Alta Plaza Park readies for a makeover


LOCALS AGREE there are problems with Alta Plaza Park, situated atop a former rock quarry and bounded by Scott, Clay, Steiner and Jackson Streets. Among them: decayed columns, stairs, walls and pathways; haphazard and incongruous plantings; outdated and ineffective lighting; and drainage and irrigation issues. So far, the fixes have been piecemeal — and ineffective, particularly the new no-mow grass and attempts to stop leakage onto surrounding sidewalks.

In February, the community group Friends of Alta Plaza Park enlisted landscape architect Jeffrey Miller — whose firm designed the new playground that was part of the recent renovation of the neighborhood’s Lafayette Park — to help formulate a master plan for an integrated overhaul of Alta Plaza’s infrastructure and aesthetics.

Miller solicited community feedback as he developed his plans, and at a final public meeting in November he unveiled the latest iteration of his proposals.

Among other things, the master plan, published above, features reworked entryways and plantings along the park’s perimeter. It adds a picnic area and creates a central plaza with a seating area overlooking the view of the city to the south. It also adds a new pathway and additional seating at the top of the park.

The plans, which will be presented to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission for approval in February, were considerably revised and scaled back from earlier proposals, which included a large central amphitheatre, an oculus with a view locator and relocated tennis and multi-purpose courts. The overwhelming public outcry was for less construction and fewer bells and whistles, with refurbishments that would make the park more functional while maintaining its formal elegance.

The first phase of the project, slated for completion next year, will be confined to the north side of the park, with $3 million of the expected cost already available from various sources. The park’s south side still suffers water issues that need to be resolved, even after a redo of its irrigation system last year. The Friends of Alta Plaza hope to raise money for the rest of the project through grants and fundraising.

Marcus Books locked out

Eviction notice on the locked door of Marcus Books at 1712 Fillmore Street.

Eviction notice on the locked door of Marcus Books at 1712 Fillmore Street.

THE LONG FIGHT to keep Marcus Books in its historic home on Fillmore Street reached another milestone — and perhaps its conclusion — when the new owners of the building locked out the owners of the bookstore May 6. An eviction notice was posted by Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

In an open letter emailed to supporters, the owners of the bookstore wrote:

“It was difficult to know what to tell you about our struggle to stay in our building, its winding path of lawyers and judges and protests and promises, hopes and gravities made it difficult to report our status on a curved road. But the current property owner has changed the locks to the door of 1712 Fillmore Street.”

Read the full letter

EARLIER: “We are refusing to let Marcus Books close

Cottage Row loses its redwoods

Five redwoods were cut in the mini-park at Cottage Row.

Five redwoods were cut in the mini-park at Cottage Row.

THERE HAD BEEN TALK for years about cutting down the rapidly growing redwood trees in the park along Cottage Row. Suddenly one day in mid-February the five redwoods were felled, along with a massive eucalyptus tree and other smaller trees.

The howls of outrage among many neighbors now seem to be giving way to acceptance.

“I was opposed to cutting the trees when they could have been trimmed,” said Cottage Row resident Jeff Staben. “But now that you see the light and openness, it’s nice. If only people would stop using the park as a dog potty.”

cottage rowA crew from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks has removed the trees and the redwood stumps and begun to refurbish the mini-park, which serves as a front yard for the historic Cottage Row homes. New Japanese maple trees — and perhaps cherry trees and magnolias — will be planted in a nod to the heritage of the row before its Japanese-American residents were ousted and interned during World War II. A few redwoods remain on private property.

“We’re stabilizing the park and updating the landscaping,” said Steve Cismowski, the manager from Rec & Park responsible for Cottage Row. “Those redwoods were always the wrong species for a park this size. We caught it just in the nick of time.”

He said the interim plan — what he called “shoestring and duct tape landscaping” — will make the park safer and more usable. “But it isn’t intended to be the end of the conversation — just the beginning,” he said.

Cismowski and his crew expect to work in the park every Monday for the next six weeks, completing their limited work by mid-May. They are widening the planters where the redwoods stood, building new steps and adding Japonesque touches. The eucalyptus stump — too big to grind out — will remain.

While Cottage Row has lost its redwoods, it has gained its own song — a lyrical melody by singer-songwriter Eve Fleishman, who lives nearby.

“Twice a week I could sing to the five small redwood trees that inspired the bridge lyrics of my song, City Light,” she said. “I felt like crying when I saw they were gone. Not much to sing about on Cottage Row right now.”

Just another day at the Fillmore

FLASHBACK | Honey Green

It was October 1966, just a few days before my birthday. Bill Graham had booked an amazing show. Headlining was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Mark Naftalin, Elvin Bishop and a host of many others. The second band was the Jefferson Airplane — Marty, Jorma, Jack, Spencer and Signe Anderson.

Fillmore posterThere were two shows and, if memory serves me right, I believe this first one was Signe’s last show, because Grace Slick did the second show. The third act on the bill was Big Mama Mae Thornton. What a show this was going to be.

The day was hectic with musicians running here, running there, sound checks, lighting checks for the light booths and Bill checking every, I mean every thing. The excitement was palpable and continued all afternoon. When, oh no, the piano for Big Mama did not show up. Bill was on the phone calling all over town and, to his chagrin, could not find a piano to rent. Now here’s the good part: I had a piano at home.

Bill sent a crew over to my house to get the piano and even had a piano tuner come in. Pianos need to be tuned. Well, this was so exciting. There was my piano on the stage in all its shining glory. Paul Butterfield’s band was outstanding, as was the Airplane.

Then Big Mama came on stage, sat down at the piano and played “Heartbreak Hotel” such as it was never played before or since. It brought the house down. Then she wanted accompaniment on the piano, and Mark Naftalin sat down and tinkled those keys.

I never looked at that piano the same way again.

A footnote: After the show was over, Bill had my piano beautifully restained, had it delivered to my house and sent the piano tuner along with it.

Honey Green was promoter Bill Graham’s secretary back in the day.

A seed of faith

The Rolling Pin — formerly the Donut Hole — at Fillmore and California.

The Rolling Pin — formerly the Donut Hole — at Fillmore and California.

FIRST PERSON | Ronald Hobbs

Aunt Beebee — Bertha — and I were no kin at all. She was “that nice old colored woman” who worked at the Donut Hole. Her niece, Bettye, called her Aunt Beebee. It caught on with us regulars. The joint must have served 500 cups of joe a day and a couple of thousand donuts. But for all of the in-and-outers, only a few of us knew her secret name.

Bettye was 300 pounds of a scorching-tongued negress who worked graveyard. There was no need for a bouncer at the Donut Hole on her shift. Besides, in the back room the bakers, Buck and Chuck, packed some serious heat.

We came bleary-eyed and loud after the clubs closed. It was sugar time. Sugar and caffeine not so discreetly spiked with Korbel brandy. Bettye fussed over us like we were her own children, as if we were the little crosses, cable cars and bridges on her charm bracelet.


‘We are refusing to let Marcus Books close’

IT HAD BEEN WHISPERED on the street for weeks: The venerable New Chicago Barbershop had closed and another black Fillmore institution, Marcus Books, would soon be closing, too.

Roots run deep for both the bookstore and its building. Before the historic lavender Victorian at 1715 Fillmore that houses Marcus Books was moved from its original location a few blocks away at 1690 Post, it was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, a legendary after-hours joint that features prominently in the neighborhood’s jazz legacy. Before that — before neighborhood residents of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II — the building had housed the Nippon Drug Co. in the heart of Japantown.

“Perhaps no other structure in San Francisco has such an extraordinary story,” the Chronicle reported in a splashy feature story in mid-May. But the article did not mention that the building had changed hands at a bankruptcy sale a few weeks earlier, and that its street-level tenant, the oldest black bookstore in the country, was endangered.

That story went public on Sunday, June 9, when the front page of the Examiner proclaimed “Closing Chapter” and a headline inside reported: “Marcus Books on brink of closure.”

The next day a phalanx of black leaders assembled at Marcus Books before a group of reporters and television cameras to decry the events that had endangered the bookstore.


Fillmore’s Reggie Pettus: no more

Photograph of Reggie Pettus in 2009 by Kathryn Amnott

Photograph of Reggie Pettus (center) in 2009 by Kathryn Amnott

AN APPRECIATION | Elizabeth Pepin Silva

IN MAY 2013 the Fillmore lost a special man with the passing of Reggie Pettus, 73, longtime proprietor of the New Chicago Barbershop and unofficial archivist of the area.

Reggie moved to the Fillmore District from his home in Mobile, Alabama, in 1958 to attend City College of San Francisco. He began working in the New Chicago Barbershop in 1968, eventually taking over the business from his uncle.

The barbershop and many other businesses and residents were adversely affected by the redevelopment of the neighborhood. Like many others, Reggie was given a certificate from the Redevelopment Agency to relocate his shop back to the neighborhood once the rebuilding was over. But unlike most businesses and their African American clientele displaced by redevelopment, the New Chicago Barbershop never went away. The bulldozers stopped just a few doors south, and Reggie and his barbershop remained a fixture at 1551 Fillmore until it finally closed earlier this year — just a few weeks before he died.

In many ways, there would have been no revival of the “Harlem of the West” era, as Fillmore was once known, without Reggie. His collection of historical photographs and memorabilia, much of which he rescued on its way to a dumpster across the street from his shop, sparked an interest in many people to learn more about the area’s past. His photographs and memorabilia formed the basis for Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, the book Lewis Watts and I published in 2006. His collection also became the backbone of KQED’s Emmy Award winning documentary, The Fillmore, in which Reggie appeared and offered up some of the more memorable quotes.

“They used to call it the Fillmore,” Reggie says in the documentary. “I call it the No More. Redevelopment just came in and wiped it all out.” He added: “We don’t have too much color down here — not my color, anyway.”

His prophetic words concluded the film. “It won’t come back,” Reggie said. “The flavor is gone. Fillmore, no more.”

BAY GUARDIAN: “I’ve always been a barber
KQED: “Fillmore, no more

Photograph of Reggie Pettus by Lewis Watts

Photograph of Reggie Pettus by Lewis Watts


FIRST PERSON | Lewis Watts

By 1990 I was a photographer, and I began looking at the Fillmore as a part of my general interest in a visual examination of history and contemporary experience in African American communities.

Walking through the neighborhood, I also came across Red’s shoe shine parlor across from the Fillmore Auditorium. I went in and inquired about photographing the gallery on the walls that represented many who had lived and performed in the Fillmore. The owner of the shop, Elgin “Red” Powell, said that he was busy but that I might come back another time to talk about it.

A few months passed, and when I returned, Red’s shop was empty, and there was no trace of the pictures. No one in the neighborhood seemed to know what happened to Red and the photos in his shop. I was afraid that this valuable collection of history was lost. I continued to ask after its whereabouts for years.

In 1996 I was doing research for a report on the cultural past of the Fillmore, and I again asked around the neighborhood about Red and his photographs. When I went into the New Chicago Barbershop, across the street from Red’s parlor, and asked one of the barbers, Reggie Pettus, I was thrilled by his response: “They’re in my back room.”

Reggie filled in the blanks about what had happened. Red Powell had a stroke not long after we met in the early 1990s, lost his lease, and died soon afterward. When the parlor closed, everything was taken from the walls and was about to be tossed into a dumpster by the landlord. Reggie rescued the photographs and memorabilia and had kept the materials ever since.

VIDEO: Reggie Pettus was the star of the public television documentary, The Fillmore.

In one building, the city’s history

Once home to Bop City, today 1712 Fillmore is occupied by Marcus Books.

Once home to Bop City, today 1712 Fillmore is occupied by Marcus Books.

By Gary Kamiya
San Francisco Chronicle

FEW PEOPLE who pass the violet-painted house at 1712 Fillmore Street give it a second look. It’s another Victorian in a city full of them.

But this building is different. Perhaps no other structure in San Francisco has such an extraordinary story. If its walls could talk, they would relate virtually the entire history of the city.

Read more

New Chicago: more than a barbershop

Photograph of New Chicago Barbershop #3 by Kathryn Amnott

By Chris Barnett

SAM JONES, aka “I’m just a Joe named Sam,” wandered into the tiny three-chair Esquire Barbershop at 1826 Geary one recent Saturday afternoon looking slightly stunned. Then Elijah Brown, a 21-year-old entrepreneur, stepped in the door with a quizzical look. A gent named Tim, a man of few words, came in a few minutes later, squinted, looked around, sat down in the porcelain and leather chair and asked, “Whazzup, whazzup?”

Good question.

All three men and a parade of others that day had gone first to the New Chicago Barbershop #3, a fixture at 1515 Fillmore Street for 60 years, for their regular trims and were shocked to find it closed and the phone disconnected. But they weren’t left entirely in the lurch. Wired to a metal security curtain were hand-lettered signs announcing that Kevin had moved to a shop at 1315 Fillmore at Eddy, Bobby had relocated to 1045 Fillmore and, on a printed poster, Al and Gail announced they were now cutting hair around the corner at the Esquire.

Al Stephens, who worked at the now-shuttered shop for 47 years, and Gail Pace, who worked there for 28, say they can’t explain why the shop closed. Charles Spencer, the shop’s current owner, cannot be reached.

Is the Gold Coast becoming a Tech Coast?

Apple design chief Jonathan Ive purchased 2808 Broadway, originally built for the Hellman family.

THE GOLD COAST, also known as Billionaire’s Row, is home to many of the most exclusive and expensive homes in San Francisco. Along the three blocks of outer Broadway, from Divisadero to the Lyon Street steps, rise magnificent properties that have traditionally been home to San Francisco’s old guard — wealthy, philanthrophic, multi-generational families. Heading into 2013, the Gold Coast is turning over to a new breed of young tech execs.

Read more: “On the Block