Oklahoma State University
$4,000 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion
Here, African-Americans came west like pioneers, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong played their music and crafted a culture, and protesters petitioned in streets and courts to preserve their way of life.
Now, here is a place where San Francisco’s black exodus began. All that’s left of the historic Fillmore District as it once was are a few storefronts and signs nailed to boarded windows reading things such as “Fill-No-More” and “Fillmore Forever.”
It’s become a quintessential symbol of the black population’s decline in San Francisco, which has dwindled to 6 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and shows few signs of getting better.
The Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice president of San Francisco’s NAACP chapter, remembers The Fillmore for what it was. But memories are the closest thing to tangible evidence of hope for the city’s black community.
“It’s an unbelievable cultural effect and cultural devastation,” Townsend said.
Townsend, 72, misses the line of black businesses in a cultural hub that was once 60 percent African-American.
Part of the problem is that he has those memories, but his children don’t. Townsend estimates the black population has fallen to close to 4 percent since 2010. High rent costs — now more expensive than Manhattan on average — are driving away young African-Americans who have no other reason to stay.
Willie Brown, San Francisco’s mayor from 1996-2004, said the problem isn’t just Fillmore, but also other areas that have lost African-American dwellers. Black churches have watched memberships rapidly decline, and some have closed.
Brown’s mayorship was famous for his appointment of a diverse staff to multiple positions in city government. He recalls taking a photo with the city’s black officials and filling the steps of City Hall. Four years after Brown left, there was a similar photo, and only half of the steps were filled, he said.
To understand the city’s problem is to know a complicated history. In short, about 25,000 African-Americans migrated to the Bay Area during World War II when war-industry jobs signaled opportunity.
Townsend said city officials assumed African-Americans would return to the south after the war. But that didn’t happen. By the 1960s, San Francisco labeled the Fillmore District “blight,” and began a process of mass urban renewal. In the end, 883 business closed, 4,729 households were forced out and about 2,500 Victorian homes were destroyed, according to a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article. It might have been more if not for a series of protests involving citizens lying in front of bulldozers about to raze their homes.
Brown and Townsend agree a culture of disregard remains on some level.
“There still is the absence of commitment, frankly, to equal-opportunity recruiting of people,” Brown said.
Townsend has a long list of solutions, but none have come easy. He said lack of money and power are roadblocks for the African-American population in the city.
But Brown said no amount of money can change history.
“There just isn’t, in my opinion, any way to reverse that. Period,” Brown said.
In the case of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, even the greatest story cannot match reality.
He was born in the small Texas town of Mineola, where he attended a segregated school, picked berries and shined shoes.
He eventually followed his gambling uncle to San Francisco, the type of city that was either made for a young man such as Willie Brown or, in turn, made a young man such as Willie Brown.
He somehow encompasses all ends of American archetypes. He is part Jay Gatsby, a self-made character still reaching for some green light — and like Newsweek once wrote, he is a modern-day LBJ, wheeling and dealing, getting what he wants done to the delight of many but the criticism of plenty.
He built this larger-than-life persona from nothing. And he’s embraced it for all its worth.
Brown is 81, but 41 doesn’t seem like a stretch when he is in command. He is the smartest person in the room, and he wants you to know it.
He casually brags about the times he outwitted fellow politicians. He remembers federal investigations as if they were elaborate games.
He wears Armani and Brioni, drives Ferraris and Porsches. San Francisco attorney Robert Friese, who has known Brown for close to 40 years, said the number of “interesting” girlfriends Brown had and didn’t try to hide while still being married might be a world record.
“He’s flamboyant, and he’s controversial,” Friese said. “That’s part of the price of admission in this town.”
Brown recites his life story as though he mastered memorizing a poem. There’s a series of videos on YouTube made in 2009 in which Brown talks about his life. His words are almost verbatim and his gestures and inflections are identical in a conference room talking to eight reporters six years later.
Brown said he once felt as if the mayorship were beneath him, but alas, he ran, and he won. He donned a cap reading, “Da Mayor,” after election night. He became one of great leaders in the city’s history, and he reveled in the celebrity all the while. That is the beauty of Brown, who was mayor from 1996-2004.
“I would still be Mayor if there were not term limits,” Brown said. “… Somebody would have said a eulogy for me, and preferably me saying the eulogy.”
There’s a thought that Brown is still running the city, some sort of armchair boss. Myth or reality? Or are they interchangeable?
“It’s probably in his interest to have people believe he’s the power behind the actual mayor, whether he is or not,” said Lance Williams, an acclaimed San Francisco journalist who wrote multiple investigate pieces on Brown’s political career.
Brown and Mineola is a complex relationship that reflects the deep dichotomy that helps make Brown such an alluring figure.
In some ways he talks of the home he fled from with admiration. In some ways, contempt.
Mineola was the type of old Texas town where everything was separate and nothing was equal. White teenagers played a game where they would see how close they could drive to a black person on the road without hitting them.
Brown said he didn’t realize at the time that his upbringing was tough. But he always seemed attracted to the idea of something else, even if he didn’t know what it was.
When he finally tasted that something else, he wanted more.
“By the time I got to San Francisco, I had already left Mineola,” Brown said.
When Brown became mayor of San Francisco, President Bill Clinton asked him if there were anything he could do for the city. Brown said no. But he did want one thing: an Amtrak stop in Mineola, where there had never been a regular train stop.
He told Clinton he wanted this so people could get on the train and, “Get the hell out of Mineola.”
He realizes how that sounds and pauses.
“That comment that I made really was not denigrating Mineola,” he said. “It was just a way to cut the dialogue very short and deliver the message. The President got it like that.”
The big-city mayor — he of nightclubs and expensive hats, he who has played himself in five movies — came from nowhere. He will show off those expensive hats, but he won’t wear them indoors. His mother would kill him.
Part of Mineola is still in Brown, but it’s a part long forgotten.
Throughout Brown’s political career, he has been under fire for claims of patronage and crony capitalism.
He was the subject of three FBI investigations, all of which came up empty.
“They really didn’t think that there’s no way he could do all those things and appear to have all these things and live this kind of life if he wasn’t taking advantage of his positon,” Brown said. “They had no idea that I was more frightened of inappropriate conduct than anyone could ever imagine. … I didn’t even want a parking ticket.”
Brown is heralded as a wildly successful mayor. He did wonders for city business in the dot-com boom, promoted diversity and much more. But his 30-year legacy in the state assembly might be voters enacting term limits. And his crowning mayoral achievement?
“I don’t know what it would be,” Williams said. “… He was a guy who liked making deals, and he liked side action, and he had trouble setting it aside to come up with a grand achievement.”
Just as flamboyancy and charisma mark Brown’s legacy, so does constant controversy.
“He was really good at staying in power,” Williams said. “He was really good at getting Democrats elected in the assembly. I’m not saying he’s responsible for every bad thing that happened in the legislature, but he was a symbol of that sort of deal-making, hide-the-ball style of government.”
But like Friese said, these things come with the price of admission.
It’s all fodder for the Willie Brown Show, and it keeps on running.
Jacqueline Douglas leaves her dock on Fisherman’s Wharf every day at 6 a.m. and sets out on her trademark white boat with red trim, the Wacky Jacky, which symbolizes more than 40 years of hopes and accomplishments.
But there’s a sense of dread beginning to creep in for Douglas and others on the Wharf and all along the California coast. In the worst of a four-year drought, the salmon population is at serious risk. And because it takes two or three years for the fish to matriculate, there’s no real way of knowing just how bad the situation will become.
The catastrophic drought impacts everything from Napa Valley to how people water their lawns. It could mark the end for some fishing businesses in the Bay Area.
The scariest part: You can’t you stop what only God can control.
“It’s pretty sad for me to even think about it because it’s something that I love so much and it’s my passion, and it’s my life,” said Douglas, who bought her first commercial boat in 1972. “I’ve seen the best of it all. But this is the worst.”
Extremely low water levels in the Sacramento River have caused water temperatures to rise into the lows 60s, which puts stress on adult Chinook Salmon and can kill their eggs. In 2014, an estimated 95 percent of California’s winter-run of salmon died before completing their journey to the Pacific Ocean.
“In years like this, I don’t think there’s going to be any natural production,” said Trevor Kennedy with the Fishery Foundation of California. “I don’t think anything that’s in-river or spawned in-river has a reasonable chance of making it out to the ocean. There’s just so may obstacles in their way.
“You’ve got, again, low water, a dense predator population throughout the entire migration corridor, and the odds of them making it out under good conditions are astronomically low. When you put them in a drought situation, it’s next to nothing.”
Such a phenomenon is obviously harmful for the species and can impact the entire ecosystem. It also crushes dreams on piers throughout the state. The Bay Area salmon fishing industry alone is a $1.5 billion economic machine that employs about 23,000 people.
“Salmon is the heart of the fishing industry on the West Coast,” said Roger Thomas, chairman of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “The Sacramento River Valley or Sacramento Central Valley run of salmon supports all the coastal communities from Morro Bay to the very tip of Oregon, and that’s the primary fish for all the communities that have fishermen and bait shops and markets and hotels and fish-buyers, who all suffer. It’s a bigger industry than the world wants to talk about.”
In May, state wildlife agencies used convoys of tanker trucks to take an entire year-class of hatchery downstream to the San Francisco Bay. It’s the only way the fish could survive.
“They’re already talking about doing adult rescues to save remnants of populations so there’s not extinction of a year-class, which is a very real possibility,” Kennedy said. “We’re kind of at the darkest hour of salmon in California, so it’s kind of scary. I’ve never seen in in my lifetime.”
Although Thomas said the year-class people are currently fishing — salmon born in 2012 or 2013 — is fairly strong, he also said business is down because people tend to assume fishing is bad in times of drought.
For those in the industry, it’s considered a forgone conclusion that matters will only get worse. The likelihood of the Chinook salmon fishing season being called off entirely in the coming years is high.
“The stock of fish we’re fishing on now are 3-year-old fish, and we’re having some good catches,” Thomas said. “That’s now. Three years later, well, that won’t’ be the case in the near future.”
Douglas said she’s already having to travel farther to find salmon in the sea, and she’s tried every type of hook in the book in effort to increase catches – all to no avail.
Salmon, Kennedy said, are a resilient fish. One year’s population has little bearing on the next. When the drought ends, if it ends, the Salmon are likely to bounce back.
But for the people who barely survived a salmon shortage in 2008 and 2009 so serious that it required a $170 million relief package from Congress, it might be too late.
“I’m not just talking about party boats or commercial-type fishing,” Douglas said. “It’s the markets and the restaurants and the boat-sellers and the bait-and-tackle and the jobs and the hopes and dreams we have out there that are just getting smaller and smaller because we have a number of things, and the drought is just gonna kill it all.”