A half-century of lies

Thousands of Fillmore residents lost homes and businesses to redevelopment - and were promised a chance to return. 50 years later, Leola King is still waiting
|
()

View pictures of Leola King's legendary Blue Mirror club here.

Leola King has lived your life, the lives of three friends and then some.

She's traveled to Africa with the legendary entertainer, Josephine Baker. She's featured jazz great Louis Armstrong at a popular Fillmore nightclub she helmed in the 1950s called the Blue Mirror, where she also once convinced a roomful of patrons to drink sweet champagne from the heel of her shoe.

She's played host to the crusading television journalist Edward R. Murrow.

She's even had a fling with championship boxer Joe Louis. From the ring at Madison Square Garden, he glanced toward her front-row seat, which she'd secured by chance during her first trip to New York, and had his lackeys retrieve her for a date afterward. Their rendezvous appeared as a gossip item in an Ohio paper and remains in its archives today.

Most of all, Leola King has come as close as anyone possibly can to experiencing bureaucratic hell on earth. For half a century, she's been fighting with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which has taken four pieces of her property, wiped out a restaurant and two nightclubs she owned, and left her with a string of broken promises.

Her story is evidence that the ugly local chapter of Western Addition redevelopment history still isn't over - and it's a demonstration of why so many African Americans in this town will never trust the Redevelopment Agency.

-------------------------

Beginning in the 1940s, King successfully operated a series of restaurants and nightclubs in the city, remarkable enough in an era that imposed a double-paned glass ceiling on black, female entrepreneurs.

"Back when I first moved onto Fillmore, it was very popular," King told the Guardian. "Market Street didn't have shit. They didn't have traffic. They didn't have nothing on Market Street."

During the height of King's accomplishments, the Redevelopment Agency infamously launched an ambitious project to clear out "blight" in the neighborhood. It was part of a nationwide urban-renewal trend, and while the project here still won't be finished until 2009, it's widely regarded as one of America's worst urban-planning disasters.

In theory, Western Addition residents who were forced to give up their homes or businesses were given a "certificate of preference," a promise that when the sometimes decaying buildings were turned to kindling and new ones built, the former occupants could return.

In practice, it didn't work out that way. An estimated 5,500 certificates were issued to families and business owners shortly before the second phase of Western Addition redevelopment began in 1964. Some 5,000 families were dislodged and many of them fled to other sectors of the city (including Bayview-Hunter's Point, which is today slated for its own redevelopment), or outside of the Bay Area completely.

Only a fraction of the certificates have benefited anyone. The agency has lost contact information for more than half of the holders, and redevelopment commissioners now openly admit the program is a joke.

"If we're going to boast about being this diverse community in San Francisco, and we're going to allow our African American population to become extinct, then how can we show our faces in government if we're not really doing anything about it?" asked London Breed, a redevelopment commissioner appointed by Gavin Newsom in 2005. "And not just putting black people in low-income housing. There [are] a lot of middle-class African Americans all across America, specifically in the East Bay and in other places. Why do they choose to live in the East Bay over San Francisco?"

A renewed interest in the certificates by City Hall led to hearings this month, and District 5 Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has planned another for April.

Also from this author

  • 'He's not going anywhere'

    Newly available documents expose what happened to a man shot 16 times by SFPD officers two years ago

  • Money for nothing

    Nancy Pelosi is raising millions of dollars, but keeping very little for her own reelection campaign

  • Newsom reappoints the condo commissioner