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After Decades of Disenfranchisement, San Francisco's Fillmore Looks to Rebuild With Black-Led Marketplace

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A woman goes through clothing on a rack in a brightly lit store with a variety of merchandise.
Pia Harris, founder of In The Black and program director at San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, looks through CIK Apparel at the shop in the Fillmore district of San Francisco on June 9, 2023. In The Black is a marketplace providing Black-owned businesses an affordable space in the historic Fillmore neighborhood. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pia Harris was at In The Black in November, the month the Black-led marketplace debuted in the Fillmore, when a non-Black customer walked into the store wearing a shirt designed by Joseph Broussard.

Broussard, a Fillmore native who owns Dreamer Boyz clothing, was also in the store. According to Harris, who created the concept of In The Black, the customer expressed his love for the design that featured the Eye of Horus, a symbol of protection, health and restoration in ancient Egyptian religion.

In The Black is a shared retail space for Black-owned businesses on Fillmore Street near the Geary Boulevard intersection. There are around 20 businesses in the space that was once Money Mart, a check cashing and payday lender.

A woman holding a coffee cup looks at merchandise set out on a table inside a brightly-lit storefront.
Natasha Chatlein shops at In The Black in the Fillmore district of San Francisco on June 9, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Rent for the businesses, which sell clothing, accessories and skincare products, is based on the size of the retail area businesses occupy in the 1,500-square-foot space owned by the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation. Harris, 45, is the program director of SFHDC’s economic development team. In The Black is her brainchild, and last month the marketplace celebrated six months in business.

Black people thrived in the Fillmore before being targeted for displacement. The neighborhood was once known as the “Harlem of the West” because of the large number of Black businesses and entertainment venues in the area.

Black residents, many of whom migrated west for wartime work in the Navy shipyards and to escape racial terrorism in the south, settled in Bay Area cities like Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco. Despite anti-Black housing discrimination, Black neighborhoods flourished.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, however, the Fillmore underwent drastic changes driven by the federally-funded redevelopment of areas that were deemed “blighted” by the city’s leaders. The Fillmore, with its old Victorian houses and mostly Black population, became the focus of San Francisco’s urban renewal. Many homes were bulldozed while many others were relocated. Many Black-owned businesses were forced to shut down. According to Rachel Brahinsky, a politics and urban studies professor at USF, an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 Fillmore residents were incrementally displaced.

“There isn’t a sort of instant disappearance,” Brahinsky said. “Culture is very resilient. People are very resilient.”

In The Black is centering Black people in the Fillmore at a time when the Black population in the city continues to decline. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the Black population in San Francisco peaked in 1970 with 96,078 residents, or roughly 13% of the city’s total population. That number has steadily dwindled to around 45,135 residents, or 5% of the total population in 2021.

Harris wanted to create a store where Black entrepreneurs could thrive. A combination of high commercial rent prices and the lack of access to credit present steep barriers for Black entrepreneurs to open brick-and-mortar businesses. Harris thought businesses that shared rent would have a better chance to survive and maintain a foothold in San Francisco.

A woman wears a green hoodie reading "Black Girl Magic" standing beside some brightly colored clothes hanging on a rack.
Pia Harris, founder of In The Black and program director at San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, at the shop in the Fillmore district of San Francisco on June 9, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Harris, a longtime Fillmore resident, had to give up where she lived two years ago.

She had to move out of the city because she made too much for public housing according to the San Francisco Housing Authority’s income limits (PDF), but did not make enough to afford renting in San Francisco.

A series of moves

Harris moved several times when she was growing up. When she was 4, her mother couldn’t keep up with payments for their Oceanview neighborhood home so they both moved to Chicago. They returned to San Francisco 10 years later, first living on 16th Street and Potrero Avenue before settling in the Fillmore. Around the time Harris graduated from George Washington High School, they were evicted from their one bedroom apartment and became homeless.

“All you have to do is lose a job,” Harris said. “I’m so terrified for myself right now. If any part of my income changes, I can’t afford the basic cost of living in the Bay Area.”

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In 2006, Harris moved to the Robert B. Pitts Apartments on Scott Street in the Fillmore. She lived there for 15 years, raising her two daughters. She moved to Oakland in 2021, and her oldest daughter took over the lease of Harris’ former apartment with a roommate. Harris currently rents a house on 99th Avenue near San Leandro where she lives with her youngest daughter.

“It’s people like me now that have made it,” Harris said. “But then you’re in this weird in-between spot where you still can’t afford to live here, but you also make too much money for any subsidy.”

During the early stages of the pandemic, Harris paused her catering delivery business, Nia Soul, and prepared meals that were distributed to homeless people living in hotels through SF New Deal, a nonprofit that helps local businesses stay open.

Rebuilding the Fillmore

Harris is a founding member of the Fillmore Merchants and Neighborhood Collaborative, a group focused on creating economic opportunity. Before joining the SFHDC, Harris and the collaborative helped businesses apply for grants during the pandemic. She received a grant from San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to do the work.

Harris wants to rebuild the Black prosperity in the Fillmore.

“I think that we just want to have representation,” Harris said. “We’re not asking for this to be an all-Black neighborhood. We’re saying we see that there’s boba across the street. We see that there’s poke and a Jewish deli and Japanese food, but where is the African American voice?”

When Black Fillmore residents were displaced decades ago, they had limited options on where they could live in San Francisco because realtors would steer Black residents away from living in certain areas in the city. Steering is a form of redlining, the act of denying loans and other financial services based on race and gender.

A person walks down a nearly empty city sidewalk featuring a street sign reading "Feel More in the Fillmore."
A sign for the Fillmore is reflected in the window of the Fillmore Heritage Center in San Francisco on June 9, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many Black people displaced from the Fillmore settled in Bayview-Hunters Point, an affordable neighborhood with an existing Black community.

Tyra Fennell has made it her mission to expand awareness of the Bayview’s art and culture scene. Fennell, who moved to San Francisco in 2009, saw that the historically Black neighborhood was culturally overlooked during her time at the San Francisco Arts Commission.

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Through her nonprofit, Imprint City, she hosted events such as Bayview Live, a music and arts festival that ran from 2016-19. A challenge she faced while promoting events was figuring out how to attract Black people to a city where there aren’t a lot of people that identify as Black.

“The landscape here just isn’t Black,” said Fennell, who now works in Mayor London Breed’s administration. “It’s not majority Black, it’s super-minority Black. I prefer to program Black events for Black people, so I generally have to promote outside of San Francisco.”

Fennell said that predatory lending and increased home pricing are issues that have contributed to the out-migration of Black residents.

“Without strong economic policies to maintain the Black community, it’s all just social policies,” Fennell said. “People have to own where they are. That’s the only way for them to be stabilized.”

Jameel Rasheed Patterson sees redevelopment as a force of nature, but only when the government is in lockstep with the community. Labeling a community as blighted, he said, allows the government to make changes without the consent of residents.

“They throw out little dog whistle type code words to imply that the community isn’t taking care of the neighborhood,” said Patterson, the associate director of the New Community Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit that works to empower disenfranchised communities. “So we got to remove the people in order to change the neighborhood, then it becomes pest control gentrification.”

How In The Black works

In The Black receives funding from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the Dream Keeper Initiative, which is under the direction of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Dr. Sheryl Evans Davis, the executive director of the commission, applauded Harris’ selflessness and her ability to focus on a project outside of her comfort zone in the culinary industry.

“I think In The Black has offered a level of hope for folks about sharing spaces and being able to work together collaboratively,” Davis said. “I think it’s also opened up the opportunity, even along the Fillmore corridor, to be able to access and activate other spaces.”

Camouflage and military-print jackets hang on a rack with patches sewn on reading "Rooting for Everybody Black" and Not Today KAREN!" inside a store. Behind and out of focus, two people talk to each other.
CIK Apparel hangs at the store In The Black in the Fillmore district of San Francisco on June 9, 2023. The rent for the marketplace is around $8,000 per month, and the businesses pay between $600 to $1,500. According to Harris, In The Black made $20,000 in sales in December. Because of unsteady retail trends, it has made around $8,000 to $12,000 a month in sales since. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Still, Joshua Farr, In The Black’s manager, hopes to see the marketplace expand to cities like Oakland in the near future.

“It’s just business as usual,” said Farr, 40. “Us trying to learn and document and put together our story so that we’re able to do it again and do it better, and do it in new spaces and do it for new industries even.”

Some of the businesses currently in the store were part of the first SFHDC’s Minding My Black-Owned Business cohort in 2022. The 12-week pilot program gave businesses $7,500 grants.

Cianni Jackson participated in the program. She created her business, CIK Apparel, during the racial unrest in 2020 because she wanted to showcase the pride and strength inherent in Black culture.

A Fillmore native, Jackson designs and sells jackets, hoodies and other gear that features unique patches with messages such as “Black Girl Magic” and “Rooting for Everybody Black.” She likes to see people trying on her clothes in the store.

“I feel like when you’re in their face, they’ll grab it from you sooner,” Jackson, 43, said. “So In The Black has been a great opportunity for me to have my projects out in front of the public.”

In The Black is currently looking for merchants who sell haircare and other essential lifestyle products, according to Harris, who is in the process of opening a cafe a few blocks from the marketplace.

She would like to live in the Fillmore again.

“Just waiting for the market to get better to try to take my chance on purchasing something,” Harris said. “I’m always worried about having to get a second or third job if I have to just to maintain our lifestyle.”

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