A Visit To the Fillmore District

At the Shrine Of John The Prophet!

Last Days in San Francisco 271

San Francisco Poet and painter Renaldo Ricketts Paying Homage To A Saint


 The Strange Case Of Fillmore

A  Cautionary Tale For Harlem and Black Urban Communities Everywhere!

For forty years or more I have heard predictions that “the white folks are gonna take Harlem back,” but I always dismissed it as some species of paranoia bordering on hysteria.  Just looking around at the masses of black people crammed into this section of upper Manhattan the evidence of my senses assured me that removing them was not possible; whites had all of down town and mid-town, I conjectured, so they weren’t interested in moving uptown among the dreaded and feared blacks.

But after having watched the population trends of the last few years I am beginning to feel the way the Native American “Indians” must have felt when they witnessed the wagon trains increase in volume year after year as the “wretched refuse” of Europe trekked across the great plains driven by an insatiable land hunger.

Sugar Hill Now!

On Sugar Hill

 Life is still sweet for blacks on Sugar Hill…but things are changing

The neighborhood where I live, the once world famous “Sugar Hill,” was home to some of the most famous black people in the world.  Duke Ellington, Dr. WEB Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Walter White all live here.  Count Basie, Thurgood Marshall , Johnny Hodges and Andy Kirk all lived in my building.  Joe Louis lived here when he was World Heavy Weight champion and the most famous man in the world!  Paul Robeson, a paragon of human perfection and one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, lived in the very apartment where I have resided for the past thirty years.

 When I first moved to Sugar Hill the neighborhood was 99% black.  First there was a great Hispanic migration to the area, and now the whites are coming.  It seems that every time I look around there is a new white neighbor in my building.  Some of them speak and try to be friendly, others act as if they have encountered a man from Mars.  Longtime black residents all over Harlem are encountering the same experience, and there is a growing feeling that we are “losing Harlem.”  However, in spite of this visible trend  I found it impossible to imagine Harlem as a “post black” community…until I visited Fillmore.

Groundings With My Brothers

Last Days in San Francisco 234 

The brothers in the barbershop said…

” They are trying to cocentrate the few blacks left in the projects”

For here in this choice residential neighborhood of San Francisco, black people have virtually disappeared from this once bustling African American community.  For those who remain, there is the widespread feeling that they are like the last of the Mohicans.  It is a palpable feeling, and word quickly spread that there was a writer from Harlem who was interested in interviewing Afro-Americans about their displacement from this community people seemed to appear out of nowhere anxious to tell their stories.

A surprising number of them felt that the dismantling of their community was a planned event directed from City Hall through Urban renewal schemes in which City officials used the powers granted them under the laws of eminent domain.  Listening to them talk I was reminded of a slogan that was popular in the 1960’s when much of this redevelopment activity began: “Urban Renewal means Negro removal!”

The Way We Were

 Last Days in San Francisco 221

Fifty Years Ago Fillmore Was full of Afro-American home owners

Now It’s Mostly High Priced Condos

Last Days in San Francisco 216

Owned by whites and Asians!

Well history has proved those words to be prophetic.  And as I travel around the US I see this trend in inner cities large and small the evidence of this demographic trend is unmistakable. For instance, in St. Augustine Florida, the nation’s oldest city and first free black community, Lincolnville, the all black community where I grew up, is now 70% white!  And Harlem, whose virtues as neighborhood was first celebrated in James Weldon Johnson’s “Black Manhattan” seems next on the list for “Negro Removal.”

This slogan often came to mind as people stood on the streets and pointed to where black owned businesses and Jazz clubs such as the world famous “Bop City” once flourished.  This story is told in poignant detail in the PBS documentary “The Story Of the Fillmore,” where we see clips of Afro-Americans predicting the end of their community

 The Golden Age Of Jazz In Frisco!

John Coltrane at Bop City

A young John Coltrane Jamming at Bop City

Hence the Fillmore experience serves as a harbinger of what lies down the road in the future and is a poignant warning to black urbanites across this vast nation.  As the great saxophonist, singer and showman Louis Jordan – who no doubt played in the clubs and theaters of Fillmore many times – warned us: Beware Brother Beware!

The Bop City Baby…Keeping The Tradition Alive

 Last Days in San Francisco 236

 His Father took him to Bop City as a child..

 and now he curates The Jazz Museum in Fillmore


Photos and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

* Except for the picture of John Coltrane

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