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A black and white arial photo of Japantown and the Fillmore in San Francisco from 1958

From the Introduction to Standing Strong

Shizue Seigel

I first discovered Japantown and the Fillmore in 1958 as an Army brat. My family had been incarcerated during World War II, and by age 12, I’d moved so often I didn’t feel at home anywhere—until friendly African Americans on the 4 Sutter bus taught me to be sociable.

Japantown and the Fillmore became the soul of the city to me, or in Japanese, the kokoro—heart-mind-spirit. Before redevelopment, the two communities commingled and overlapped. Despite obvious differences in how we were perceived by the dominant society, the two communities had a lot in common. We shared many values, though expressed differently—hard work and a reverence for education, spirituality, the arts, and above all family and community. We also shared a common struggle against the silent but steady pressure of discrimination and stereotyping.

The Fillmore and Japantown, like La Mission, used to function like villages in the middle of the city. People knew each other and looked out for each other. Even strangers exchanged pleasantries; and the least among us mattered. Countless people helped in large and small ways to keep their community institutions going—from community organizing to church bake sales and bingo.

Living in a real neighborhood teaches an abiding appreciation of what it takes to sustain an environment through good times and bad. Instead of expecting someone else to take care of it, neighbors find the initiative and tenacity to do the right thing, even when things are going badly wrong. This is the kind of wisdom we desperately need in the current climate of entitlement and social isolation. Can we continue to collectively support the preservation of the city’s soul? I hope so.

A Brief Neighborhood History

Victorian homes were built in the Western Addition in the 1870s, and a commercial district developed along Fillmore Street. Since the area escaped devastation in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, people who had lost homes crowded into the area, and Fillmore became the city’s main shopping street during downtown recontruction. The neighborhood was free from discriminatory housing restrictions, so Japanese Americans from South Park, South of Market and Chinatown moved in alongside Jewish, African Americans and Filipinos. Diverse businesses, houses of worship and community organizations flourished. Due to the Alien Land Laws, however, most Asian immigrants could not own property.

In 1942, after the outbreak of World War II, Japanese Americans were forced off the West Coast for reasons of “national security,” which later proved unfounded. Almost 90 percent of the nation’s Japanese Americans lived in the Exclusion Zone. Since neighboring states declared them unwelcome, 112,000 people (two-thirds of them American-born citizens and the others long-time legal residents denied citzenship because of race) were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in remote inland areas. Not one was ever found guilty of espionage or sabotage.

During the same period, demand for labor skyrocketed, luring African Americans from the South to work at shipyards and other war industries. From 1940 to 1950, the city’s black population soared from 4,900 to 43,500. Many families moved into apartments recently vacated by Japanese Americans. Housing was at such a premium that some shared “hot beds”: when the day shift left for work, their beds were filled by folks just getting off the night shift. For a time, the Fillmore became the “Harlem of the West.” It was jumping with night clubs, theaters, and churches filled with folks enjoying new-found prosperity and freedom.

Unfortunately, as the war ended, the jobs began to dry up. When the Japanese Americans returned from the camps, housing was so tight that for two years, former incarcerees used church basements and community buildings as hostels until they could find jobs and places to live.

The job market began to shift in the late 1940s after Bay Area business interests developed a master plan to focus heavy industry in the East Bay and light manufacturing down the Peninsula. San Francisco was envisioned as the center of finance and culture.

South of Market and the Western Addition were identified as aging inner-city neighborhoods targeted for urban renewal. Banks refused loans to renovate or build in neighborhoods targeted for destruction. This red-lining accelerated neighborhood decline and encouraged white flight to the suburbs. By the late 1950s, many of the Western Addition’s European American residents had moved elsewhere, and 90 percent of Fillmore shops and residences were owned by absentee landlords.

In 1959-1961, the Revelopment Agency’s Project A-1 demolished 28 blocks along Geary Street between Van Ness and Masonic for the Geary Expressway, a four- to six-lane conduit for downtown office workers to commute west and south to the suburbs. Eight thousand residents were displaced and 6,000 units of low-cost housing destroyed. Only 2,000 new units were built, and only one third was affordable housing. A-1 and A-2 (1966-1984) razed 100 square blocks and displaced nearly 20,000 residents.

On block after block, eminent domain led to boarded-up homes and storefronts, and then to bare sand. In Nihonmachi alone, over a thousand residents and a hundred businesses were displaced. Diners, boarding houses, pool halls and employment offices—the unglamorous businesses of real life were replaced by the Japan Trade Center. This sterile, corporatized new mall introduced the American public to glossy new products from Japanese corporations. Hitachi, Nissan, and Mitsubishi, Nikon cameras and Mikimoto pearls were harbingers of Japan’s short-lived economic miracle. Though in no way comparable to the incarceration, redevelopment was in some ways a second displacement of Japanese Americans by larger forces in US-Japan relations.

In the Fillmore, many acres would stand empty for nearly twenty years. In the interim, many African Americans moved to other neighborhoods or out of the city entirely. By 2010, the city’s black population was half of what it had been in 1980, and is still dropping. The Fillmore Center’s high-rise residential buildings were not constructed until 1984, and their ground-floor storefronts were too expensive for local businesses, and eventually, most became offices.

The Geary Expressway drove a trench through the neighborhood and created an artificial barrier between Japanese American, Filipino and African American communities that used to intermingle in relative harmony. Unemployment and underemployment increased tensions. In the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturing, shipping, and other working-class jobs evaporated. By the 80s, most San Franciscans worked in offices or in the service industry. As jobs dwindled, drugs and despair infiltrated the Fillmore, and its residents fell prey to a different kind of mass incarceration. The real crime was that it was often implied it was the neighborhood’s own fault.

In the 1990s, the last large parcels on Fillmore were developed, and the area was dubbed the Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District.But neighborhood demographics had shifted, musical tastes had changed, and the “Harlem of the West” of the 1940s and 1950s proved impossible to bring back. By 2014, the jazz club Yoshi’s had closed, and only a few African American businesses remain on Fillmore today.

* * *

In 1960, San Francisco was a working city. Longshoremen worked the docks; garment factories and small fabricators proliferated south of Market, and family-run businesses thrived all over town—from Russian delis to Asian restaurants to Palestinian corner grocers and Greek produce markets. Instead of focusing on fair wages, safe working conditions, and affordable housing, big money offshored jobs, exploited cheap immigrant labor, and transformed the city in fundamental ways.

Not all change is bad; time alters communities in both positive and negative ways. I can’t help but hope that as people try to change the city, the city will change them as well. San Francisco tends to attract independent-minded voyagers, unionists, experimenters, activists, and artists. As the haves, have nots, and strivers encounter each other on the streets and buses, new colors, flavors, and perspectives expand our definitions of ourselves. This little book is my hope is that ordinary people can reach outside their comfort zone and rediscover the common humanity we need to rebuild sustainable communities.

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