The gathering place

Photographs, Text and Video by ERIKA KOCOURKOVA-TETUR

Half a century has passed since the neighborhood had at least one barbershop on each side of every block. Back when churches were the places people gathered on Sundays, barbershops served that function the rest of the week. People went there not just for a haircut, but also to talk to their neighbors and get the news.

Over the decades, barbershops disappeared, one by one. Among the survivors in the Fillmore were New Chicago Barber Shop and the Esquire Barber Shop. The New Chicago, at 1551 Fillmore, was one of the oldest businesses on the street, finally closing in 2012. The Esquire, at 1826 Geary, remains one of the last local businesses of its kind.

Tucked between the Boom Boom Room on one side and Mr. Bling Bling, a maker of teeth grills, on the other, this small traditional establishment continues to be the place, five days a week, for conversation, news, gossip and even the occasional trim.

“A barbershop is a social media hub,” says Jon Kevin Green, owner of the Esquire.

The Esquire's Gail Pace is a rarity: a female barber

The Esquire’s Gail Pace is a rarity: a female barber

Since 1968, the shop has served a range of people, from businessmen in suits to the dudes hanging out on the Geary bridge.

A second-generation barber, Green remembers the days when gentlemen came to the shop, smoked cigars and discussed philosophy, religion and the weather while getting a haircut.

Walking through the shop door now is like stepping back in time. With a stash of magazines and newspapers lying around, an antique chessboard and a Bible in the corner, the Esquire Barber Shop has maintained its traditional character. The steel and leather chairs still have ashtrays, even though smoking is no longer allowed.

The major change since the old days, says Green, is that now he employs a female barber, Gail Pace, who formerly worked at New Chicago. Green says there weren’t many female barbers when he was growing up.

While the neighborhood has undergone massive changes in recent years, Green remains optimistic about his business. “Things change, but people will always need a haircut,” he says. “We just have to roll along with the times.”

EARLIER: “New Chicago: more than a barbershop

Shell garage closing January 31

Owner Doug Fredell and his fellow mechanic Chelse Batti have built a loyal clientele.

Owner Doug Fredell and his fellow mechanic Chelse Batti have built a loyal clientele.

DESPITE AN OUTPOURING of support from its customers in the neighborhood, Shell Auto Repair at 2501 California will close January 31.

UPDATE: Just as they were preparing to pack up their tools and shut down, the mechanics at Shell Auto Repair got a three-month reprieve. The business will continue through April 30, giving its two mechanics extra time to find a new location.

“We’re going to see about lining up an alternative location for the shop,” said owner Doug Fredell. “If not, we’ll close. We at least have a fighting chance.”

The owners of the Shell station have submitted plans to the city that would eliminate the garage, add gas pumps and replace the current building with a two-story 24-hour Loop Marketplace convenience store and cafe. The proposal is expected to come before the Planning Commission early in the new year.

More than 200 people signed an online petition opposing the plans and dozens sent letters and emails to City Hall.

Mechanic Doug Fredell, who has leased the garage for the past decade, said he and fellow mechanic Chelse Batti have been overwhelmed by the support they received from the community.

“The neighborhood really stepped forward,” Fredell said. “It’s pretty incredible to know people care that much.”

Ultimately, that support appears to have backfired. When the owner of the station, Nick Goyal, learned that officials at City Hall were listening to neighborhood sentiment against his plans, he notified Fredell he had to be out by January 31.

“It’s a lot cleaner to have the space empty for whatever they want to do,” said Fredell, who had a month-to-month lease. He sought legal advice about his options and found he had none.

Fredell said he has hired a broker to look for another space, preferably nearby, but has found nothing so far.

“Anything that’s a car repair shop is being turned into something else,” he said. “Too bad there isn’t a nice little place on Sutter Street, where everybody else is going.”

Fredell said he remains hopeful a new location will surface — perhaps through a client — in the new year.

“We spent a lot of time building up a good business,” Fredell said. “We wanted to be that place in the neighborhood that is indispensible to people.”

He said telling customers the garage has a definite closing date has been tough.

“Customers get so outraged,” he said. “They found a good place they liked and could trust.”

The garage has operated continuously on that corner for decades. It was owned by Bud Martinez for nearly 60 years. After Fredell took over, Martinez continued to work part time until his death in 2012.

EARLIER: “This Bud’s for you

‘The city’s most charming theater’

Michael Blythe at his frequent post behind the Clay Theater concession stand.

Michael Blythe at his frequent post behind the Clay Theater concession stand.

Q & A | MICHAEL BLYTHE

Michael Blythe has worked at the venerable Clay Theater at 2261 Fillmore Street for nearly a decade. In that time he’s had the opportunity to lavish his love of old theaters on the Clay, which is now more than 100 years old.

On New Year’s Eve he helped launch a new venture as the Oasis nightclub on 11th Street began a new life. But he’s not entirely leaving the Clay behind.

What first attracted you to the Clay Theater?

I come from a lighting background. When I was a kid I was obsessed with lights, and still am. I was a nightclub lighting director in San Francisco before I moved to Minnesota, where I honed my craft running large moving rigs for a couple of clubs downtown, including shows I did at the legendary First Avenue nightclub.

When I returned to SF I got the job at the Clay that allowed me to have the freedom to work shows, but also get into one of my other longstanding obsessions: old theaters.

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Forget Lower Pacific Heights — now it’s LoPa

By BARBARA KATE REPA

When Vasilios Kiniris opened a huge new home for Zinc Details, his upscale design and furniture emporium, last month at 1633 Fillmore in the former dollar store, he called it an “expansion” and a “remaking.”

Others called it brave. Or foolhardy.

But Kiniris, with 24 years of design and retail experience — most of it in the neighborhood — sees the move as a way to change with the times: to meet the needs of a changing demographic, to take his business in new directions and to build a sense of community among other independent business owners who call the area home.

“We’re stretching the goodness of Fillmore down the street,” he says.

It’s a tough stretch. Imbibing dudes hang out on the Geary bridge, chic by jowl with the line forming nearby for the best new restaurant in America, as the James Beard Foundation last year dubbed State Bird Provisions.

What was once the Western Addition is now Lower Pacific Heights, according to the real estate listings. But Kiniris has another idea. “We’re calling it LoPa,” he says.

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Another meeting place disappears

TULLY’S COFFEE has closed, leaving the corner of Fillmore and Jackson without a coffeehouse for the first time in decades. Filmmaker Erika Tetur chronicles the final days.

Alamo Square and the families who lived there

BOOKS | JOE PECORA

Very soon after I moved to the historic and architecturally rich Alamo Square neighborhood in 1979, the untold stories of its vintage housing stock piqued my curiosity. When I could discover very little photographic or written material, I began my own research and eventually composed old house profiles for the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association newsletter from the 1990s on. By personally contacting descendents of the early owners and occupants of these antique residences and institutional buildings, I was able to secure a wonderful trove of previously unpublished photos and family stories.

The sequence of the profiles was dictated by whichever homeowner in the neighborhood would agree to host an association meeting in their home. In exchange the owners would receive a house history by me and a drawing by former architect Jack Walsh.

Now I have gathered these profiles, drawings and photographs into a new book called The Storied Houses of Alamo Square.

Many of the homes in the Alamo Square Historic District were designed by some of the city’s most prominent architects and contractor-builders for a clientele that included a number of the downtown’s prosperous businessmen. Several families residing here were listed in the pages of Our Society Bluebook. Except for the handful of large 20th century apartment buildings, our housing inventory shows a similarity of scale and building materials that evokes a pedestrian-friendly, residential atmosphere.

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Images that tell a story

David Johnson and his iconic 1946 photograph in the 1300 on Fillmore lounge.
Photograph by Rory Earnshaw

A CONVERSATION with photographer David Johnson and his old friend and new wife, author Jacqueline Sue, as a new exhibition of his photographs of the Fillmore during the “Harlem of the West” era opens.

Jackie: In November we will have known each other for 58 years. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated your 88th birthday and our fifth wedding anniversary. Do you remember how we met?

David: Well, my wife Lucy and I and our two children were attending the Westside Christian Church at Bush and Divisadero. The mostly white congregation was interested in bringing more African-Americans to their church. A black pharmacist named Wayman Fuller who was a member invited my family, and we met you there.

Jackie: New in town, age 21, no friends, I was there because it was my family denomination in Kentucky and that was the only Christian Church in San Francisco.

David: You and Lucy bonded quickly and became friends because you were both among the first African-American long distance operators in the 1950s.

Jackie: When your son Michael was born in 1957 and I became his godmother, you were already an established photographer, but I didn’t realize it.

David: Yes, by then, I had photographed many of the historical photographs that are now being exhibited. My studio was on Divisadero Street not far from our church.

DAVID JOHNSON RETROSPECTIVE
David Johnson’s photographs are on view at the Harvey Milk Photo Center at 50 Scott Street from September 6 to October 19.

You see, as a youth growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, I found that I was curious about the neighborhood and environment where I lived. We were poor and living on the edge. However, my foster mother provided a good place for me to grow up.

After my discharge from the Navy following World War II, I decided to come to San Francisco and study photography with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). While Ansel and other students photographed Yosemite and nature, it was a natural fit for me to photograph people and the Fillmore community I lived in.

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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.”

Making a joyful noise — and maybe a healthier life

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

By Judy Goddess

MANY AGREE THAT choir music can be a joyful noise. And choir members often find singing fulfilling and fun. But a new study recently launched locally aims to uncover whether singing in a choir can actually help older adults have longer and healthier lives.

As part of the study, the 15-member Community of Voices choir gave a lively gospel performance on March 20 at the Western Addition Senior Center at Fillmore and Turk led by Maestro Curtis and his wife, Nola Curtis. Maestro Curtis, a renowned San Francisco Bay Area music legend, producer and author, has a background in classical music as well as jazz, gospel, R&B, funk, folk and country. Haruwn Wesley on upright bass and Larry Douglas on trumpet accompanied the choir at the concert.

“I know singing in the choir makes people happier,” says the center’s director, Robin Bill. “People who were quiet when they first came to our center in September are now stepping up. You can see the improvement in the choir from when they first met to now.” The Western Addition choir previously performed at the City Hall celebration of Kwanzaa and at the Parc 55 hotel, and another performance is planned for the fall.

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‘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.

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