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The legacy of Fillmore jazz

Local favorite pianist Tammy Hall is featured in a new video on Fillmore jazz.

SAN FRANCISCO’S Fillmore District — known as the “Harlem of the West” in the 1940s and ’50s — was once a cathedral of jazz, its dozens of clubs inhabited by celestial beings such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

The Fillmore’s heyday marked an important chapter not only in jazz history but also in the Black American experience; its legacy lives on in the work of passionate artists who believe jazz — its freedom, movement and expression — is a state of mind, a way of life.

In a new video in its “Currents” series, the San Francisco Symphony tells the story of the Fillmore’s rich jazz history and explores its legacy.

CURRENTS: Bay Area Blue Notes from San Francisco Symphony on Vimeo.

No jazz on Fillmore this year

Fillmore’s own Kim Nalley performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, there will be no jazz on Fillmore Street this Fourth of July weekend.

The annual Fillmore Jazz Festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus and the ban on large gatherings of people.

“Sister! I just want to cry because there’s no festival this weekend,” said jazz vocalist Kim Nalley, who got her start on Fillmore Street and has been a perennial headliner at the festival. “It doesn’t even seem like the Fourth of July without the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I can barely remember when I haven’t sung at this festival.”

Jason Olaine, the festival’s artistic director for the last decade — and also the director of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York — also lamented the cancellation of this year’s event.

“We will miss — terribly — the mass of humanity in all its colors and generations, tastes and sounds, that make up the Fillmore Jazz Festival,” Olaine said. “We take solace in knowing that when we do come back, we’ll all be safe and strong and seriously ready to party. That will be quite a weekend — when we can all truly embrace one another without fear and dance all day.”

Fillmore saxman Sonny Lewis performing at the street fair in 1992.

The festival was begun in 1986 as a way to keep jazz alive on Fillmore Street, once a thriving mecca of music known during the ’40s and ’50s as the Harlem of the West. Most of its clubs and joints were lost during the 1960s as part of an ambitious but ultimately misguided redevelopment plan, which bulldozed large swaths of the neighborhood.

The annual jazzfest began as a modest street fair called “Jazz and All That Art on Fillmore” and sponsored by the Fillmore Merchants Association. It was spurred by the self-proclaimed Mayor of Fillmore Street, Ruth Dewson, longtime proprietor of Mrs. Dewson’s Hats. She recalled approaching promoter Terry Pimsleur, who had earlier started the Union Street Festival, about creating a similar street fair on Fillmore, where new businesses were opening and trying to improve the struggling commercial strip. But she was rebuffed, told there weren’t enough people or merchants on Fillmore at that time to make a street fair successful.

“I told her, ‘Honey, you got one of me, that’s enough,’” Dewson recalled in 2011. “Right from the beginning, it was a success.”

Ruth Dewson helped start the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

After being held the first two years in the fall, the festival moved to the weekend nearest the Fourth of July. It has remained there since, until this year. It was expanded and renamed the Fillmore Jazz Festival in 1999, and grew with the neighborhood into the largest free jazz festival on the west coast, drawing more than 100,000 people and shutting down Fillmore from Jackson to Eddy Streets.

“Let’s celebrate in our own socially responsible ways this weekend,” said Olaine, “and look forward to the future. Here’s to us — the Fillmore community. I just love us!”

Kim Nalley at the Fillmore Jazz Festival

‘The death of my youth’

FIRST PERSON | KIM NALLEY

This Fourth of July has been a very emotional day for me. For the first time since I started singing professionally, there is no Fillmore Jazz Festival. I have headlined at this festival consecutively on the California Street stage for more than a decade, and before that I played at the festival here and there on non-consecutive years.

As one of the last and largest remaining free jazz festivals, it was very special because I saw people who otherwise might not necessarily have been able to afford to come to some of my concerts, as well as people who have been following me from the very beginning, plus other friends and family who planned their trips to San Francisco around this festival. I really looked forward to seeing everyone every year, and to seeing the babies in the front row grow up to be dancing toddlers and then sitting and listening as big kids.

I loved seeing all the dancers at the Fillmore festival — not just the Lindy and swing and blues dancers, but also the Jamaican man who jumped on the stage to dance with me when we did an Etta James song with a ska beat. I loved singing “America the Beautiful” or “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the yearly anthem. And of course I loved working my way up and down the street to see and hear my friends perform on the different stages.

I have enjoyed the largesse of the Fillmore merchants for my entire career. My first paying gigs were in the Fillmore, I got married in the Fillmore, I shop in the Fillmore, my kids went to daycare and preschool in the Fillmore, and many of my closest friends I either met in the Fillmore or they live in the Fillmore. My first album was produced by Michael Tilson Thomas at the Alta Plaza on Fillmore and Clay. I got the news that my mother died while singing on Fillmore Street.

Little did I know, when singing last Fourth of July, what would be in store for 2020. I have no idea if the Fillmore Jazz Festival will be able to continue in the future given the challenges of the coronavirus, and the need for sponsors and production, and all the many people responsible for producing any outdoor festival.

It almost feels like the death of my youth. And it certainly doesn’t feel like the Fourth of July without the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I know as a country we are facing much more difficult problems than this, but I cannot help but mourn.

Happy Fourth of July! I hope better days are ahead and that I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.

Musically yours,
Kim Nalley
July 4, 2020

Boom Boom Room on the ropes

Photograph of the Boom Boom Room by Susie Biehler

FILLMORE’S ONLY remaining joint — the Boom Boom Room, hard by the Geary Street bridge — is closed and may not reopen without an infusion of fresh cash.

“We are faced with permanent closure without emergency funding,” says owner Zander Andreas in a fundraising campaign seeking to raise $60,000. “The survival of our intimate and iconic San Francisco live music institution depends on you. Our rent is massive and compounding. Our vendors are breathing down our necks. Our repairs and utilities are unfunded.”

Andreas said the actual emergency need is $150,000, but that he hopes the GoFundMe campaign “will get people discussing the urgency of our need to keep this institution alive.”

EARLIER: “Was it really John Lee Hooker’s joint?

Elite’s new name: The Tailor’s Son

The wiring and lettering on the vintage sign were removed on February 28.

THE LAST TRACES of the legendary Elite Cafe — a beacon of hospitality on Fillmore Street for decades — have disappeared. The lettering on the vintage neon sign has now been removed, along with the wooden booths inside.

The Elite’s new name: The Tailor’s Son, in honor of owner Adrianno Paganini ’s father, who was a tailor. The sign is being reworked to announce the new name. During earlier incarnations, the same sign proclaimed the Asia Cafe and the Lincoln Grill.

EARLIER: “Elite no more

A final farewell to the Clay

Fixtures and furnishings being removed from the Clay Theatre.

DEMOLITION OF THE interior of the 110-year-old Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street began today, with workers hauling out the seats, the projectors and the popcorn machine.

Landmark Theatres, the company that operated the Clay in recent decades, has instructed its staff to leave the building empty by the end of the month.

The theater closed at the end of January, but ongoing discussions between building owner Balgobind Jaiswal and the S.F. Neighborhood Theater Foundation — which had offered to buy or rent the theater — had given supporters hope the Clay might continue as a nonprofit.

Those negotiations have proved unsuccessful and the landlord’s agent, neighborhood resident Pamela Mendelsohn of the Maven real estate firm, has been showing the space to other potential tenants.

EARLIER: “Clay Theatre to close

Inside the Palace Cafe

LOCAL HISTORY | THOMAS REYNOLDS

For decades local residents have walked down the block of Fillmore between Bush and Sutter and wondered about the sign hanging out over the sidewalk: Palace Cafe, it says, above a bright red Dr Pepper logo.

The cafe has been closed at least 30 years. For many of those years the sign was mostly obscured by the overgrown ficus trees that lined the block. After the trees came down a few months ago, the question came more frequently: “What’s up with the Palace Cafe?” It was said to be set up just as it was when it was last open for business back in the 1970s. But nobody seemed to know for sure.

Then one recent Saturday morning, while walking up the street from the Fillmore Farmers Market, a neighbor noticed the door to the long-shuttered cafe ajar. He knocked while pushing it open. Inside he met Dr. Jan Dickey, one of the grandchildren of the couple who bought the building back in the 1940s when they were part of the wave of black migration from the South. Some of their descendants still live in the flats upstairs. 

Dickey had come over from his home in the East Bay to the building where he grew up to finally start clearing out the cafe. He said his family had decided, with encouragement from the city’s new crackdown on vacant storefronts, they should empty the space and offer it for rent, perhaps as an office or a shop. They wanted to honor his grandfather, he said, and his grandmother, who willed — and prayed — the building into the family’s fold as its home in the heart of the Fillmore.

“May I take photos?” the visitor asked. They offer a glimpse of the old Fillmore untouched by time.

EARLIER: “Frozen in time

Frank Lloyd Wright tiles created here

ARCHITECT Aaron Green, who lived in a neighborhood apartment overlooking Lafayette Park for many years, helped Frank Lloyd Wright establish a San Francisco office in 1951 at 319 Grant Avenue.

Green’s mother-in-law, Jeannette Pauson Haber, lived at 2510 Jackson Street, on Alta Plaza Park, with her sister, Rose Pauson, who was a former client of Wright’s. In 1940 she had built the Pauson House in Arizona, which had been destroyed by fire in 1943. 

Rose was a painter, and Jeannette a ceramicist. When Wright decided to create red tiles, inscribed with his initials, to be affixed to a select number of his buildings, he asked Jeannette to fabricate them. Wright provided a drawing of what he wanted; Jeannette formed the tiles; Aaron Green inscribed the initials — FLLW — into each one; and Jeannette produced the “Taliesin red” glazed surface that Wright specified. 

Among the Bay Area buildings that Wright designated as worthy of bearing the tiles were the V.C. Morris shop on Maiden Lane — his only building in San Francisco and a precursor to the circular Guggenheim Museum in New York — and the Marin County Civic Center, which was completed by Aaron Green after Wright’s death.

— From Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco, by Paul V. Turner, published by Yale University Press.

Harlem of the West, revised

The new and earlier editions of Harlem of the West.

IN THE LATE ’80s, Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts began an archival journey to resurrect a piece of San Francisco’s cultural history that had been bulldozed into oblivion. The Harlem of the West Project sought to make visible the rich history of the Fillmore District — one of the few neighborhoods in the Bay Area where people of color could go for entertainment in the 1940s and ’50s.

More than a dozen clubs dotted the 20-block radius, cheek by jowl with independent restaurants, pool halls, theaters and stores, many of them owned and run by African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Filipino Americans.

(more…)

Watching San Francisco burn

Watching the fire after the 1906 earthquake from Lafayette Square.

LOCAL HISTORY | BRIDGET MALEY

A series of photographs taken during and just after the 1906 earthquake and fire reveals the sense of the fear and dread neighborhood residents must have felt at the time. The fire, which crossed to the west side of Van Ness Avenue between Sutter and Clay Streets, was halted by the U.S. Army’s defensive dynamiting, which included purposefully destroying some of the city’s most elaborate mansions. 

The photographs illustrate just how the marching fire must have raised the alarm near Lafayette Square. The images, all in the collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and taken by either Frank or Gregory Padilla. The Padillas apparently had a studio on Washington Street, but not much is known about the family of photographers. 

Looking east on Washington Street after the 1906 earthquake.

When the earthquake hit, there were only three houses facing the square on the block of Gough Street between Washington and Clay. One image, looking east down Washington Street, shows a mishmash of fencing and billboard advertising at the corner of Washington and Gough. A portion of the three houses peek out from behind the park’s hilly terrain. While all three dwellings survived the earthquake, only two remain; the third was replaced in 1912.

The remarkable images taken from Lafayette Square during those fateful days in April of 1906 provide a glimpse of events as they were happening. The photographers captured spectators watching the fire consume the city. The images hold the event frozen in time with a backdrop of what the blocks around the square would have looked like as it all unfolded.

Watching the fire from Lafayette Square. Bancroft Library photographs.

The ’89 quake in the Fillmore

St. Rose Academy, at Pine and Pierce, was torn down after the 1989 earthquake.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Fillmore and the rest of the Bay Area. The neighborhood was spared major damage, but felt the effects of the quake in ways large and small. The most visible local damage was at St. Dominic’s Church, where the top of the tower was lost and the historic home of St. Rose Academy was razed.  

St. Rose Academy, a Catholic high school for girls, was completed only a few months before the 1906 earthquake, but survived — only to be torn down after the 1989 earthquake when seismic concerns were raised.

Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian, San Francisco native and St. Rose graduate, class of ’81, observes: “The feeling at the start of the 1989-90 school year was that St. Rose was experiencing some uncertainty. This was spurred in part by St. Ignatius College Prep becoming coeducational a few years earlier and the desire of the Dominican order to focus its educational mission at other facilities in Marin. After the October ’89 earthquake, many St. Rose alumnae were none too pleased when the Dominican Sisters claimed the building could not be seismically retrofitted.”

Soon several alumnae formed Save St. Rose!, a group advocating not necessarily for continued educational use, but that a compatible new use could be found for the building, generating income to pay for the project. Partnering with San Francisco Architectural Heritage, the Save St. Rose! group put forward a study, confirmed that federal and state funds were available and presented preservation alternatives to the city Planning Commission and the community.  However, on June 26, 1991, the San Francisco Board of Permit Appeals upheld the Planning Commission’s approval of a permit to demolish St. Rose. 

An earlier St. Dominic’s Church building was heavily damaged by the 1906 earthquake and later torn down and replaced by a new Gothic building in 1928. The highly decorative lantern that extended for decades from the top of its tower was damaged and removed after the ’89 quake. Flying buttresses were later added to strengthen the walls of the church and support its stained glass windows.

— Bridget Maley

The top of the tower at St. Dominic’s Church was damaged and removed.

READ MORE: Locals drew together after the quake at the Pacific Heights Bar & Grill, then a key community gathering place, which never recovered from the earthquake.