'Harlem of the West': Memories of S.F. Jazz San Francisco's Fillmore District is known for its namesake rock venue, but once it was home to legendary jazz clubs. A new photo book preserves the record of a neighborhood that fell victim to "urban renewal."
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'Harlem of the West': Memories of S.F. Jazz

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'Harlem of the West': Memories of S.F. Jazz

'Harlem of the West': Memories of S.F. Jazz

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During the late 1960's, San Francisco's Fillmore District became known the world over for rock and roll. But before rock, the Fillmore was a black neighborhood known for jazz.

(Soundbite of music)


Then, almost overnight, the neighborhood and the music disappeared.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports on the district that was known as the Harlem of the West, and on a new book that looks at black Fillmore's glory days.


Elizabeth Pepin is a documentary filmmaker and photographer. When she lived in San Francisco as a child, she remembers puzzling over the bleak landscape in a specific part of the city.

MS. ELIZABETH PEPIN (Filmmaker and Photographer): We'd go through the Fillmore, my father would drive us to downtown and I'd always ask him, why are these huge lots here? And he never really would answer me, and finally I found out, it's because half the neighborhood had been bulldozed over.

BATES: When San Francisco hopped on the urban renewal bandwagon in the '60s, the city gained a lot of fancy high rises and lost a lot of its black population.

Originally, they'd come as part of the great northern migration that brought black families from the segregated south into the less segregated Bay Area to work in war-related industries like the shipyards. Many settled in the Fillmore. Former Mayor Willie Brown grew up there. In The Fillmore, a documentary on the neighborhood produced by Elizabeth Pepin, Brown recalls how lively it was.

Mr. WILLIE BROWN: And you walked the streets looking for parties. And it was the way that many of the people wrote about the renaissance in Harlem. That was what Fillmore Street was like in those days.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

BATES: Peter Fitzsimmons is a real estate developer whose father, drummer Allen Smith was a Fillmore resident and a club favorite.

Mr. PETER FITZSIMMONS (San Francisco Real Estate Developer): People from all over the world would come to play at Bop City. All the greats: Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, my dad, Allen Smith. They would come and go to Bop City to see and be seen; and there would have jam sessions.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

BATES: Photos from The Fillmore's golden era show Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Lionel Hampton and Dexter Gordon, all playing neighborhood clubs like Jimbo's Bop City and The Texas Playhouse. That visual history has been gathered in a book, Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era. Pepin and photographer, Lewis Watts, who co-authored the book, met while researching the neighborhood. Watts says a certain kind of photo kept popping up.

Mr. LOUIS WATTS (Photographer; Co-Author, Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era): A lot of the jazz clubs hired photographers. And it's funny, there's no pictures of people in the churches, there's not a lot of pictures - there's some pictures of people on life on the street, but there is a lot of pictures of the different clubs. And I think that was sort of the cultural sort of apex of the area.

BATES: The black and white photos show patrons at The Texas Playhouse dressed to the nine's in paper New Year's hats, which were distributed and worn every night. Then there's Duke Ellington in a bevy of admirers at the Manor Plaza Hotel and Billie Holiday in a strapless gown accessorized with her tiny Chihuahua at Café Society.

(Soundbite of song "Let's Fall in Love")

BATES: These mementos of a vanished era almost vanished themselves. As the Fillmore's clubs and businesses closed, the photos that recorded its history became scattered.

Louis Watts tried to discover where they'd gone. A tip led him to Reggie Pettus, owner of the New Chicago Barbershop on Fillmore Street. In Pepin's documentary, as he clips a customer's hair, Pettus recalls how thoroughly urban renewal erased the Fillmore he knew.

(Soundbite of movie "Neighborhoods, The Hidden Cities of San Francisco -The Fillmore")

Mr. REGGIE PETTIS (Owner, New Chicago Barbershop): Redevelopment had come through and all this whole area was blighted. They just tore down all the buildings; it was just all empty. A long time ago, it used to be, years, years back they used to call it the Fillmore, and then I called it the No-more.

BATES: When Pettus got to know Watts a little better, he decided to entrust him with a precious piece of Fillmore history he'd been safe-guarding. Watts was astonished.

Mr. WATTS: He had in his back room where, in some cases, framed photographs, in a lot of cases, supermarket bags just filled with loose photographs. Amazing photographs with no labels, some of them torn, some of them with water stains, but like - just amazing photographs.

BATES: Thanks to Watts and Pepin, photos from the old neighborhood have been restored and preserved for people who will never know black Fillmore. Yet the two worried that much of the community story is incomplete.

Ms. PEPIN: I'm still like, God, I should have included that, or I really need - wished that photograph - and Lou(ph) feels the same way.

Mr. WATTS: And here the people have died, you know, sort of taking their stories with them to the grave, which we really regret.

BATES: Walk through today's Fillmore and the empty lots are now filled with unexceptional high-rises and mundane storefronts. The old clubs remain only in memory, and now, in work like Harlem of the West.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

CHADWICK: There are photos from the Harlem of the West and news about an exhibition of those photos, just go to our web site, npr.org.

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