12/28/07 Jazzing up the joint
by What can the grand, new, star-studded Yoshi’s do for the lower Fillmore? By Chris Smith
San Francisco Magazine
Up and down Fillmore Street south of Geary, the slogans on the streetlight banners rework a classic Miles Davis album: “rebirth of the cool.” From glowing 10-foot-high panels, photographs of Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington—totems of the neighborhood’s golden years—beam down on the street, watching over the coffee shops and African American beauty parlors, the Korean groceries and empty storefronts, the Muni buses trundling down the strip. Those banners and photos conjure a time when the Fillmore was known as the Harlem of the West, one of the centers of West Coast jazz and the focal point of African American life in the city. They also herald a boom in the making. GRAND OPENING Nov. 28, Roy Haynes and the Yoshi’s Birds of a Feather Super Band Chris Smith is a San Francisco contributing writer.
By now, you’ve probably heard the news: Yoshi’s, that Oakland paragon of live jazz and Japanese cuisine, has come to San Francisco. As the centerpiece of the Fillmore Heritage Center, a 13-story condo development, it is part of a wildly ambitious project that aims to return top-flight jazz to its historic local home and, in the process, lift the fortunes of this ill-starred neighborhood.
It’s a great story—benighted district rises from generations of decay, borne aloft on a jazz vamp—and it’s been a long time coming. Over the years, I’ve watched Pacific Heights creep inexorably down toward Geary, driven by the constant desire for cheap(er) real estate. Finally, some of that money has landed in the lower Fillmore. The wheels of gentrification are turning, and all knee-jerk liberal reaction aside, that’s a good thing. The neighborhood is broken and has been for decades. With no banks, few jobs, and lots of crime, there’s nowhere to go but up.
In its heyday, the Fillmore was home to scores of black-owned businesses, from shoeshine parlors to greengrocers to banks. Urban renewal (often called “Negro removal” in these parts) decimated that com-munity, and the Fillmore has struggled ever since: the neighborhood, like the city as a whole, is steadily losing its black residents, and there are just a handful of black businesses on Fillmore Street today. Other cities, from Detroit to Denver, have used sports stadiums in their att-empts to fix blighted neighborhoods; San Francisco, as befits its more refined sensibilities, will use jazz. Besides Yoshi’s, the Fillmore Heritage Center houses 80 condos (12 of them affordable, at least by San Francisco’s fantastical definition), a nonprofit devoted to local jazz history, and a stylish “soulful American” restaurant, 1300 on Fillmore. All granite, brushed steel, and glass, the building looks like money in an otherwise shopworn locale.
You may worry that a revitalized lower Fillmore will go the way of Hayes Valley, an island of wealth in a sea of grimy streets, the exclusive preserve of entitled white people shopping for $40 martini glasses and $150 belts. Thankfully, lower Fillmore residents aren’t threatened by total displacement à la Valencia Street, where the dot-com gold rush changed the neighborhood’s character overnight. The lower Fillmore has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city, and the residents aren’t going anywhere. Besides, an ideal Fillmore-in-waiting—multiethnic, unpretentious, diverse—is already sprouting from the cracked sidewalks, from soul food restaurants to funky clubs to a lively street life a long way from the tumbleweed and stick-up kids of times past.
Yoshi’s is joining businesses such as Harput’s, the hip shoe parlor, and small, black-owned jazz clubs like Rasselas and the Sheba Piano Lounge in the neighborhood’s effort to right itself. The hope is that the Heritage Center’s high-dollar attractions—and the presence of those condo dwellers, whose palates will demand more than Panda Express—will draw investment and jobs to the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District, as the city’s redevelopment agency has dubbed it.
So far, the plan seems to be working. For years, the agency has tried to woo entrepreneurs to the district through a generous, state-backed loan program. Save for a few notable exceptions—such as Rasselas and Powell’s, a soul food restaurant that reopened here in 2005 after being priced out of rapidly gentrifying Hayes Valley—the gains had been minimal. Today, the agency, which is tasked with filling up many of those empty storefronts, is getting three times the calls from prospective businesses that it did just a year ago.
For jazz fans, of course, the arrival of Yoshi’s is a benediction. The Bay Area is said to be one of the biggest jazz markets in the country, but San Francisco hasn’t had a club that consistently draws big names since Kimball’s shut down in Civic Center more than a decade ago. The new Yoshi’s, bigger and sleeker than its older brother across the bay, should fill that gap. Over the years, every big jazz star, from McCoy Tyner to Max Roach to Diana Krall, has played the Oakland club. You’ll see the same stars in San Francisco, along with international acts and blues, Latin, and neo-soul groups. Having two clubs may draw even more big names, allowing the artists to set up shop for three days in San Francisco, say, then to move to Oakland for the next four.
But jazz has changed as much as the neighborhood has. A half-century ago, the Fillmore’s streets were lined with dozens of evocatively named clubs: Café Society, Bop City, the Plantation Club, the New Orleans Swing Club. There were late-night joints—where Dexter Gordon or Wes Montgomery, after finishing a show downtown, might play until dawn—and places that had breakfast jam sessions, where your bebop came with a side of eggs. Jazz was the music of the common man, young and old, rich and poor, the sound of a hot, buzzing future. Today’s audience is older, often affluent—tickets at Yoshi’s hover in the $30 to $75 range—and markedly white. Listen to the music booming from the candy-colored Buicks and Oldsmobiles slow-rolling through the Fillmore these days: you’re more likely to hear hyphy than Herbie Hancock. If you want to revitalize a black neighborhood, a hip-hop preservation district would make more sense, not that any banks would put up the money for that.
Michael Johnson, the Heritage Center’s developer, says it was the Fillmore’s rich history and the chance to do something positive for the community that enticed him. Market forces aren’t sentimental, though. Despite the best intentions and the redevelopment agency’s stated goals, this project isn’t likely to do much for African American job prospects. And when the term for the redevelopment plan to improve the district expires in 2009, the incentives that pulled businesses like Rasselas into the lower Fillmore will disappear. The original 30-year term was extended once before, in 1994. To keep the momentum going, it must extended again.
In the meantime, it’s not inconsequential to preserve the legacy of the Harlem of the West. At the nonprofit Jazz Heritage Center, next door to Yoshi’s, director Peter Fitzsimmons plans to host shows by local musicians such as bassist and bandleader Marcus Shelby, curate art exhibitions, screen jazz films like The Legend of Bop City, record the oral histories of local jazz figures, and hold music and art workshops for neighborhood kids; even-tually, they’ll put together a youth jazz orchestra.
The bar at Yoshi’s also aims for inclusiveness. Most concertgoers will arrive by car from other neighborhoods, likely going from the underground garage straight to their seats, but you don’t need to buy a ticket to have a drink. The bar is open to everyone, every day from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sometimes you’ll even be able to watch the show upstairs on the bar’s closed-circuit TV. The idea is to make it the sort of multiethnic watering hole you find in Oakland but never see in the city.
From Rincon Hill to Union Street, the tide of glitz washing over the city shows no sign of ebbing. The lower Fillmore is changing, too, but there’s no reason why it can’t become one of the vibrant, individual neighborhoods we all profess to love. With a little help, it can look more and more like it does right now on a fall Saturday. In the morning, check out the farmers market, a block from the Heritage Center. A decidedly downscale scene compared to the Ferry Building, it bustles in a low-key way, with live jazz and a bunch of unfussy farm stands. Peek in the Starbucks across the street; you’ll see black, white, and Asian customers in rough parity, united over caramel macchiatos. In the evening, as the sun starts to drop, stop by the bar at Yoshi’s, perhaps on your way to Rasselas or the Boom Boom Room. With any luck, in the next year or so we’ll have several more clubs and restaurants to choose from.
Nov. 29–Dec. 2, Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band
Yoshi’s San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St. (at Eddy st.), 510.238-9200, yoshis.com/sf
Up and down Fillmore Street south of Geary, the slogans on the streetlight banners rework a classic Miles Davis album: “rebirth of the cool.” From glowing 10-foot-high panels, photographs of Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington—totems of the neighborhood’s golden years—beam down on the street, watching over the coffee shops and African American beauty parlors, the Korean groceries and empty storefronts, the Muni buses trundling down the strip. Those banners and photos conjure a time when the Fillmore was known as the Harlem of the West, one of the centers of West Coast jazz and the focal point of African American life in the city. They also herald a boom in the making.
Nov. 28, Roy Haynes and the Yoshi’s Birds of a Feather Super Band
Chris Smith is a San Francisco contributing writer.