Businesses blooming on Sutter Street

Photograph of Jet Mail co-owner Kevin Wolohan by Kathi O'Leary

Photograph of Jet Mail co-owner Kevin Wolohan by Kathi O’Leary

By Barbara Kate Repa

THE ONCE SLEEPY 2100 block of Sutter Street, stretching from Steiner to Pierce, would seem an unlikely spot for an urban renaissance.

But in recent years the area has quietly remade itself. Even as it lost a few longstanding businesses, it has attracted an eclectic assortment of independent shops — including Jet Mail, which moved down last year from a prime location on Fillmore Street, the newly relocated Iyengar Yoga Institute and gourmet destinations Song Tea and Spice Ace — that have begun to draw increased notice and foot traffic.

sutterstdomOne of the first of the new wave to locate in the area was Olivia Dillan, who with her husband Ben Balzer opened the spice shop of their dreams in October 2012 at 1821 Steiner, two doors from Sutter, and called it Spice Ace.

“When I first looked at this space the landlord warned me away, saying there’s absolutely no foot traffic here,” she says. “But I just had the feeling it would work, that people would find us.”

As she was recalling the conversation, right on cue, several customers filtered in at once, one searching for a specific type of smoky cumin, another looking for a gift for a friend who looks to cook, a third — a recent transplant from Chicago — hoping to find a store that would live up to the specialty spice shop she recalls fondly there. All left with their needs fulfilled.

Dillan, who lives near the shop, remains a loyal booster of the neighborhood and is proud of the Sutter Street surge. “We’re bringing back the small business owners to the area,” she says. “That’s especially important with all the brand name, high-end stores on Fillmore.”


The buzz on Divis: change is coming

Photographs of Divisadero Street by Erik Anderson

Photographs of upper Divisadero Street in San Francisco by Erik Anderson

By Chris Barnett

THE FOUR CORNERS of the dingy intersection of Divisadero and Bush won’t win any architectural awards today, but the location is increasingly prized by investors, and all four corners are in transition.

Bulldozers are rumbling over the dirt on the southwest corner, home for decades to the San Francisco Community Convalescent Home. More recently it has been a slot machine for speculators. Owner Jocelyn Carter cashed out seven years ago for $4.6 million from a San Francisco builder and his Manhattan money partner. Then, in foreclosure, they lost the location to a Mill Valley condo developer and investor who paid $14.6 million in 2012 — and quickly flipped it to Los Angeles-based megabuilder KB Home for a jackpot $38 million.

Now a six-story residential and retail complex with 81 condos is under construction, with a grand opening slated for early next year. Price tags on some units are sure to top a million apiece.


When the Victorians moved

The house formerly at 773 Turk being eased into its new location at 1737 Webster.

The house formerly at 773 Turk being eased into its new location at 1737 Webster.

“THESE DAYS you don’t have to move away from your neighborhood; it moves away from you.” So said a longtime local resident to the Chronicle in the early 1970s, when some of the splendid survivors in the path of the Redevelopment Agency’s wrecking ball were loaded up by house movers and rolled to new locations.

Many came from the block now occupied by Opera Plaza, including the home originally located at 773 Turk Street, which was moved to 1737 Webster Street. Even though several inches had been cut from its side bay window before the move, the house didn’t fit into its new lot. So workers shaved off several more inches and shoe-horned the house into place using a two-by-four to squeeze it past the house next door. Utility crews stood by to raise power lines, cut bus wires and turn aside streetlights reaching out into the path.

One person on the scene remembered watching the move in the middle of the night while sipping brandy to keep warm. “It was a kick, watching houses rolling down the streets,” he said.

A classic Victorian being moved from Turk Street to 1737 Webster, where it stands today.

A classic Victorian being moved from Turk Street to 1737 Webster, where it stands today.

MORE PHOTOGRAPHS of the moving Victorians from SF Heritage

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.

Fillmore loses its mayor

Ruth Garland Dewson (1939-2013)

Ruth Garland Dewson (1939-2013)

SHE CAME TO California from Paris, Texas, and worked for the telephone company in Los Angeles for many years. But it was only when Ruth Garland Dewson moved north to San Francisco and opened a hat shop on Fillmore Street that she found her true home.

She ran Mrs. Dewson’s Hats at 2050 Fillmore for four decades, closing only reluctantly last year at the end of April. She had already moved herself into AgeSong, a home for seniors in Hayes Valley. Vigorous and opinionated until the end, she died early on Monday morning, October 28, soon after being taken to Kaiser Permanente Hospital, just a few blocks from Fillmore. She was 74.

Ruth Dewson gave full meaning to the phrase larger than life. A full-throated statuesque black woman — and proud of it — she was not shy about claiming her place in the forefront of San Francisco’s parade of colorful personalities. Former Mayor Willie Brown was a walking billboard for her hat shop. And her final Christmas card included her picture with a beaming President Obama.

“I’m not known for not knowing the right people,” she said in an interview a few months ago, recalling how she started the Fillmore Jazz Festival and then got her friends in City Hall to put a parking lot on California Street. She called herself the Mayor of Fillmore Street, and so did many others.

“Fillmore Street for me has been a wonderful, wonderful thing,” she said. “I just can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed Fillmore.”


April 2012: “End of an era: Mrs. Dewson’s Hats closes

September 2010: “The hat lady

April 2008: “A force of nature

Finding fate – and faith – near Fillmore

Photograph of Maya Angelou by Dwight Carter

Photograph of Maya Angelou by Dwight Carter

AUTHOR, SINGER, poet, orator, actress and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has had many jobs in her storied life — including, when she was growing up in the Fillmore, a stint as a calypso dancer at the Purple Onion in North Beach.

Recently Angelou recalled her first job: as a San Francisco streetcar conductor.

“I liked the uniforms,” she says. So the 6-foot-tall 16-year-old applied for a job. “I had seen women on the street cars,” she says. “I just had not noticed they were all white. It hadn’t occurred to me.”

When they wouldn’t even give her an application, “I was crestfallen,” she says. Then her mother put steel in her spine. “Go get the job,” her mother told her. “You want it, then go get it.” She went back to the office, taking along “a big Russian novel” to read while she waited.

“By the third day, I wanted to return home,” she says. “But I didn’t want my mother to know I wasn’t as strong as she thought I was. So I sat there for two weeks. And finally a man came out and asked me in.”

Her tenacity won him over — along with her claim of experience working as a “chauffeurette for Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas” — her grandmother.

“He accepted me and I got the job,” she says. “That was really my mother’s doing. She was so strict — and so sure about me.”


Fillmore’s oldest coffeehouse closes

Photograph of Royal Ground at Fillmore and California by Daniel Bahmani

Photograph of Royal Ground at Fillmore and California by Daniel Bahmani

THE USUAL CROWD wasn’t sitting in the sunshine this afternoon in front of Royal Ground, the neighborhood’s oldest coffeehouse. “The coffee shop for locals,” as it was known, ended its 25-year run Sunday as the final notes of the annual Fillmore Jazz Festival were drifting away in the late afternoon light.

Ibrahim Alhjat, Royal Ground’s genial owner for the last 10 years, said his 98-year-old landlord, David Kaplan, raised his rent from $16,500 to $25,000 per month.

“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. So after a closing wake with friends and family on Sunday night, on Monday morning he set about ripping out the fixtures and furnishings of the coffee shop and the Wash ‘n’ Royal laundromat next door.

A year ago, when Royal Ground was renovated ever so slightly and beer and wine were added to its offerings, a writer noted: “With a little luck, Royal Ground will remain an island of funk and friendliness in the neighborhood’s sea of stylish storefronts.”

The luck and the funkiness — and one of the final outposts of the old Fillmore flavor — ended on July 7, 2013.

EARLIER: “A coffee shop for locals

Before Royal Ground, the Bi-Rite

Photograph of Bi-Rite Liquor in 1994 by Joan Juster

Photograph of Bi-Rite Liquor at Fillmore and California in 1994 by Joan Juster

FIRST PERSON | Mark J. Mitchell

I moved to San Francisco in September 1978, following the woman who would become my wife, Joan Juster. She had gone ahead and found a studio apartment at California and Fillmore. The rent was a whopping $210 per month and the Murphy bed sagged as deeply as the Mariana Trench.

I spent two weeks looking for work and began to panic because the rent was due. I saw an ad for a Waldenbooks that was opening on Market Street, circled it, put the Chronicle in my pocket and started downtown.

On the way I stopped at the liquor store on the southeast corner of California and Fillmore, which was similar to one I had worked at earlier in Santa Cruz. I filled out an application and was quickly interviewed by the manager, Danny Kunihara. I never made it downtown to the bookstore; within the hour I was working for Max Cologna and Dan Grove. My pay was the minimum wage: $2.65 an hour. I stayed for 18 years.


‘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.