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No jazz on Fillmore this year

Fillmore’s own Kim Nalley performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, there will be no jazz on Fillmore Street this Fourth of July weekend.

The annual Fillmore Jazz Festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus and the ban on large gatherings of people.

“Sister! I just want to cry because there’s no festival this weekend,” said jazz vocalist Kim Nalley, who got her start on Fillmore Street and has been a perennial headliner at the festival. “It doesn’t even seem like the Fourth of July without the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I can barely remember when I haven’t sung at this festival.”

Jason Olaine, the festival’s artistic director for the last decade — who is also director of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York — also lamented the cancellation of this year’s event.

“We will miss — terribly — the mass of humanity in all its colors and generations, tastes and sounds, that make up the Fillmore Jazz Festival,” Olaine said. “We take solace in knowing that when we do come back, we’ll all be safe and strong and seriously ready to party. That will be quite a weekend — when we can all truly embrace one another without fear and dance all day.”

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

The festival was begun in 1986 as a way to keep jazz alive on Fillmore Street, once a thriving mecca of music known during the ’40s and ’50s as the Harlem of the West. Most of its clubs and joints were lost during the 1960s as part of an ambitious but ultimately misguided redevelopment plan, which bulldozed large swaths of the neighborhood.

The annual jazzfest began as a modest street fair called “Jazz and All That Art on Fillmore” and sponsored by the Fillmore Merchants Association. It was spurred by the self-proclaimed Mayor of Fillmore Street, Ruth Dewson, longtime proprietor of Mrs. Dewson’s Hats. She recalled approaching promoter Terry Pimsleur, who had earlier started the Union Street Festival, about creating a similar street fair on Fillmore, where new businesses were opening and trying to improve the struggling commercial strip. But she was rebuffed, told there weren’t enough people or merchants on Fillmore at that time to make a street fair successful.

“I told her, ‘Honey, you got one of me, that’s enough,’” Dewson recalled in 2011. “Right from the beginning, it was a success.”

Ruth Dewson helped start the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

After being held the first two years in the fall, the festival moved to the weekend nearest the Fourth of July. It has remained there since, until this year. It was expanded and renamed the Fillmore Jazz Festival in 1999, and grew with the neighborhood into the largest free jazz festival on the west coast, drawing more than 100,000 people and shutting down Fillmore from Jackson to Eddy Streets.

“Let’s celebrate in our own socially responsible ways this weekend,” said Olaine, “and look forward to the future. Here’s to us — the Fillmore community. I just love us!”

Kim Nalley at the Fillmore Jazz Festival

‘The death of my youth’

FIRST PERSON | KIM NALLEY

This Fourth of July has been a very emotional day for me. For the first time since I started singing professionally, there is no Fillmore Jazz Festival. I have headlined at this festival consecutively on the California Street stage for more than a decade, and before that I played at the festival here and there on non-consecutive years.

As one of the last and largest remaining free jazz festivals, it was very special because I saw people who otherwise might not necessarily have been able to afford to come to some of my concerts, as well as people who have been following me from the very beginning, plus other friends and family who planned their trips to San Francisco around this festival. I really looked forward to seeing everyone every year, and to seeing the babies in the front row grow up to be dancing toddlers and then sitting and listening as big kids.

I loved seeing all the dancers at the Fillmore festival — not just the Lindy and swing and blues dancers, but also the Jamaican man who jumped on the stage to dance with me when we did an Etta James song with a ska beat. I loved singing “America the Beautiful” or “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the yearly anthem. And of course I loved working my way up and down the street to see and hear my friends perform on the different stages.

I have enjoyed the largesse of the Fillmore merchants for my entire career. My first paying gigs were in the Fillmore, I got married in the Fillmore, I shop in the Fillmore, my kids went to daycare and preschool in the Fillmore, and many of my closest friends I either met in the Fillmore or they live in the Fillmore. My first album was produced by Michael Tilson Thomas at the Alta Plaza on Fillmore and Clay. I got the news that my mother died while singing on Fillmore Street.

Little did I know, when singing last Fourth of July, what would be in store for 2020. I have no idea if the Fillmore Jazz Festival will be able to continue in the future given the challenges of the coronavirus, and the need for sponsors and production, and all the many people responsible for producing any outdoor festival.

It almost feels like the death of my youth. And it certainly doesn’t feel like the Fourth of July without the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I know as a country we are facing much more difficult problems than this, but I cannot help but mourn.

Happy Fourth of July! I hope better days are ahead and that I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.

Musically yours,
Kim Nalley
July 4, 2020

‘My tree’ on California Street

The unusual tree outside the market on California Street.

FIRST PERSON | BARBARA CORFF

I don’t know exactly why the tree in front of Mollie Stone’s first caught my attention.

Perhaps it was the tiny, palmate-shaped leaves sprouting at the base of the tree that seemed unusual. Having worked with naturalists in the Presidio developing tours for the National Park Service, I want to understand the natural world.

I looked up into the canopy to try and identify the basic shape, which has been spread by years of pruning to remain below the overhead lines running down the sidewalk on California Street. I stood back to grasp the size and see if it looked like any other trees I had seen.

I was stumped. And now I was on a hunt for an answer.

This tree stood out and felt special. It seemed old. San Francisco has a fairly routine palette of trees in our neighborhood: London plane trees, whose knobby branches are clipped back every year, a few magnolia trees, Victorian Box, with their fragrant white flowers, and a few others.

I have lived in San Francisco since 1979, first visiting the Fillmore to see movies at the Clay Theatre after eating savory cordon bleu crepes next door at Millard’s. I moved to the corner of California and Fillmore Streets in 1984. My local shop was the Bi-Rite, on the southeast corner, where the poet Mark Mitchell worked before he moved up the street to D&M Liquors.

I worked at home as a graphic designer and, for social interaction, sold designer men’s clothing for my friend Jon Stevenson at The Producer, which was next door to the fun group of Iris Fuller’s employees at Fillamento. We had customers from all over San Francisco and locals who just stopped by for conversation. I helped Robin Williams, John Traina and Steve Perry there, and became friends with many fascinating Fillmore personalities. We knew all the merchants and movers, as well as local characters like Gloria, who was often near the donut shop at Fillmore and California asking for a quarter.

I shopped for flowers at Kyo’s, the lovely Japanese flower shop just north of Sacramento Street, where I could practice my few words of Japanese, and ordered take-out sushi down the street at Maruya. With charming toys and gadgets, my go-to for graphics supplies was the Brown Bag, where I would grab a quick visit with busy employee and friend Barbara Wyeth. There were still local drug stores with racks of gift cards and sundries, as well as a pharmacy. My co-worker Michael Sabino at Button Down loved eating mayo-filled egg sandwiches in the mornings in the old fashioned booths at Lee’s diner on California Street. My artist friend Will Barker and I created window displays for the Beauty Store across the street each month. We had dinners with jeweler Marc Willner, and ran into Peter Tork of the Monkees while making copies at the Copy Center. I loved the candy array at Fletcher McLean, a lively place.

It was also a time of panhandlers and the beginnings of gentrification. I finally moved to quieter Presidio Heights when I tired of standing in line for restaurants and negotiating my way, as I did my errands, through tourists shopping on Fillmore. 

I still walk to Fillmore for pastries at La Boulangerie, a coffee at Peet’s, fish for our aquarium at Aqua Forest, some finds at Goodwill and groceries at the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, where the friendliest cashiers in the universe work.

But back to “my tree” on the sidewalk outside the market. I posted photos of the tree online, but got no replies. Then a friend mentioned a book she carried along to learn about trees in the city as she was taking daily walks while sheltering in place. I sent her my photos, and she double-checked with a landscape architect friend.

Finally I discovered this may be an unusual tree some call a Field Maple or Hedge Maple. A website maintained by the Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute says there’s one in Strybing Arboretum, but I cannot find any other examples in San Francisco.

I searched to see who lived at this address before the grocery store was built, hoping to find an historic photo with my tree in front. “An elegant nine room house” was advertised at 2435 California in 1900. Names I found from this era were Cook, Colonel Sutherland, Thomas and Mary Gilbert, Butler Shaw. It seems this home rented rooms. In 1928, Senator and Mrs. Otis F. Glenn of Illinois made it their home for a short time. But the addresses may have changed.

Newspaper articles report that Grand Central Market opened at 2435 California in 1941, and there are earlier listings for a Grand Central Liquors. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was once on the block.

I’d love to know more about “my tree.”

The canopy of the tree on California Street.

It may be one of a kind

“You have a great eye!” says arborist Roy Leggitt, a longtime neighborhood resident.

“It is likely Acer platanoides, a Norway Maple. I nominated that very tree for Landmark Tree status, but the Department of Public Works didn’t want to encumber itself with street tree nominations. There used to be another one along California Street and two or three others on Dolores Street, which have since been removed. As far as I know, this is the only tree of this species left in San Francisco.”

Boom Boom Room on the ropes

Photograph of the Boom Boom Room by Susie Biehler

FILLMORE’S ONLY remaining joint — the Boom Boom Room, hard by the Geary Street bridge — is closed and may not reopen without an infusion of fresh cash.

“We are faced with permanent closure without emergency funding,” says owner Zander Andreas in a fundraising campaign seeking to raise $60,000. “The survival of our intimate and iconic San Francisco live music institution depends on you. Our rent is massive and compounding. Our vendors are breathing down our necks. Our repairs and utilities are unfunded.”

Andreas said the actual emergency need is $150,000, but that he hopes the GoFundMe campaign “will get people discussing the urgency of our need to keep this institution alive.”

EARLIER: “Was it really John Lee Hooker’s joint?

Plenty of parking

Photograph of the California/Fillmore parking lot by Dickie Spritzer

Boarding up the street

A mural and a message in the boarded-up windows at Fillmore and Clay.

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

In 1971, carpenter Mark Johnson moved into a Victorian flat at 2254 Bush Street, just off Fillmore, and stayed for 25 years.

“It was not the most attractive place to live in the early ’70s,” he says. “But by the time I moved out, it had changed dramatically — and for the better.”

Now he’s back, plying his trade and creating a grim streetscape on a nearly deserted Fillmore Street that is creeping out the locals. Johnson, who lives in tranquil Petaluma, has quickly become the go-to guy for Fillmore merchants who want their store windows boarded up to stave off potential looters as the coronavirus crisis drags on.

For from $300 to $600, he will tailor 4×8-foot sheets of 3/8-inch plywood to cover up the mostly empty retail shops, restaurants and bars on the boulevard. Already he has protected the glass of 14 Fillmore addresses.

 “Looters are opportunists who look for convenient ways to break in and get out,” says Johnson. “They won’t spend time trying to dismantle a boarded-up facade. They’ll look for glass.”

Johnson is a licensed contractor who usually remodels interiors and does finish carpentry. So, he said, he tries “to provide a very clean appearance” for his clientele “instead of just slapping up boards, nailing them to 2x4s and making it look like a blighted area.” A few businesses have painted the wood a more stylish black or white, and a couple of murals have blossomed, along with the seemingly inevitable graffiti tags. But most are sporting raw plywood.

Johnson’s boarding-up business was spurred when staffers at the HeidiSays boutique passed his name along to others in the Fillmore Merchants Association. “That’s when it really started to snowball,” he says. “I got at least a dozen jobs in two weeks.”

Passersby at first would ask: “Is this store going out of business?” He told them: “No, it’s just an abundance of caution.”

Some residents and merchants see the boarding-up as an overreaction. There have been a few break-ins, as there were before the virus hit.

“It breaks my heart to see the street like this,” says Vas Kiniris, executive director of the merchants association. But many businesses have decided to be safe rather than sorry, and Johnson is still getting calls.

His fee includes removal when the stores reopen, he says.

Keeping us fed, and connected

Photograph of Massimo Lavino at Via Veneto by Daniel Bahmani

STREET TALK | THOMAS REYNOLDS

A great joy of our neighborhood is the number of neighbors you run into walking up and down Fillmore Street. 

Not these days.

Much of the street is boarded up — an overreaction, many feel, but then come reports of another break-in.

One longs for the slightest bit of community and connectedness during the lockdown. A few still brave a walk on our high street, sometimes to pick up a take-out dinner from a familiar face at a favorite restaurant. Via Veneto owner Massimo Lavino is one of those who is keeping the neighborhood fed — and serving up a side of his boisterous good cheer as people wait for their puttanesca and tricolore salad, carefully standing six feet apart.

As I walked up Fillmore yesterday, Massimo hollered out: “Hey — do you know Betty Brassington’s phone number? I can’t find it.” I stopped to be sure he had the spelling right, but he had no phone book — who does anymore? — and couldn’t find the number online.

He wanted to tell her he had some nice ribeye steaks of the kind she and her husband Mike like.

Well, I told him, I’ll stop by on my way home and let her know. Betty and Mike live only a block from Via Veneto. I knocked on their front door, even though it seemed a little naughty in this time of social distancing. Betty came to the door with a bite of dinner already in her mouth. I told her Massimo had steaks he thought she’d want to know about, then walked two more blocks home.

That was yesterday. Today when I walked up the street in the late afternoon light, Massimo hollered out again. I stopped and walked in. There was Betty, picking up two steak dinners and a bottle of red wine.

EARLIER: “Opening night at Via Veneto

Illustration of Via Veneto by Christopher Wright

Frye first to shut down

Frye’s stylish shop on Fillmore Street opened in 2016.

FRYE BOOTS at 2047 Fillmore Street has become the first neighborhood shop to announce it will close permanently.

“We were told last Friday [March 27] that we will not reopen our beautiful store,” says Frye manager and longtime local Cris Mcquay, who formerly managed Kiehl’s on Fillmore. “We will stay permanently closed going forward. We are closing all 16 Frye retail stores in the U.S.”

She added: “I’m afraid we won’t be the only one — just the first confirmed case.”

Still being neighborly

Andre Matsuda, Dan Max and Audrey Sherlock bring their own.

EVEN SINCE THE stay-at-home order went into effect on St. Patrick’s Day, some locals find it possible to enjoy a few minutes of togetherness at cocktail hour — carefully spaced six feet apart at tables that remain fixed outside The Grove, with beverages brought from home.

Elite’s new name: The Tailor’s Son

The wiring and lettering on the vintage sign were removed on February 28.

THE LAST TRACES of the legendary Elite Cafe — a beacon of hospitality on Fillmore Street for decades — have disappeared. The lettering on the vintage neon sign has now been removed, along with the wooden booths inside.

The Elite’s new name: The Tailor’s Son, in honor of owner Adrianno Paganini ’s father, who was a tailor. The sign is being reworked to announce the new name. During earlier incarnations, the same sign proclaimed the Asia Cafe and the Lincoln Grill.

EARLIER: “Elite no more

A final farewell to the Clay?

Fixtures and furnishings being removed from the Clay Theatre.

DEMOLITION OF THE interior of the 110-year-old Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street began today, with workers hauling out the seats, the projectors and the popcorn machine.

Landmark Theatres, the company that operated the Clay in recent decades, has instructed its staff to leave the building empty by the end of the month.

The theater closed at the end of January, but ongoing discussions between building owner Balgobind Jaiswal and the S.F. Neighborhood Theater Foundation — which had offered to buy or rent the theater — had given supporters hope the Clay might continue as a nonprofit.

Those negotiations have proved unsuccessful and the landlord’s agent, neighborhood resident Pamela Mendelsohn of the Maven real estate firm, has been showing the space to other potential tenants.

EARLIER: “Clay Theatre to close