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Joan Brown and the Fillmore scene

Joan Brown | The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim (1975)

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

JOAN BROWN,” a new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, celebrates the colorful life and work of a deeply imaginative painter and independent spirit who got her start on Fillmore Street and went on to international acclaim. The expansive presentation of Brown’s work features 80 paintings and sculptures spanning the career of one of San Francisco’s most important artists.

Joan Brown’s involvement with the art scene along Fillmore Street began with exhibitions, while she was still an art student, first at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, then at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street near Fillmore.

In 1958, Brown and her husband Bill Brown moved into the apartment building at 2322 Fillmore, where their next-door neighbors were the painters Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo. Famous as some of them are today, San Francisco artists of the 1950s had little hope of being exhibited by major galleries or museums. Bruce Conner once said that the art of that time was not made to last because nobody needed it to last. Brown herself has said, “It was important for that day, for that week, or for that moment.”

The seeming lack of any path to success encouraged a deliberate hostility to the art market and its institutions. Life at 2322 Fillmore was characterized by heavy drinking, resourceful parties and the view that making artwork was something like a meditative exercise, to be enjoyed in the present with little thought for the future.

Joan Brown had come a long way from her Catholic high school days. After a time, however, the hard partying became oppressive; quiet and privacy began to look good. In 1959, she separated from Bill Brown and moved to North Beach to live with the artist Manuel Neri, who became her second husband.

EARLIER: “Journal of a woman’s life — in paint

Photograph of Joan Brown by Jerry Burchard

Unthinkable: No Dino at Fillmore and California

Dino Stavrakikis and his son Santino: “It’s time to go.”

By CHRIS BARNETT

After a 34-year run of flipping pizzas, uncorking wine and telling stories on the northwest corner of Fillmore and California, Dino Stavrakikis is selling the longtime pizza palace known for decades as Dino’s — now renamed after his son as Santino’s Wine Bar — to the owner of Ace Wasabi Sushi in the Marina.

The ownership changes hands today [Sept. 20]. New owner Ken Lowe has announced no decision on changing the popular storefront and is likely for now to keep the wine and pizza format and the longtime employees.

“When it’s time to go, it’s time,” says the affable Dino — it seems impossible to call him anything else — on why he is pulling the ripcord. “When I bought the place, Reagan was president. We’ve been though a couple of wars, viruses, a pandemic and many mayors. Fillmore — the street and the neighborhood — has changed, and not for the better.”

Dino’s corner housed a drug store before it became a pizzeria in the 1970s, initially owned by his Uncle Vito. Dino apprenticed in another pie shop at Polk and Broadway straight out of high school. “I knew I was an entrepreneur and I wanted to own my own place,” he recalls.

At 21, he moved a few doors away to Lord Jim’s — “the greatest fern bar ever” — and worked his way up to lead bartender. Dino was behind the plank the infamous night a squad of San Francisco cops raided the saloon on a tip it was dealing cocaine out of the back. It was a bad bust. The bar was packed with lawyers that night who were enjoying their after-work cocktails. They howled. Owner Spiro Tampourantzis, like Dino a Greek, sued the city with the help of Fillmore Street criminal  defense attorney Eric Safire and prevailed.

In 1988, Uncle Vito — actually a distant cousin of Dino’s — ran out of dough, and Dino bought the pizzeria out of bankruptcy for $90,000. “I moved into an apartment upstairs,” he says, “changed the name to Dino’s and worked 15 hours a day to get the place back on its feet. Fortunately, I had the gift of gab. All the best Italian pizza parlors are owned by Greeks.” Actually, Stavrakikis is half Greek, half Italian.

From the start, Dino says he loved his landlord and still does, a sentiment rarely heard from retail tenants. “We’ve had the same one from the beginning— Russ Flynn from Meridian Co.,” he says. “They’ve really been super and kind, working with me all the way through Covid.”

Dino’s fledgling pizza shop was thrust into the spotlight in June 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev, then the charismatic president of the Soviet Union, made a 22-hour swing through San Francisco. Their motorcade was headed back to the Soviet consul’s residence at 2820 Broadway when a couple of dozen wellwishers on the corner of Fillmore and California caught the Soviet president’s eye. The procession stopped and Gorbachev leaped out of his Russian-made Zil limo and started shaking hands.

A stunned Dino said at the time that Gorbachev “was the most famous man I have ever met,” and he had met 49er great Ronnie Lott and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Since then, he met the late Secretary of State Madeline Albright, quarterback Joe Montana, actress Sharon Stone and others who dined on pizza and other dishes in his shop, many created by Dino’s late mom, Koula.

A lifelong bachelor who loves kids, Dino didn’t let his singlehood stop him from becoming a father. In 2011, he arranged with a surrogate what he considers his greatest triumph: a son he named Santino. Practically from birth, Santino became a household name in the Fillmore. The proud papa renamed his shop Dino and Santino’s. “He’s the love of my life,” beams dad.

After three remodels and a transformation into Santino’s Wine Bar, Dino decided he was ready to throttle back. He moved to Walnut Creek to be near his parents and to get Santino in a better school. He gave more operating responsibilities to his longtime lieutenants, Jesus and brother Emilio Ceidillos — both with Dino for 33 years — and Tony Santos, with him for 25 years. Dino continued his annual summer treks to Greece to visit his family, including former boss Spiro Tampourantzis, and soak up the sunshine and culture. 

But he found himself wanting to spend more time with his son. So recently, he and Lowe, who Dino’s known for 30 years, huddled over glasses of wine and penciled out a deal. “I couldn’t have picked a better guy,” Dino says. “He’s bringing in an Italian chef, has his own ideas about making some changes.” Dino is tightlipped on this point, and Lowe has made no public announcements.

What’s next for Dino? “I have a gym at my house and I want to get in good shape,” he says. “I love to work. Unfortunately, I don’t have any hobbies. I just love the action. We’ll see what presents itself. But I’m going to miss my loyal customers.”

EARLIER: “Dino’s boy
When Gorbachev stopped by Dino’s

Stirring at the Grove

The Grove on Fillmore has been closed for more than two years.

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Slammed shut and lifeless for well over two years, the large space housing the once popular Grove cafe and hangout at 2016 Fillmore is stirring again, but the new venture’s backers stubbornly refuse to disclose anything about it. “I can’t say, I can’t say, I can’t say,” insisted a bearded guy in a hoodie, who appeared to be a general contractor and claimed he is not the owner. Nor would he name the person in charge. Boom, the door slammed shut again. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The team behind the Snug will open Little Shucker next year at 2016 Fillmore, the former Grove space, three blocks away from the Snug, the Chronicle reports. Adrian Garcia, who previously cooked at San Francisco Michelin-starred restaurants Benu and Quince, is in charge of the menu.

A couple of blocks north on the corner of Fillmore and Clay, Sam Fechheimer, a seasoned chef, is the new owner of Palmer’s, replacing Albert Ranier, who launched it in 2014. Sam was his opening chef, so he knows the bones of the building and its culinary history. He’s added a new brunch menu and is streamlining the daily menu with new dishes, including a serious Caesar salad, which replaces the faux Caesar made with kale. “We’re also reinvigorating our cocktail scene,” he says.

Meantime, the heart of the Post Pandemic Fillmore is coming back to life, with more action and somewhat fewer “for lease” signs on empty storefronts.

The new Lululemon store at 2040 Fillmore Street replaces Ralph Lauren.

The biggest retail addition to the boulevard is the uber-hot Lululemon store at 2040 Fillmore, which took over the space vacated by Ralph Lauren. Lululemon, with its catchy name and logo, has created an eye-catching “pilot” store on Fillmore that houses a massive collection of women and men’s workout and sportswear. Vancouver-based with stores worldwide, Fillmore is SF’s fourth Lululemon. What makes it different? “We weave silver into all our fabrics and since bacteria doesn’t cling to silver, our clothes never smell,” says a candid Rebecca Jackson, assistant manager. Lululemon will also buy back its old clothes for store credit and recycle them.

Across the street, at 2033 Fillmore, a new lingerie store called Third Love has moved in. Caroline, a sales rep, claims it’s the first such shop to create half sizes in bras such as an A½, B½, C½ all the way up to H½ cup sizes. “We’re new to the industry and we design for all body types,” she says.

Naadam, at 2029 Fillmore — named after a Mongolian holiday — sells lounge and casual wear for women mostly made out of 100 percent cashmere sourced from sheep herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. “We have no middlemen,” says Meghan, a store sales rep. Popular are the cashmere hoodies and sweaters. Prices range from $100 to $300.

The August Gallery has moved into 2053 Fillmore where a clothing and CBD company had a long off-and-on run. It’s not an art gallery per se, but has a collection of items aimed at “making the home more beautiful,” says Cameron, the gallery coordinator for owners Lotta Coffey, an interior designer, and her husband Geoffrey, a landscape designer who also has an office in the space. Items? Plants, ceramics, accessories and furniture by local artists.

Coming this fall to 2028 Fillmore: Sézane is bringing Paris to SF.

FOOD NOTES FROM OLD FAVORITES: John Castanon, the suave longtime manager of Florio, retired and went home to Texas in February. But he’s already been recalled for a six-week summer stint. • The former Elite Cafe, now The Tailor’s Son, has fresh additions to its cocktail list plus a 5 to 6:30 p.m. weekday happy hour — but only for patrons sitting at the bar. • A couple of doors away at 2043 Fillmore, at low-priced Apizza, store manager Pierre Luaga from Paris has added new pizzas, including pork carnitas and cacio e pepe — plus $7 wines and beer at $5 per can. • On the corner of California and Fillmore, the always affable TacoBar manager Antonio Solano has improved its online ordering and added new menu items and a parking zone for pickup and go. • On the corner of Fillmore and Pine, Noosh owner John Litz has added two popular cocktails to his repertoire of California-inspired Mediterranean cuisine. His personable general manager and operations director, Diana Ornelas, is also a talented mixologist. She created the Rosé and Rose Sangria.

Just in time for the dog days of summer: a giant gelato over the sidewalk at the Philmore Creamery at 1840 Fillmore.

Artistic circles in the Fillmore

Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” being removed from the Painterland apartments in 1965.

By GARY KAMIYA
San Francisco Chronicle

The most famous event in the history of avant-garde literary San Francisco was Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore Street on Oct. 7, 1955. That frenzied reading, the subsequent publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books of “Howl and Other Poems,” and the arrests and obscenity trial that followed launched Ginsberg’s career, put City Lights on the map and made the Beat movement nationally famous.

The site of the Six Gallery is one of San Francisco’s literary shrines. But few people realize that an unremarkable-appearing apartment building just eight blocks up the hill at 2322 Fillmore Street was the quasi-communal home of many of the city’s cutting-edge artists and writers from around 1950 to 1965. 

The Painterland era came to an end on Nov. 9, 1965, when Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” was removed by forklift from the building and shipped to the Pasadena Art Museum. One cutting-edge artistic circle faded away, but another one sprang up at almost exactly the same time and place. A few young people were living in an apartment on 2111 Pine Street, just a few blocks away from Painterland. They called themselves the Family Dog.

Read more: “Painterland: the forgotten apartments of San Francisco’s avant-garde

Surrealism in the neighborhood

Part-time neighborhood resident Pepo Pichler and one of his plastic sculptures.

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

In this year’s Venice Biennale, the world’s preeminent art fair, a kind of 21st century surrealism is said to be the dominant artistic tendency. One of the most admired exhibitions of our time is “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” now packing them in at Tate Modern in London after months as a smash hit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The point of the show is that surrealism happened in places very far from its first home in Paris and much more recently than the years between the wars.

Although I hesitate to say that everything new begins in San Francisco and then spreads to the larger world, here I consider myself to be on firmer ground. Fifty years ago, not far from Fillmore Street, there was a gallery that anticipated much of what now seems to be the present moment in Venice and elsewhere.

The Upper Market Street Gallery, which began its existence at 2229 Market Street, would later find a new home and a new name on Bush Street near Divisadero. It was founded in 1971 by an interior designer recently arrived from New York, Ron Jehu, together with some artist friends. Although much of the art and many of the artists can be thought of as decidedly marginal in one way or another, Jehu himself had a blue-chip practice. 

Among the jobs he did were decorating the presidential suite of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and sourcing furniture for the White House. The Upper Market Street Gallery, on the other hand, was a scene of the greatest informality. Jehu’s Weimaraner, Casey, tended to leap at me in the most frenzied way, and the artists and assorted visitors to the gallery were themselves a fairly spontaneous lot. The gallery showed far more women artists than was usual at the time and was an epicenter of gender strangeness. It was the kind of place where members of the Cockettes, an acid-drag musical group by now legendary but then an everyday presence in San Francisco, would fit right in. The latter-day surrealism aspect was also there. 

In the case of Steven Arnold, one of Jehu’s artists, the connection was more direct. By sheer chance Arnold, a morally serious man who was at the same time a gifted if ambivalent self-promoter, came to the attention of Salvador Dali, one of the European surrealists of the 1930s and himself no shrinking violet when it came to getting publicity. After they met at a film showing at the Whitney Museum in New York, Dali took Arnold up as a protege and in 1974 invited him to Spain to help design the private museum that was to become Dali’s monument in his native Catalonia.

After its beginnings on Market Street, the gallery moved South of Market and then, renamed the Ron Jehu Gallery, later the Jehu-Wong Gallery, settled into Jehu’s longtime office space at 2719 Bush Street, between Divisadero and Baker. Jehu closed the gallery in the 1980s and died in 2007. His former business partner Wylie Wong, still alive and healthy, has become a private dealer in Asian art.

Today my connection with Ron Jehu’s galleries is for the most part a matter of pleasant memories. But one of his artists, Pepo Pichler, an Austrian who moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, continues to be a part-time resident of the neighborhood. He became and remains a friend whose art I still enjoy.

A recent series of sculptures, made of recycled plastic, addresses one of the most vexing problems of our time: Plastic will last pretty much forever. Pichler’s plastic sculpture is a solution that doesn’t promise to save the oceans, but it does make an ironic point: Plastic would be merely one more difficulty of our troubled times if we thought of it as waste. If we think of it as art, its durability is a plus rather than a minus.

Since 1992 Pichler has divided his time between San Francisco and the part of Austria where he grew up. For much of the year he and his wife, Anita Mardikian, live in Schloss Schmelzhofen, a renovated castle of 70-odd rooms, with outbuildings that include Pichler’s studio.

During the colder months they live in an apartment on Divisadero, picking up the threads of what used to be a year-round life. The neighborhood has changed since the early 1970s, but residents like Pepo Pichler can remind us of a time when it attracted some of America’s most innovative artists and galleries.

Photographer of the Fillmore

IT TOOK A FEW YEARS for David Johnson’s photographs of Fillmore Street during its jazz heyday as the Harlem of the West to be appreciated. Quite a few.

But it happened half a century later with the premiere of the highly acclaimed public television documentary in 1999, called simply “The Fillmore,” and the book that followed. And it’s continuing still, with an exhibition of 65 photographs from Johnson’s vast archive — now in the collection of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley — at San Francisco’s majestic City Hall.

A reception on May 25 from 5 to 7 p.m. launches “David Johnson: In the Zone (1945-1965).” The photographer, now 95, will be on the scene, as he has been for most of the last century. The exhibition continues through January 6, 2023.

EARLIER: “David Johnson in the New Fillmore

Finally there’s a book of her stories

Fran Moreland Johns and her new book of stories at Books Inc. in Laurel Village.

FIRST PERSON | FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

It started as a casual conversation in our old Sacramento Street kitchen.

“I can’t write stories!” I remember saying. “Real writers write stories!” This was about 30 years ago, early in my marriage to the Great Encourager. “Sure you can,” he said. “You’ve got stories that deserve to be written.”

I had written news articles, features and columns for magazines and newspapers, including the New Fillmore, plus political speeches, annual reports and a few easily forgettable books written on commission long ago because I needed the money — almost anything nonfiction you can name, but never stories.

With a lot of encouragement, I set about writing the first purely made-up story of my grown-up life. It was about a local character in a small town in Virginia in the early 1940s. “Eddie Rakeleaves” did pretty well for itself, winning an award from a respected literary journal. And it provided more encouragement to tackle a longtime dream — whereupon I entered the University of San Francisco, a short uphill walk but a few long decades since my B.A. in art from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. The MFA Class of 2000 comprised a wide variety of people with day jobs, from young men and women just out of college to a few Vietnam vets and one senior. My fellow students never tired of kidding me about the absence of profanity in my stories — a problem the Vietnam vets did not have. But being the grandmother of the class was as delightful as the assignments were challenging.

My husband Bud, the Great Encourager, took over all the cooking, looked after home and hearth, paid the bills, fielded calls and invitations while juggling his own commitments, and took other women to concerts and gallery openings. More than a few people would look sideways at me when I reappeared after graduation with Bud at Peet’s or a gallery show, having figured I was somewhere in his past. But two years later I picked up an MFA in short fiction. I was writing stories! Soon those stories went into a dusty file drawer to languish while life intervened. I went back to nonfiction — and on to books, activism, nonprofits, talks, marches and letters to editors. Early on I occasionally pulled out a story to fire off somewhere, so a few were published in print or online magazines. But the drawer got dustier and dustier.

Then new encouragers appeared. An irreplaceable friend found an editor who knew how to drag my stories out of their dusty drawer and into the 21st century. Eventually I called her – and immediately hired her. Within a year, and with a lot of help and encouragement from people smarter than I, Marshallville Stories was born. 

The time, place and goings-on are not unlike many other towns in those years. You’re invited to pick up a copy at Books Inc. at Laurel Village or Browser Books on Fillmore and take a trip back to a yesteryear seen through fond remembrance.

EXCERPT FROM THE INTRODUCTION

Marshallville, Virginia, does not physically exist. But in the United States of the 1930s and 1940s, towns just like it were home to more of the nation’s citizens than were all of the bustling cities and self-important state capitols combined.

In the Marshallvilles of those days, everybody knew everybody else, including the inhabitants of outlying farms and crossroads villages, to varying degrees of intimacy and embarrassment. Main Street was generally known also as Railroad Avenue, since the railroad traditionally ran through the middle of town.  A college, mill or outlying industry often further anchored the socio-economic scene; drugstores, groceries, barber shops and the like bore a family name, and were passed along from one generation to the next.

Marshallville functioned partly as town but mostly as extended family, and life within the family moved with languorous ease. The time and place embodied a combination of uniquely American experiences: the patriotic commitment of the war years, the ebullient spirit of the immediate post-war years, the basic goodness that was seen in and expected of even the sorriest of souls, and the early stirrings of change that would simmer for another decade before erupting into the 1960s.

These stories are a fond look back. I believe that though long in the past, they still have messages for the future.

— Fran Moreland Johns

A poet’s stories

BOOKS | MARK J. MITCHELL

“I never intended to write a book,” Ronald Hobbs said as we basked in the warm February sun in Santino’s Vino’s parklet at Fillmore and California. “Who does that these days?”

“Well, you did,” I nudged, tapping my copy of his new book, Nearing a Place Called Home. “A pretty good one, too. How did this accident happen?”

“My editor and I — Isaiah Dufour, a very talented young man, from the Mission, a playwright.”

Conversations tend to snake around with Ron.

“We were sitting on my back porch, enjoying something red from Napa, and he knew about the little stories I’d been writing. He sort of talked me into it.”

Ronald Hobbs has been living in the Fillmore since before it was new. He arrived here in September 1970 and stayed, with many an absence, abscondage and return.

He spent some early days working in the back rooms of the legendary Minnie’s Can-Do Club, and also read poetry from time to time in the front. He worked at nearby Connie’s West Indian restaurant, too, and remembers Rev. Jim Jones handing Connie a big check after taking over her place one night. For a long time, he was a partner in Spectrum Imports, a shop near Fillmore and Pine that specialized in exotic birds. He’s always been thought of as the poet of our part of Fillmore, and he brings his poet’s eye and ear to this book of prose.

Photograph of Ronald Hobbs by Lucy Gray

“The stories seem autobiographical,” I suggested, as he sipped at his beer.

“Well, they are,” he replied, “but they’re stories. You know.”

Nearing a Place Called Home is a collection of stories, most very short (the longest one is 11 pages). They take you from the Louisiana bayou to Mexico, Japan and San Francisco. They feel autobiographical because Ron writes so well, and every event feels truly witnessed.

We talked about some of the stories in the book, as he asked which ones I liked. I mentioned “When Russell Tracy Sang Butler Yeats” because I knew he was drawn to the musical settings of that poem. The story tells me why. His eyes lit up as he remembered the astonishing voice he’d heard as a young boy when another boy sang Yeats’s words. “It was like being in church, but better,” Ron said. “And it was Ireland, and I’d never heard Ireland before.”

Most of the brief pieces offer a quick epiphany, but they paint distinct pictures. The endings always seem to leave just a little more mystery for a reader to savor or solve. The era in which many of the stories take place is long enough ago that it feels like another country, but still recognizable.

I started to suggest he had a nostalgia for lost times, then caught myself. It’s not nostalgia, but affection, and the affection is for the people, the characters.

He agreed with that description. In the pages of the book, you meet many memorable people, most living at the edges of society and the borderlines of the law. He claims the names have been changed and the incidents rearranged into fiction, but acknowledges that some version of these people did exist.

These stories feel autobiographical because Ronald Hobbs writes so well, and every event feels truly witnessed. He brings his poet’s eye and ear to this book of prose.

Ron’s personal favorite is the one called “Suzonka.” “She was a real person,” he told me, “the wife a friend. She was a beautiful woman, almost to the point of gaudiness.” He paused, remembering. “But there’s always a Suzonka somewhere. Right now, there’s probably a young man sitting in a club in North Beach watching her dance.”

We talked about the neighborhood, which we’ve both called home for decades, dropping some names of those no longer with us. I was happy to see that he’d included a local bass player in a scene in one of the stories, just in passing. Only longtime Fillmore residents would catch it. “Well, you write about what you’ve seen, don’t you?” Ron proposed.

His first love is poetry, and it’s also mine. We both share a vocation for the play of words. His must-have, desert-island anthology is Modern Poetry, edited by Oscar Williams — the 1947 edition. I have the later expanded version. The great sadness in his life is that he feels he’s failed at what he loves. 

“Every day I get up and I try to write poetry, but what comes out is crap,” he says. That’s his opinion. All writers dance their own dance with the muse, but I’ve always liked Ron’s poems. If you can find a copy of Songs for Fillmore Street or Beadstringer, you should snap it up and pass it around. 

Cheers were coming from the Super Bowl crowds inside Santino’s and the other bars along Fillmore Street. I slid my copy of Nearing a Place Called Home across the table for his autograph. The sun was going down at the end of California Street. I helped Ron up and walked him slowly across the street to the place he now calls home.

Mark J. Mitchell is a local poet and novelist. His newest book, Something to Be, is due out shortly from Pski’s Porch Publishing.

MORE: Five Fillmore stories by Ronald Hobbs

Mr. Fillmore moves on

Photograph of Vas Kiniris by Chloe Jackman

By CHRIS BARNETT

After nearly three decades of involvement with the Fillmore Merchants Association — as board member, vice president, president and the last five years as executive director — Vasilios Kiniris, the personable man-in-perpetual-motion known to some as Mr. Fillmore and to all as Vas, is exiting stage left.

For most of that time, he’s been working — sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scenes — to wrangle the neighborhood’s diverse coalitions into a cohesive and positive force. A lifelong merchant himself, save for a brief detour into architecture, Kiniris, 55, isn’t giving up on small businesses. He’s just crossing the street, so to speak, to a new entrepreneurial venture he calls NextSF, an agency that will offer his marketing savvy to other merchant associations and individual businesses and organizations seeking to build their brands and business.

Timothy Omi of Liberty Cannabis is the new president of the Fillmore Merchants Association. Patti Mangan is the new executive director. Continuing board members are Beverly Weinkauf of Toujours, Victorian Dunham of HiHo Silver and Chandler Tang of Post.Script. 

A candid long-hauler who believes in relationships, the Greek-born Kiniris sees life as a series of “half-empty opportunities,” but he’s no Pollyanna. He doesn’t shrink from the hard facts plaguing San Francisco and the Fillmore in particular. 

“Crimes are happening, no doubt about it,” he said during an exit interview this week. “Fillmore needs to be a safe place for its merchants, their employees and their customers.” The street, battered by the pandemic, has an unprecedented number of empty storefronts. But Kiniris remains upbeat. “Many are currently in contract with new leases,” he says. “They are filling up again.”

Kiniris has been swimming upstream all his life, and not without failures. “I’ve made my share,” he admits. One of his more visible ill-fated ventures was moving his Zinc Details home design emporium south to a huge vacant space on Fillmore near the Geary bridge, where an old dollar store once stood. It didn’t pan out. Zinc Details had been on Fillmore for 27 years when it closed in 2018.

Kiniris was 7 when he and his family arrived in San Francisco from Macedonia in northern Greece. At first they lived in public housing in the Mission “to get our bearings.” His dad Nick was a dishwasher at Nob Hill hotels, including the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins. “My mother was a garment worker,” he says. “Dad quickly realized he had to go into business for himself.”

The family opened one, then another, small corner grocery store. Young Vas went to work there as kid and grew up stocking shelves and checking out customers while his dad made sandwiches. “We worked every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day for 15 years,” he says. “For me, it was my baptism in retail. Some people call it a sacrifice, but not me. The stores, the business, the customers were my social glue, my family. I didn’t get a chance to party much, and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. But it was a learning experience.”

So were four years at UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in architecture. “But the practice was not to my liking,” he acknowledges. “And frankly, my mechanical skills were not all that good.”

He had a side job waiting tables in the ’80s at Stars, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower’s once-glittering restaurant near City Hall. Remembers Kiniris: “I waited on people like Walter Cronkite and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and all the socialites and movers and shakers.”

He says he was first exposed to the finer things in life as an exchange student living with a prosperous German family. “Here I was, a blue-collar immigrant surviving day to day by extreme frugality and I was introduced to the extras, the intangibles of life, this joie de vive. Even now I still consider them my second family,” he says. “We all have many parents in our lives.”

In 1990, accustomed to living with no safety net, Kiniris and his wife, Wendy Nishimura Kiniris, plunged into retailing on their own with a small store at Post and Hyde in the Tenderloin, with drug dealers and prostitutes just outside their door. The rent: $500 a month. Their wares: contemporary furniture. The name: Zinc Details.

“We were credited with introducing modernism to San Francisco,” he says. “In those days, you were either old money or you had no money. We appealed to both. Our look was so fresh to the market, which had been dominated by Macy’s.”

From there they were thrust into the public arena. “We were both designers and highly edited curators,” he says. The couple was invited to set up a “store within a store” in Macy’s, created products for the Gap, and launched a wholesale business and private labeled to top retailers in Paris, London and Tokyo.

A recession brought them back to earth, which Kiniris now calls “a great opportunity, if you take advantage of it.” They moved upmarket, from the Tenderloin to Fillmore Street. “We looked at Union and Fillmore,” he says, “and Fillmore was coming up at the time.”

As the years passed, the Kinirises at one point had three Zinc Details stores in the neighborhood, with 20 employees, and he embedded himself as a passionate and engaged merchant. So when longtime Fillmore Merchants Association president Thomas Reynolds resigned in 2015, Kiniris stepped up to the plate. “Thomas left us a very good merchants association and his were very big shoes to fill,” he says.

Kiniris took some big steps in different directions. Using his social media skills, he expanded the association’s communications and membership. Pedaling on his electric bike, he integrated the small business owners on the street with representatives from the corporate and international brands that had been moving into the neighborhood. He reached out to merchants on lower Fillmore and in Japantown.

“My goal was to create a dialogue and potential collaboration among all groups,” he says, “and to help the big chain stores demonstrate good corporate behavior by engaging with the community in a meaningful way.”

Kiniris says he is proud the FMA has built relationships with many sectors of the community. “We have a strong relationship with District 2 supervisor Catherine Stefani and District 5 supervisor Dean Preston,” he says. Indeed, the supes handed him a certificate of honor when he announced he was stepping down from the FMA.

He has worked closely with the S.F. Police Department and the city’s top cops. Kiniris is a graduate of the SFPD’s community police academy, helped secure a two-officer foot patrol on Fillmore, and is co-chair of police chief Bill Scott’s small business advisory forum. Recently he helped organize a small business summit with all 10 captains of the the city’s police districts. “We had breakout sessions where each captain met with merchants in his district.” he says. “I realized the merchants don’t know what the police do, and vice versa.”

More ambitious and still a work-in-progress are partnerships between merchants with mega-companies including Google, Facebook, Uber and Spin, the city’s micro-mobility scooter renter. “We have to demonstrate how they can be true community partners,” Kiniris says. “They can’t sit in their ivory towers.” While many San Francisco streets remain dirty and littered, Kiniris has worked with cleanup groups like the city’s Department of Public Works, Together SF and Refuse Refuse.

During his years as Mr. Fillmore, Kiniris says he has sought to “reach across many aisles” to bring people together who can help Fillmore Street and other merchant corridors.

“The role of the merchants association is to provide three things to its members and the community: security, maintenance and marketing,” he says, repeating his frequent mantra.

Despite San Francisco’s well publicized woes, Kiniris is convinced the city — and especially the Fillmore — is on the verge of a rebirth, or “a regeneration,” as he calls it. 

And not for the first time.

“It’s part of our history,” Kiniris says. “The Fillmore Merchants Association is the city’s oldest, formed 115 years ago after the 1906 earthquake. This neighborhood was the birthplace of the rebuilt city, and the Harlem of the West, and the Summer of Love. It was a hotbed of business opportunities with its big Jewish, Japanese and African American communities over the decades,” he says. 

“It was diverse, an ethnic collaboration, and it is again time to work with many partners,” he says. “It’s the Phoenix rising.”

Neri first exhibited on Fillmore

Manuel Neri (left), with roommate and fellow artist Henry Villierme, during their student days.

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

Manuel Neri, one of America’s leading figurative sculptors, died a couple of months ago. It was no great surprise: He was 91 years old and had been in poor health for a long time. But I felt a particular twinge, because when I moved to San Francisco, in 1968, I found Neri to be an easy, welcoming presence.

Neri was exhibiting at Ruth Braunstein’s Quay Gallery, one of the most respected in the city. Three years earlier he had been appointed to the art faculty of UC Davis, where his colleagues were such Northern California superstars as William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson and Wayne Thiebaud. As a relatively major Bay Area artist, he had definitely arrived.

His earliest work had been in cheap and almost pointedly unpretentious materials: cardboard, newspaper, cloth and plaster. As his career and reputation grew, he moved on to bronze and marble, which are considered noble materials. Eventually he bought a studio in Carrara, around the corner from Michelangelo’s house, where he could work with marble from quarries that dated back to ancient Roman times.

Today his work is in the permanent collections of major museums in the United States and elsewhere in the western world. But his career had humble beginnings, and his earliest exhibitions were in the resolutely noncommercial galleries that made Fillmore Street a major center of artistic innovation during the 1950s and ’60s. When Bruce Conner founded his deliberately odd artists’ group, the Rat Bastards Protective Association, sometime in late 1957 or early 1958, Neri was one of its first members.

He lived on Fillmore Street for a short time. In 1959, when the painter Bill Brown separated from his wife, fellow painter Joan Brown, and moved out of their studio at 2322 Fillmore, the legendary Painterland, Neri moved in with her. But they soon relocated to North Beach, where they eventually married.

It was almost an accident that he became an artist at all. He was born in Sanger, an agricultural community, in 1930. He and his parents, immigrants from Mexico, found themselves employed as migrant farm workers after two of his father’s business ventures failed. In 1939, after his father’s death, his mother got a good job in Oakland and the family was back on its feet.

He decided to become an engineer and enrolled for preliminary courses at City College of San Francisco in 1950. Hoping for an easy A — or at least that’s the story he told — he took a course in ceramics and found himself fascinated by the possibilities of art. Although he went on to study engineering at Berkeley, his eyes had been opened to other possibilities. In 1952 he transferred to California College of Arts and Crafts. In 1957, after military service in Korea, he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

Neri’s first exhibition, while he was still a student, was a two-person show at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, in 1956. In 1959 he had a one-person exhibition at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street off Fillmore, followed by another in 1960 at the Dilexi Gallery, then located at 1858 Union Street, between Octavia and Laguna.

From the beginning of his career, Neri was in the right places and attracted the right kind of notice. Reviewing his very first sculpture show, Alfred Frankenstein, then the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke favorably of the work and also discussed the philosophy that seemed to inform the Six Gallery in general and this show in particular: “The group that runs this institution commits itself to exhibiting not only the successes and matured achievements but the half-steps, blunders and fumblings by the way.” Frankenstein had mixed feelings about that. “This emphasis on process, on the doing rather than the thing done, is displayed in an extreme form in the 6 Gallery’s current show. The whole thing is both fascinating and a little appalling.” 

More than 60 years later, I am happy to add that even when Neri was working in marble and his sculpture was both carefully composed and informed by long study of the European figurative tradition, he managed to retain something of the air of youthful spontaneity that characterized so much art made on Fillmore Street in the 1950s.

As I might have imagined from seeing his work, Neri in person had nothing of the presence of a major art world figure, although by the late 1960s he was well on his way to becoming one. I would look at him, he would look at me, and it felt like a naked soul looking at a naked soul.

EARLIER: “For a time, Fillmore was home to a circle of artists