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Book on San Francisco’s Fillmore District crowdfunding publication

Fundraising campaign to reprint 2006 jazz and blues history Harlem Of The West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era

Lewis Watts and Elizabeth Pepin Silva are crowdfunding the reprint of their 2006 jazz and blues history book, Harlem Of The West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, in an extended form that will include a multimedia website and a travelling museum. An Indiegogo campaign finished over the weekend, and the authors are continuing to fundraise.

The photographer and academic Watts, who coauthored New Orleans Suite: Music And Culture In Transition with Eric Porter in 2013 (The Wire 351), collaborated with the film maker and writer Pepin Silva to tell the story of the Fillmore music scene in the 1940s and 50s. During this time, the Fillmore contained more than two dozen nightclubs and music venues, including well-known spots like Jimbo’s Bop City. Its significance for African-American musical and cultural history led to the Fillmore district being compared to New York’s Harlem in the postwar period. Yet when Pepin Silva began researching the neighbourhood after taking on the job of day manager and historian at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1986, she found it to be relatively under-documented.

After combing the local library, historical societies and universities for information, she says, “I changed my tactics and began just walking the streets, going into what few shops remained and talking to the workers. I quickly learned that the neighbourhood had once been a vibrant cultural and entertainment hub. The entire place had been wiped away by redevelopment.”

The rapid redevelopment of the Fillmore district in the 1950s saw many local businesses, music venues among them, being demolished. It was part of a wider campaign of postwar rebuilding in cities across the US, but, as Pepin Silva notes, “There were thousands of people living in the Fillmore, and a thriving business and entertainment area. And while the housing stock was old, and there were some other problems, people took pride in the neighbourhood and enjoyed living there.

“City planners had no plans for all the people who lived in the Fillmore. They were simply told to get out, and given no help in finding new places to live or move their businesses,” she says. Residents successfully sued the redevelopment agency, but many had already been forced to leave by the time the case was won.

Watts and Pepin Silva met in the mid-1990s when Watts exhibited a set of photos that had been collected by Red Powell, the owner of a shoeshine parlour in Fillmore Street. Powell’s collection had been saved by a neighbour, Reggie Pettus, who ran a barbershop across the street, after Powell suffered a stroke and his shop was closed. “Reggie rescued the archive from being thrown out by the landlord,” remembers Watts. “He was thrilled that I was so happy to find them. I began to restore the damaged photographs for the report and later to exhibit.

“I have always been interested in visual history and black culture and music in particular, and this has been a wonderful history to work on. Since the book came out, we’ve found many new archives and stories and we get continued requests to put the book back in print. We have continuously been told that the heyday of the Fillmore was one of the best times in many of the residents’ lives. When people were displaced, it shattered many families. And many of the people who died in Jonestown in Guyana were former residents and their offspring who were members of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple.”

The new edition of Harlem Of The West will feature more photographs and memorabilia that have been made available to the authors since the original publication, and the accompanying website will feature these along with audio interviews conducted with former residents of the area. Watts and Pepin Silva are also planning to take a travelling exhibit on the road, so that the stories and sounds of Fillmore can be seen and heard in places such as schools and community centres as well as museums. This serves to bring the story into the present day, where it resonates with current concerns about how gentrification, in the guise of regeneration, affects urban communities.

“I think it's more urgent than ever that people understand the history of the Fillmore neighbourhood, the tragedy of what has been lost forever so that it doesn't happen again,” says Pepin Silva. “ We as communities need to have serious discussions about how we want our cities and towns to look, and what is important to keep. Do we really want to live in cities that look all the same and that only the extremely wealthy can afford? I for one do not. What has always appealed to me about the Fillmore of the 1940s and 50s is its multiculturalism and integration of all classes. There were doctors and lawyers living next to janitors and shop clerks; African Americans and Japanese Americans and Jews and Euro-Americans all living side by side in one big mix. That, to me, is what makes a vibrant neighbourhood. And what is important not to lose.”

More about the project is on Indiegogo. A gallery of images from the book is online here. To donate, contact Elizabeth Pepin on otwfront@gmail.com.