Neighborhood revitalization is a touchy subject when it comes to historic communities of color like San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Despite bearing the brunt of racist policies like urban renewal, that neighborhood has experienced various iterations of a Black Renaissance throughout its long history.
However, if you were a tourist taking a stroll along Fillmore’s merchant corridor today, you most likely would not be able to identify the culture of the neighborhood that was once home to dozens of Black-owned businesses from Sutter Street to Geary Boulevard.
The neighborhood historically known as the “Harlem of the West” was also home to iconic Black businesses like Marcus Books, Powell’s Place,1300 on Fillmore and Rasselas Jazz Club, all of which thrived during different periods. However, the Fillmore has sustained so many economic blows that many residents have questioned whether Black-owned businesses have a chance to survive.
According to a group of optimistic, San Francisco-born-and-raised entrepreneurs, the answer is yes, “They will.” This new generation is reclaiming the triggering word “revitalization” by breaking ground on a major storefront activation that will eventually house 10 businesses under one roof. This creative venture, affectionately named “In The Black,” features their handmade products like jewelry, clothing, beauty products, and home decor as well as perishables.
The marketplace is the brainchild of SFHCD’s Economic Development Director director Pia Harris—a longtime Western Addition resident who has served the Fillmore community in various capacities—most recently as the organizer of the Western Addition Music Festival. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Harris has convened a group of Fillmore District stakeholders to brainstorm about different ways to sustain black-owned businesses in the community.
“We often discussed how African American-owned businesses that applied for pandemic relief funds kept getting denied because they didn’t qualify,” she told The Standard. “We just needed more money, and a lot of us don’t come from wealth.”
So Harris and her fellow stakeholders developed the concept for In the Black.
“The goal is to create generational wealth within the Black community,” Harris said. “The reason why we chose the name ‘In the Black’ is because it’s an idiom that means to be profitable and not in debt, but it’s also about celebrating the beauty and resiliency of Blackness.”
In the Black’s mission is to promote empowerment and wealth-building. With financial startup support from the Dream Keeper initiative, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), and the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation (SFHDC). Vendors will have a chance to build a sustainable retail business, starting with affordable rents ranging from $250 to $2,000 per month.
Located at 1567 Fillmore St. below the iconic Fillmore Auditorium and at the busy intersection with Geary Boulevard, the 1,500-square-foot space was formerly Money Mart, a check-cashing and payday loan business.
“It is especially fitting that the space that was most recently used to take money from the community—a check-cashing and payday loan operation—will now serve as an economic anchor and source of empowerment for dozens of Black entrepreneurs and the Fillmore community as a whole,” said David Sobel, CEO of SFHDC.
In the Black also offers technical support to its vendors, including one-on-one counseling from accountants and attorneys. There will also be marketing assistance with a robust social media plan, an e-commerce website and event curation.
A handful of In The Black vendors attended the event to give shoppers a preview of what will be available at the upcoming marketplace.
Among them was Cianni Jackson of CIK apparel, who grew up in the Fillmore and told The Standard that she’s hopeful this program will attract other Black-owned businesses to the corridor. “This community has been through a rough time, and I feel like this is the spark that will bring our culture back to the Fillmore,” she said.
Dr. Sheryl Davis, the executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. She told The Standard that the new marketplace is the best of both worlds, offering a space with so many resources.
“We are revitalizing and reinvigorating this space in a way that prioritizes and celebrates Black community so that people don’t feel erased and we have community leading the way,” Davis said. “My hope with this activation is that not only the businesses benefit, but the community, and we can show the city that Black businesses can make money and survive.”
Nicole Williams of Belle Noire, who sells African clothing and accessories and who grew up in the Fillmore, told The Standard that this opportunity means the neighborhood has come full circle.
“I’ve been selling all over the Bay Area from San Jose to Oakland, but the Fillmore is home, she said. “I grew up supporting Black-owned businesses on this street, and it’s an honor to be one of them.”
On Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, In the Black will hold its grand opening. According to Harris, a program manager will be hired to oversee the marketplace’s daily operations. Once open, the marketplace will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Correction: We have updated this story to reflect that the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation (SFHDC) is a nonprofit that receives funding from the city of San Francisco, but not a city department. Additionally, Pia Harris is SFHDC’s Economic Development Program Director, not Program Manager. We regret the errors.
Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]