Historical Saturday: Japantown & Fillmore

Japantown was a thriving community after the 1906 earthquake.  It took up 24-blocks and the population of Japanese and Japanese Americans numbered around 7,000.  The makeup of this neighborhood changed forever during World War I when President Roosevelt authorized the removal of Japanese Americans to internment camps.

I was aware of this dark, racist spot in American history, and I have read the stories of how it affected these families.  Imagine, working all your life to buy a house and build up a business, and then you get a notice that says you have to abandon it all and move your family into a row of fenced in barracks where the guards have guns pointed into the complex.  Land of the free?  Many of these people were born in America and may never have set foot in Japan and still America was so insecure that we took their rights away and put them into prison.  (Whoops, I meant to say internment camp.)

How this affected the families is something I have read before, but I guess I never really thought about how it changed communities and cities.  Japantown is a perfect example of this.  Within a few weeks, this area of town was vacant and a ghost town.  Businesses and houses were boarded up, and the streets were quiet.

What is unique about this area of town is that the emptiness actually gave room for another minority population in San Francisco to grow and thrive.  The African Americans were moving to the West Coast in droves because of the jobs in the shipyards and defense plants that were plentiful in the bay area during the war.  They moved into the vacant homes and businesses and started a thriving community along Fillmore that was eventually called "Harlem West."  They chose this area because many of the other neighborhoods did not welcome African Americans. 

During the 1950's, San Francisco, like many other cities, experienced the phenomenon called "white flight."  The white people were flocking to the suburbs and leaving the city and it's old structures behind.  Economic opportunities for African Americans started to dry up and this led to the decline of the Fillmore area.  Many of the houses were condemned and torn down.  "Whole city blocks of Victorians fell to the wreckers ball.  Black residents started calling the Fillmore the 'No More.'" (Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards). 

Over time, new, modern structures went up, and the architecture is at times a nod to the Japantown and old Fillmore that once defined this small neighborhood.

Even the liberal West Coast is not immune to the racism and prejudice that have plagued the United States since its conception.

Researched from Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards.