the Jazz Heritage Center.

"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 film's web site does a nice job giving an overview of the history of the Fillmore:

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.

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