|Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The Fillmore:|
An Interview with Writer/Producer Peter L. Stein
Maybe the biggest surprise for most people watching THE FILLMORE is that it's not about Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, but it's really about urban renewal.
Why did you approach the story of the neighborhood from that standpoint?
Well don't get me wrong. I think the rock history of the neighborhood and the Fillmore Auditorium itself is terrific -- but ultimately, that's familiar documentary territory -- you can see it on VH1 and Behind the Music, and the images have become a little calcified.
What I wanted to uncover was, to me, one of the most underreported stories of the last half of the 20th century in America. Urban renewal displaced some one million people over the course of a few decades, and three-quarters of them were racial minorities. It was a massive, complicated program, full of the promise of the Great Society era, full of good intentions gone bad and lessons that are still not learned to this day. And in San Francisco, there was one neighborhood that seemed to capture all of that.
But you really stick to the story of the Fillmore. Did you consider doing a more comprehensive history of urban renewal?
I must admit, it was sometimes tempting to broaden the focus. But I'm a great believer in the power of the specific to tell a larger story -- that's what I did in The Castro, which was essentially the history of gay liberation in America, but told through the lens of one neighborhood. While I was making The Fillmore, I came across this great quote by an Irish poet named Patrick Kavanagh, who said, "Through a gap too wide there is no wonder." I tried to keep that in mind whenever I was tempted to roam outside the Fillmore to tell a more general story.
There's another point I kept in mind. The Fillmore district can stand for many American neighborhoods that underwent drastic redevelopment -- from Boston's South End and Portsmouth's Little Italy, to vast stretches of Atlanta, Seattle and Newark, and so on -- as much as it can be a microcosm of what happened throughout America in the 50s and 60s, the Fillmore is nevertheless a singular place. Utterly unique. The fact that in one neighborhood you have the interwoven story lines of Japanese internment, a jazz heyday and urban renewal...well, I thought it deserves its own documentary.
THE FILLMORE deals with a couple of major subplots, namely the growth of a Fillmore jazz scene arising from its black population and the history of Japanese Americans in San Francisco. Why was all that happening in one neighborhood?
They are inextricably linked. The very reason that large numbers -- thousands and thousands -- of black war workers could settle into the Fillmore at all was because there were thousands of housing units that were suddenly vacated when Japanese-American families were deported to camps. The misery of one part of the community enabled the formation of another.
The diversity of the neighborhood seems to have been a hallmark from the beginning. Was it ahead of its time in that way?
Yes -- one of our historians called the Fillmore of the 1910s and 1920s "the most diverse neighborhood west of the Mississippi," and for a while it was something of a model for how different cultures can share one space. The schools were very integrated; black families patronized the kosher bakeries, the Filipino produce stores sold to the Japanese. That's part of the tragedy of the Japanese-American internment, because one vital component of that community was surgically removed on the basis of ethnicity. Remember it was ethnicity, not nationality -- these were American citizens who were being deported.
One regret I have is not being able to delve more fully into the Jewish roots of the neighborhood, as these are particularly interesting to me personally (it turns out that grandparents on both sides of my family took up residence in the Fillmore at different times). But ultimately this was a subplot I didn't have the time in the film to develop.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the documentary?
We weren't telling a story that anyone had already written down. We were starting fresh, trying to piece together the story of a vanished place, and finding the images to convey it. Remember that there is no academic history and very few informal accounts of the Fillmore district that could act as a narrative base for the film. And because it was largely a minority neighborhood, the Fillmore was pretty much ignored by the newsreels, photojournalists and others who have given us a visual record of San Francisco in this century. Even home movies were hard to come by, because poorer families didn't own movie cameras in the 40s and 50s. So telling the story of the neighborhood was a bit like raising a ghost.
So where do all the great images come from?
Well, thank goodness for researchers and archivists! We had the luxury of spending, off and on, nearly a year talking to people, finding the old-timers who could give us leads, and creating the opportunities for dumb luck to strike. One example: I had remembered years ago coming across footage in the San Francisco State University archive showing James Baldwin touring San Francisco. I had no strong visual memory of the footage itself, but late in the editing process I mentioned it to our associate producer who found the footage. It turns out that a film crew from KQED -- the very station that produced our program -- had followed Baldwin around the city one day in 1963, and they had spent precious hours that day in the Fillmore. I think we used every frame we could find, partly because it was so beautifully moody. But that's an indication of how scarce the visual record is, that a few feet of film felt to us like a gold mine.
Personally, why did you care much about the Fillmore? You're neither African-American nor Japanese American, and you don't play jazz.
Right. Technically you could say I was born in the neighborhood, because the hospital where my mother delivered me is right there in the Western Addition. But that's not why I cared.
The real answer is that I was personally bothered by two things that I didn't realize were connected. When I was an adolescent, and long into my adult life, an entire section of San Francisco lay vacant, bulldozed and bombed out. Whole square blocks -- attracting drug dealers and criminals -- were empty. This is such a tiny city, and real estate is so scarce -- yet here in the center of the most beautiful city in America was a wasteland. So that was puzzle number one.
The second puzzle is more subtle, but ultimately more devastating. As I grew older, it began to dawn upon me, as a white man, that the African-American voice -- the cultural and economic presence of a vital part of the American community -- was nearly missing from San Francisco, and had been throughout most of my life here. When you grow up white in the middle of it all you don't necessarily know it, but when you visit cities like Atlanta or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., or Chicago, and then you come back to San Francisco, you say, what's missing here? And when I put these two puzzles together, a story began to emerge.
Are you saying that urban renewal caused the low profile of blacks in San Francisco?
It's much more complex than that, of course -- there is a wealth of reasons why San Francisco historically has had a much smaller Black population than even Oakland across the Bay, let alone Los Angeles. But what was heartbreaking to me, and ultimately led me to focus on urban renewal in the film, was that San Francisco, for a brief historical moment after World War II, seemed to have the beginnings of a full-fledged black community. A community with a thorough-going, mixed-class neighborhood with its own institutions, churches, musical sound and an actual culture, just as we have a Chinese and a Latino and now a gay culture here that are nationally significant. There was that tender moment when the Black community was beginning to find a voice here for the first time ever -- and it ran headlong into an oncoming juggernaut of history called urban renewal. And while the Black community in the Bay Area has moved on and thrived in its own way, I don't think San Francisco as a major city has ever truly recovered from that blow. As wonderful a city as it is, it's missing something.
You've called the story of the Fillmore a cautionary tale. How do you think it's relevant today?
Americans have still not solved the problem of how we make our cities a place where everyone can live. But the language of the debate has changed: instead of urban renewal, we call it development and gentrification. Right now, there are heated discussions about gentrification in Harlem, the Bronx, Miami, Denver, and again in San Francisco. These cities are again raising the question -- who are we improving this neighborhood for? Who gets to live here? And again the questions don't have black and white answers. Just as happened in the Fillmore, some urban redevelopment is very much welcomed by the community -- why shouldn't Harlem have a Starbucks like everyone else if that's what the residents will support? Why shouldn't longtime minority homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods get a chance to sell their houses at huge profits and move out if that's their big chance?
What I hope this program says is, be careful -- cities and neighborhoods are living things, not grids on a map. We may be finally learning that community is a delicate organism; it can't be imposed from above, it doesn't survive well under stress and it is often noticed only in its absence. To me, that's the object lesson of The Fillmore.