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Honoring Japantown’s founders

The new Zen garden at Cottage Row and Sutter Street.

NEARLY FOUR YEARS after it was first proposed, a new garden honoring the founders of Japantown will be dedicated this weekend at the foot of Cottage Row, near Fillmore and Sutter.

It began as a celebration of the creation of Japantown in 1906 after the earthquake and fire. Cottage Row was occupied primarily by the first, or Issei, generation of Japanese-Americans in the early 20th century, making it an apt location. But some neighbors objected, and the garden became the topic of contentious community meetings.

The idea prevailed. On August 19, master Japanese gardener Shigeru Namba began arranging a truckload of stones according to traditional Zen principles intended to inspire peace and tranquility.

The garden will be dedicated on September 21 at 6:30 p.m., with neighbors invited to attach multicolored origami cranes — a symbol of peace — to bamboo sticks in the garden.

EARLIER: “Zen garden back on again

Green Apple buys Browser Books

Browser Books has been a fixture at 2195 Fillmore for decades.

THE DEAL IS DONE: Green Apple Books — the new and used bookseller on Clement Street, which added a second store five years ago on 9th Avenue — has bought Browser Books on Fillmore Street.

Green Apple will take over on October 1, but promises that the name and the staff will stay the same.

“We’re proud to help shepherd the beloved Browser Books into the future,” said Green Apple co-owner Pete Mulvihill. “Thanks to Browser’s 43-year successful run on Fillmore Street, a reasonable landlord and lease, an enthusiastic and well-read staff, a loyal customer base and a successful GoFundMe campaign [in 2018], the store is healthy.”

MORE ON BROWSER BOOKS

MY FILLMORE

Like any street in any great city, Fillmore is always changing, always dying, always being awakened

Photograph of Richard Rodriguez on Fillmore Street by Frank Wing

By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Growing old on Fillmore Street has taught me how much a city can change, how much I have changed — and how a city continues despite it all. 

Lately, if I have any sort of errand on Fillmore, I will most often take a digressive route. I leave my apartment on Clay Street, climb the Aztec steps into Alta Plaza, then circle around Pacific Heights. I climb back up the hill on Pierce. 

So much of my life has been consumed by exercise. When I could still jog, I used to run through Pacific Heights on my way to the Presidio. The great houses were blurred landmarks in those days. 

Now, exercise offers more of an opportunity to pause. I have favorite houses. Many mansions have had their facades lifted. After being swathed in netting or shrink-wrapped in white plastic for months, even years, exteriors are revealed to the street in pristine turn-of-the-century clarity. I have long admired the novels of American wealth — Wharton, James, Fitzgerald — and the interior secrets they revealed. Walking along Vallejo or up Steiner, however pleasant, is not like reading novels. There is no discernible narrative. 

I know the Getty house. I know the confectionary palace where Danielle Steel lives. I can tell when Nancy Pelosi is in town from the assembly of black security cars. I know the Whittier mansion, which was briefly the consulate of the Third Reich. I even know where a bitten Apple executive lives. I never see anyone in a window. 

I do see Mexican construction workers feverishly employed, or lounging in the manner of Manet, following their noonday meals. The sidewalks are empty except for the occasional Filipina housekeeper walking a joyless dog. 

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Fillmore’s own Sonny Lewis

NEW RELEASE | SCOTT YANOW

Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career.

He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman — but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on Fillmore Street Live is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.

Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. Catterton says:

“I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag. They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released.”

At that point, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Lewis could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, he spent time in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley’s In C.

After moving to San Francisco in the early ’60s, Lewis created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the ’70s he went on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group the Whispers for over a decade. Lewis played on many of the Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.

Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Micki Lynn’s set in the future.

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

Sonny Lewis’s quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for more than 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman’s albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (Manhattan Egos, 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown and organist Gerry Richardson. 

All three of these fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.

Jazz journalist and historian Scott Yanow is the author of 11 books, including Jazz on Record 1917-76. This article is adapted from his liner notes for Fillmore Street Live, which is available on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music outlets.

Palace Cafe: frozen in time

The Palace Cafe at 1843 Fillmore Street has been shuttered for decades.

By CHRIS BARNETT

Frozen in time, the Palace Cafe at 1843 Fillmore Street has been shuttered for decades. It’s said still to be set up just as it was the last time the door opened many years ago, but it seems a safe bet the tiny cafe will not re-open any time soon.

Now that the big ficus trees out front have been chopped down, the sign for the cafe is visible again, complete with its bright Dr Pepper logo. People are taking notice — and city officials are, too. A sign was posted on the front door of the cafe a few weeks ago by the Department of Building Inspection declaring it “unsafe and/or a public nuisance.” A new city ordinance penalizes property owners who leave storefronts empty — and this one has been empty for decades.

In the 1940s, it was the Fillmore Chop Suey Cafe, a hotspot with a towering neon blade. By the ’50s, Dr. Leonal V. Dickey had acquired the building, which housed three apartments plus his dental practice over the cafe. His family still owns it, and his son, also a dentist, still has a dental office there. Family members still live in the flats upstairs, but are private about past and present. 

When the Fillmore was ravaged by urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s, the neighborhood “was desolate with windblown empty tracts of land,” the younger Dr. Dickey told a visiting reporter last year. He said the Palace Cafe “became a meeting place for healthcare professionals and community stakeholders whose goal was the improvement of health, education and housing for the underserved population,” including displaced residents, small business owners and public school children in the Western Addition.

Today, neglected and tomb-silent, the cafe, with its old-style slatted glass windows, looks like days gone by. Dr. Dickey said the family had thought of remodeling and reopening the cafe, but the cost and effort of getting it up to code derailed the idea. Perhaps the new city ordinance tightening the screws on empty storefronts will change that. 

Francine Brevetti contributed to this report.

It was still the Palace Chop Suey Cafe in 1964. Photo: SF Public Library

Moving the Victorians

The Redevelopment Agency engineered the move of Victorians to new locations.

By CARLO MIDDIONE

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I worked at San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency in my desire to conquer the world’s ills and to help make people safer, happier and more comfortable.

Long before my wife Lisa and I opened our restaurant Vivande on Fillmore Street, which we operated for three decades, I was the supervisor of community relations for the A-2 project in the Western Addition. My primary job was to make friends with the community and garner support for Redevelopment Agency programs — and to make sure residents knew what the programs were for and what they were supposed to do for them, even though this proved to generate plenty of conflict at times. 

Some programs were good, like homemaking, which included learning to sew so that new curtains could be made at a fraction of the cost of buying them; learning furniture refinishing; learning nutritious cooking methods and selecting food to reflect the highest yield of nutrition for the money spent, with easier and more cheerful ways to cook that removed the drudge factor. 

Child care was always at the fore. There were so many children, and parents at risk of being too tired and frustrated raising them that they had no time or energy for anything else. Then there were programs to encourage folks to attend classes day or night at local schools to improve their job prospects or simply to study subjects that might interest them.

As time wore on and my interplay with many families and agencies and entities increased, along came The Move. 

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Celebrating Fillmore as ‘the new Market Street’

Collection of Iris Fuller/Fillamento

FLASHBACK | BARBARA KATE REPA

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, when Fillmore Street was hailed as the “new Market Street of the municipality,” local officials marked its newfound celebrity with a ribald 10-day Fillmore Street Carnival in the fall that stretched from Fulton to Sacramento. 

Heartened by the successes of the first few carnivals, the sponsoring Fillmore Street Improvement Association vowed to make the 1913 event the biggest yet. Metal arches with elaborate lighting crossed the intersections, and local storekeepers were exhorted to decorate their windows and storefronts.

The carnival kicked off with an evening parade that began at Market and New Montgomery Streets, then came down Golden Gate to Fillmore. The processional was complete with bands and floats “constructed with the same lavish disregard for expense that marked the street decorations” — including one float featuring a Hawaiian scene with an active volcano.

“The spirit of the fiesta took complete possession of those who had come from many parts of town to pay their respects to Fillmore Street, and the fun was not long reaching the point of hilarity,” the Chronicle reported. “Midnight arrived all but unnoticed and the dance went on and on until the musicians finally packed their instruments and left the bandstand.”

There was behind-the-scenes drama in the hotly contested race to become Fillmore Street Queen and reign over the event. Though the winner would not be announced until opening day, a first-time competitor, Miss Ray Leake, considered herself a shoo-in. “Miss Leake has a host of friends working for her and they are all as confident that she will be returned the winner,” the Chronicle reported.

Alas, Miss Leake’s hopes were dashed in the early morning hours of September 26, 1913, when Miss Maxine Hutchinson, a resident of Fillmore and O’Farrell, was named queen, handily winning the race by more than 12,000 votes. Miss Leake was not mentioned in the top 10 finalists.

Succeeding queens were tarnished by bad luck and perfidy. The 1914 queen, Manilla Matney, who later became an actress, was reportedly injured in an accident at a local hotel. In 1915, Annie Rosenwein of Buchanan Street, a candidate for queen at age 16, pressed “statutory charges” against Henry J. Kearney, a carnival committee member described as “33 years old and married.”

Only one local home sold last month

REAL ESTATE | PATRICK BARBER

Single-family home sales in the neighborhood reached a decade low during the last month, with only one single-family home selling in Pacific Heights, Lower Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights and Cow Hollow from mid-June to mid-July.

The summer months are traditionally the slowest time for real estate activity in San Francisco. But even by seasonal standards, market activity this summer has slowed considerably, with single-family home sales in the neighborhood declining to the lowest level since the housing market bust in 2008. The prolonged shortage of offerings on the market in the city is largely to blame for declining sales.

The one property that did change hands is an impressive example of modern architecture and amenities. The home at 2833 Vallejo Street (above and below) sold for $17 million in late June. Just completed this year, the ultramodern residence also offers picture-perfect views from its roof deck of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts.

2833 Vallejo Street

A Fillmore pioneer

M.J.Staymates (right) with fellow WANA leaders Sharon Bretz and Brett Gladstone in 1989.

LOCALS | CALVIN LAU

She was the quintessential little old lady in white tennis shoes — at least that’s how relentless neighborhood activist Mary Jane Staymates, known to all as M.J., liked to fashion herself.

My first encounter with M.J., who died a few months ago, was at a Western Addition Neighborhood Association (WANA) meeting held in the basement of St. Dominic’s Church. M.J. was presiding, and I was immediately struck by her love of the neighborhood and her mission to improve it.

M.J. stood ready to confront the real estate developers who were already circling the area like hawks. That was in 1979, the year my partner and I moved into an 1877 Victorian fixer-upper on Pine Street. In those days no one would ever have thought of calling our neighborhood by the oxymoron Lower Pacific Heights. It was plainly and simply the Western Addition, with all of its good and bad connotations.

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Modern designs for foggy dogs

A new firm based in the neighborhood manufactures premium dog beds and accessories.

PEOPLE OFTEN JOKE that there are more dogs than children in San Francisco. Statistics show it’s true: There were about 115,000 children under age 18 living in the city in 2016, according to the American Community Survey. San Francisco Animal Care and Control estimated that at the same time, there were about 120,000 to 150,000 dogs.

One local, Rose Shattuck, has launched a new business she hopes will make good on that reality.

Shattuck is the founder of The Foggy Dog, a two-year-old brand of premium goods for dogs headquartered in the neighborhood. She got the idea for the company when she couldn’t find a dog bed for her goldendoodle, Utah. “I couldn’t understand why every dog bed had paw prints or was khaki colored,” she says. “So I found some upholstery fabric that I loved and hired a seamstress from Craigslist to make my dream dog bed.”

Then she realized she was on to something. So Shattuck left her role as vice president for merchandising at Minted — an online design marketplace for stationery and art with a shop at 1919 Fillmore — to focus full time on The Foggy Dog. The product line now includes dog beds, collars, leashes, toys and accessories. Her passion is to make pet products that are not only functional, but also beautiful. “At Minted, I was surrounded by amazing design every day,” she says. “I wanted to bring that same level of fresh, modern aesthetic to the pet industry.”

Living in the neighborhood, Shattuck was surrounded by other “dog moms” in their 20s and 30s who were dissatisfied with the choices they had when it came to their pets. She realized there was a market for attractive, made-in-the-U.S. pet products that appeal to a more modern customer. “People are having children later in life, and their dogs are their babies. Pet parents want the best for their fur kids,” she says. “And there isn’t another brand right now that seems to serve their needs.”

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