Japantown – Fillmore – Lower Pacific Heights

By some accounts, no San Francisco neighborhood has undergone more upheaval and change than Japantown and the Fillmore.

While technically part of the Lower Pacific Heights, Japantown (bordered by Sutter Street to the north, Geary Street to the south, Fillmore Street to the west, and Laguna Street to the east) is a distinct neighborhood deserving a special mention.

The so-called Fillmore district (roughly bordered by Van Ness Avenue on the east, Divisadero Street on the west, Geary Boulevard on the north, and Grove Street on the south) is generally considered part of the Western Addition neighborhood but as is the case with Japantown, its unique character warrants a separate description.

These areas were slow in developing as they are relatively remote from the core downtown area. Throughout 1850s and ‘60s it was nothing more than a vast space of shifting sand and sparse vegetation populated by rabbit and quail. Formal housing only started in 1870s when developers like the Real Estate Associates built Victorian tracts home here (many of which are still in existence today). Following that, construction continued at a slow but steady pace for the rest of the 19th century.

The earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906 brought significant changes as thousands of displaced residents moved into the unaffected district from the destroyed downtown. Fillmore Street quickly became the City’s prime retail venue. While major stores moved back downtown once it was rebuilt, many shops stayed behind. The district became one of the more ethnically diverse with Chinese, Japanese, Jews, African American, and Russians making it their home. Eventually (after 1906), the Japanese made the area their prime enclave (prior to 1906 they were settled in Chinatown). The area then became known as “Japanese Town”.

Japanese Town’s fate changed forever with the attack on the Pearl Harbor by December 7, 1941. Racist sentiment and fear soared and in the spring of 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order authorizing removal of all ethnic Japanese (including those holding U.S. citizenship) on the West Coast to the desolate relocation camps throughout western U.S.

The Japanese disappeared from their enclave almost overnight and African Americans, who came mainly from the deep South to work in Bay Area shipyards and defense plants but were not welcome in other neighborhoods, promptly moved in. By the end of the World War II the Fillmore neighborhood became a thriving black community of approximately 30,000 people. The good war wages combined with the need for entertainment led to a lively neighborhood club scene. All of the great jazz stars of the time came to town to play. The Fillmore became known as “Harlem West”.

The good times continued into the 1950s but after the World War II whites started to increasingly move into the new housing in the suburbs leaving minorities in the older housing stock. With fewer economic opportunities for blacks after the war’s end the Fillmore started to decline and later became the prime target for what is known as “slum clearance”. Starting from the late 1950s and lasting for about a decade, the mostly African American residents of the neighborhood were forced from their homes and their properties were condemned and torn down with whole city blocks of Victorians disappearing.

Many consider the Fillmore district’s redevelopment project unsuccessful and regrettable. Post-redevelopment, encroaching gentrification and the physical decay of cheaply constructed housing complexes have led to a neighborhood of start contrasts between rich and poor. In the 1990s-2000s, the area underwent yet another wave of urban renewal in the form of the new “Jazz District” along Fillmore Street with mostly upscale jazz-themed restaurants, bars and condominium construction.

Japantown also saw significant changes with new housing rising and as an acknowledgement to the neighborhood’s past, a modern Japan Center was built with neighboring buildings featuring traditional Japanese architecture.

While the old Japantown and the old Fillmore are gone forever, both communities, now smaller in scope, have come back. Japantown celebrates its culture with several street fairs and an array of ethnic restaurants and in the Fillmore, jazz is experiencing a revival. Fillmore street today reflects the district’s diversity – family-owned stores stand alongside with chain stores, jazz clubs and ethnic restaurants of many varieties.

Lower Pacific Heights (previously known as the “Upper Fillmore”) is a quiet residential neighborhood bordered by California Street to the north, Geary Street to the south, Presidio Avenue to the west, and Van Ness Avenue to the east. Historically, this middle-class neighborhood was considered part of the Western Addition geographically and socially intermediate between the affluent Pacific Heights and somewhat distressed Lower Fillmore. As a result of the escalation of San Francisco property values in the 1980s and 1990s, Upper Fillmore became wealthier and more upscale changed its name to “Lower Pacific Heights”. Lower Pacific Heights is also noteworthy for some fine specimens of Victorian architecture (see, for instance, Bush Street Cottage Row bounded by Bush, Webster, Fillmore and Sutter Streets, e.g. 2103-2107 Bush Street).

Lower Pacific Heights / Japantown neighborhood has an average Walk score of 98 and average Transit score of 83. The Western Addition / Fillmore neighborhood has an average Walk score of 98 and an average Transit score of 94.

The below links provide further details on this neighborhood and its attractions: https://www.thrillist.com/eat/san-francisco/japantown/best-bars-restaurants-shops-in-japantown-insiders-guide (Japantown); http://www.fillmorestreetsf.com/ (the Fillmore).

The content displayed above was partially derived from a book by Rand Richards “Historic Walks in San Francisco. 18 Trails Through the City’s Past”.
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About Kate

As a long-term resident of San Francisco, Kate is well familiar with the city’s past and present. With her professional background and deep knowledge of the local housing market, Kate is in the position to best assist with your real estate needs. Should you be looking for a recommendation on the upcoming cultural or social events and/or if you need a trusted local real estate advisor, ask Kate – San Francisco is her HOME.

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