The History of San Francisco’s Fillmore District

By Phineas Upham

During the latter half of the 1800s, San Francisco was facing a problem with overcrowding. In response, the Fillmore District was created to offer the fledgling city the chance to grow. During the great earthquake in 1906, Fillmore Street became a major commercial center because it had taken relatively little damage compared to the rest of the city.

The area also attracted migrants, specifically Jews and Japanese. African Americans later came to the area and brought jazz with them.

The Jews came from Eastern Europe, and Jewish-owned businesses quickly became a cornerstone of the area. Both Fillmore and McAllister Streets had several Jewish businesses, and the district as a whole erected three synagogues. For much of the 20th century, The Fillmore District was also considered the city’s Jewish community center.

Japanese immigrants also left their imprint on the Fillmore District. The intersection of Fillmore and Geary Boulevard morphed over time to become Japantown. That’s where Nyogen Senzaki opened his first Zendo, which is where he is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to the US. Unfortunately, the area is also a reminder of Executive Order 9066. Roosevelt, faced with the Japanese threat overseas, made a questionable and controversial decision to round up Japanese people (including those of Japanese origin) and place them into internment camps.

The vacant homes the Japanese left behind were filled by African Americans, who were looking for work at the local shipyards. Among that working class were artists and musicians. Fillmore quickly became the destination for jazz clubs, with top talent like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday frequently making appearances.

Today, the Fillmore is a divisive place. Economic redevelopment that was supposed to have occurred during the 1950s has largely failed, and the threat of gentrification looms large.

Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Twitter page.

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