How ‘Urban Renewal’ Decimated the Fillmore District, and Took Jazz With It

Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie with San Francisco Mayor George Christopher in 1957. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

If you were walking down San Francisco's Fillmore Street in the 1950s, chances are you might run into Billie Holiday stepping out of a restaurant. Or Ella Fitzgerald trying on hats. Or Thelonious Monk smoking a cigarette.

This wouldn't be out of the ordinary in the "Harlem of the West."

Musician Terry Hilliard started playing at venues in the Fillmore District when he was a student at San Francisco State.

Musician Terry Hilliard played bass in the house band at the famous Fillmore jazz venue, Jimbo's Bop City. (Elizabeth Pepin Silva)

"[The Fillmore] was a place where talent could be developed, whether it be music, art, dancing or whatever it was ... it was a place where you could express yourself and be accepted by others and you had an audience," says Hilliard.

But, Hilliard says he doesn't see that kind of culture anymore today.

To understand why the music scene in the Fillmore has changed, you have to go back to when so many of San Francisco's stories begin: the 1906 earthquake.

The Fillmore District, today known as the area defined by Turk Street and Geary Boulevard (its boundaries have changed over the years), was one of the few neighborhoods in San Francisco that survived the earthquake and fire that leveled much of the city.

Buildings like this in the Fillmore District weren’t as damaged as other buildings in San Francisco after the earthquake and fire. (National Archives at College Park / Public domain)

In her book, "Harlem of the West", author and filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin Silva describes how the Fillmore became the city's shopping and political center while Market Street was rebuilt. Wanting to capitalize on the neighborhood's new popularity, the Fillmore Neighborhood Merchants Association decided the district would also become an entertainment center. In 1909, the Fillmore Chutes amusement park was built and three years after that, the famous Fillmore Auditorium (which was the subject of another Bay Curious episode because they give free apples to their guests.)

A view of the rollercoaster at the Fillmore Chutes in 1910. (Courtesy of SFMTA Photo Archive SFMTA.com/Photo)

"It was a really fun, exciting place," says Silva. "But it was mainly for white people."

San Francisco in the early 1900's was segregated, but in the Fillmore it was a bit different. The earthquake had damaged a lot of neighborhoods where people of color were “allowed” to live in the city, but the surviving Fillmore District had inexpensive real estate and a history of accepting immigrants. Through the early 1900s up until the 1940s, you had Filipinos, Mexicans, African Americans, Russians, Japanese Americans and Jewish people living next door to one another.

"It became known as one of the most integrated neighborhoods west of the Mississippi," says Silva.

Students in the Fillmore District. (SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY)

A Changing Neighborhood

Then, Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into concentration camps. Simultaneously, African Americans from the Midwest were given free train tickets to come work the shipyards in San Francisco and Richmond, Calif.

African Americans arriving in San Francisco moved into empty apartments the Japanese Americans had been forced out of. Between 1940 and 1950, the Black population of San Francisco grew tenfold. By 1945, some 30,000 African Americans were living in the city.

Sponsored

With this surge in population came an explosion in the Fillmore of Black-owned businesses, nightclubs, restaurants and bars.

According to Silva, "You could go out on Friday night and not come home until Sunday night because there is so much to do. And so that’s how Fillmore became 'Harlem of the West.'"

Jazz vocalist Mary Stallings in 1963. (SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY)

Visit the "Harlem of the West" photo gallery for photos of Fillmore's jazz scene and nightlife.

Reflecting on his time playing bass with house bands in the Fillmore, Terry Hilliard says: "We had great crowds. People dressed up nice. The places were very elegant. There was just a lot of joy." The Fillmore was also one of the few places where, as a Black man, he could play a venue and enter through the front door: "At the Fillmore, they were Black clubs."

Jazz singer Mary Stallings was born in the Fillmore District in 1939. Her family came to San Francisco from the Midwest, and she was the first of her 11 siblings born in the city. She started singing gospel in her neighborhood church when she was eight years old and remembers the Fillmore as being full of music all the time.

Growing up, Stallings imitated her idols Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. At jazz clubs in the Fillmore, she not only got to work with these women but got to know them personally.

"It was just an amazing experience ... and I knew I was living something very special," she says.

But Stallings and Hilliard both say it wasn’t just the music that made the Fillmore special.

Mary Stallings performing at SF Jazz. (Courtesy of Mary Stallings)

"You felt like you were cared for, you know? You had a home life but everybody else was your family too," Stallings says.

So what happened to the Fillmore?

After World War II, President Truman signed the 1949 Housing Act, which authorized the demolition and reconstruction of urban neighborhoods that were considered slums. This policy — “redevelopment” — specifically targeted neighborhoods that were low income and not-white. In the 1960s, with its old Victorian houses and mostly Black population, the Fillmore became the focus of San Francisco’s urban renewal.

A map of redevelopment in the Fillmore District and Western Addition. (KQED)

Jazz clubs were shuttered. Businesses torn down. Two-lane Geary Street turned into a giant expressway, Geary Boulevard, slicing through the heart of the neighborhood. Residents were forced out of their homes, often without much warning or adequate compensation. To city planners, this was urban renewal, but to the residents of the Fillmore, it felt like something else.

In James Baldwin's 1963 documentary, Take This Hammer, (produced by KQED) Baldwin comes to San Francisco to interview the city's Black residents. Driving through neighborhoods like the Fillmore, he remarks that redevelopment is "removal of Negroes" and that despite San Francisco's progressive image, it was no different from Birmingham, Alabama.

"I imagine it’d be easy for any white person walking through San Francisco to imagine everything was at peace," Baldwin says. "Because it certainly looks that way on the surface. You’ve got the San Francisco legend too which is that it's a cosmopolitan and forward looking. But it’s another American city."

The redevelopment of the Fillmore was one of the largest projects of urban renewal on the West Coast. It impacted nearly 20,000 people. And by the time new housing and storefronts were finally completed in the 1980s, most of the former Fillmore residents couldn’t afford to move back in.

An aerial photo of the redevelopment site in the 1970's shows how extensive the destruction of the Fillmore was. (SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY)

According to the U.S. census, in the 1970s 10% of San Francisco’s population identified as Black. Today, that number is half. Mary Stallings still lives in San Francisco, but says going back to the Fillmore now breaks her heart.

"I was trying to explain that in another interview I didn't get very far because I cried like a baby ... I missed the community feeling, the feeling of family," she explains.

Terry Hilliard lives in Oakland now. He kept playing music in the Bay Area, but says all the musicians he played with back then eventually left and went to New York. They couldn’t afford to live here.

The Boom Boom Room on Geary and Fillmore. (Flickr Creative Commons: Dale Cruse)

Jazz in the Fillmore isn’t entirely dead. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you could catch a live jazz show at the Boom Boom Room on Fillmore and Geary. The Fillmore Jazz Festival draws big performers each summer (although as of now, it is postponed). And organizations like Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors are dedicated to reviving jazz in the city.

But to those who lived it, it is "Harlem of the West" no longer.

Listen to our Fillmore Jazz playlist

Featuring a sampling of artists who played in the Fillmore during its heyday


Sponsored