White Boy in the Fillmore 1978-81

Historical Essay

by Mike Mosher

Fillmore Venus; painting © Mike Mosher 1980, 2015
I hadn't consciously set out to live in a black neighborhood, derided as "the ghetto", in San Francisco.

I'd attended racially integrated schools in Ann Arbor, had black teachers. I had studied a year with muralist Jon Onye Lockard (1932-2015), whose Afrocentric murals at Wayne State University are among the dozen most important artworks in Michigan. His murals are a fine pendant to Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescoes at the Detroit Art Institute, four blocks away and painted the year my teacher Lockard was born.

When I moved to San Francisco shortly after my 23rd birthday, feeling it was time to figure out my own artwork, my goal was to live cheaply, to extend the couple thousand dollars I'd saved up as long as possible before I'd have to find work. So, after two nights sleeping on the floor of a college friend now studying at Hastings Law, I bought a newspaper and started at the Apartment Rentals' bottom prices. A tiny room overlooking 16th Street BART was grim, but a studio in 733 Fillmore near Hayes felt open, sunny, welcoming. There was a nunnery across the street, two corner stores run by Chinese and Palestinian families respectively, and everyone else appeared to be African American. Well, this looks interesting; I'll take it.

Tim Carrico of TCO Realty let me move in before my check cleared after we got in a rock-knowledgeable discussion of the picture of my homeboy Iggy Pop I'd taped up. He offered to have a shower put in if I'd pay $150 a month instead of the advertised $145. When the half-Chinese, half-Chicano maintenance man, a painter who'd graduated from the Art Institute, noted my poster of Michigan Punk rocker Niagara, and I said nonchalantly "Oh yeah, I know her", he wanted to be my friend.

The building manager, an elderly black man named Willie Kelley, owned the little Country Gentleman store downstairs. A skinny white guy named Sean Good worked there, we struck up a conversation about songwriting, and he invited me over to play music and meet his wife and baby daughter in their apartment in the next block.

Going for a walk in my new neighborhood that Friday afternoon, three blocks away a big Mark IV Lincoln, whose driver presumably began drinking whiskey early, crashed into an old man selling produce from a cart beside a vacant lot on Ellis where houses had been torn down years before. The vendor howled as he flew half a block, lay on the pavement until an ambulance came. I watched as passers-by of all ages soon started helping themselves to his wares; this melon and squash ain't goin' to waste...

My apartment looked out on the backyards of that famous postcard-perfect row of Victorian (actually Edwardian) houses on Alamo Square, and I liked to lie on the carpet and watch the afternoon summer fog come rushing in over their rooftops, illuminated by the sun, translucent yet substantial. I liked this place.

I bought a card table chair at a messy second-hand store on Hayes. My law school friend and I liberated a bunch of gray plastic milk crates from the nocturnal streets of the Tenderloin, and I found a piece of board, so I had a drawing table. I sat at my work table twelve, thirteen hours a day, doing ornate pencil drawings, then taking evening walks as far as the Marina and North Beach, learning this city that was full of little surprises and new to me. I tacked paper on the wall to draw with pastels, folding a cardboard trough beneath it to catch dust. The pretty lady from Pacific Bell who installed my phone a few weeks after I moved in liked one brown girl I drew, but politely declined going out with me because she only liked brown girls.

Willie Kelley told me tales of the wild n' wooly San Francisco of his youth, of orgiastic "lights out" clubs, and owners of canvas-topped cars who'd return to find their roofs slit open and people sleeping on the seats. He told me of his WWII service in the Seabees, of North Africans who shot up the French and British troops before "Uncle Sam, he got smart, see, sent in his n-----s, and we got along with them Africans jes' fine!"

After about eight months of tenancy, Tim Carrico called, said that Willie had slowed down since a car accident hobbled him, and asked if I would be willing to serve as Assistant Manager, vacuuming the halls once a week and sweeping up after garbage pickup, if my $150 rent was halved to $75 a month? Well OK, this made my life easier, and supplemented my income from teaching art at Central City Hospitality House, its drop-in center serving displaced and disturbed individuals, urban poets, and hustling teenage prostitutes of all sexes.

I believe studio apartments on that block of Fillmore are about $2400 a month now, and saw one in the building offered for AirBnB rental.

About a year later I was working as a CETA-funded community muralist (please see "Artist!" for my memoir of that). One dark December late afternoon I came home from my job and stopped into Country Gentleman for a beer. A diminutive white woman was working at the register, as Kelley puttered about. "You watch my girl while I go on an errand?" Sure, I said, and settled with my beer on a stool in the corner. As Willie limped out the door, he dropped a small Saturday-night-special revolver in the pocket of my coat. "Use this if you have to" he muttered with a smile, and was gone. Wait, what are the rules?!? Shoot a kid shoplifting candy?

There were still a few businesses that evoked the vibrant black Fillmore of the 1940s and '50s, after Japanese were shipped out to internment camps and black shipyard workers arrived. Pro athlete Nate Thurmond owned a restaurant on upper Fillmore, his Rolls Royce parked out front. There was a suave jazz club that featured Denise Perrier. Leon's Barbecue served up ribs and soulful sides, and later opened a second restaurant at the beach.

I made friends with Leroy Hicks, US Navy veteran who—since he went from his momma's at 17 and had Uncle Sam taking care of him till he retired 25 years later—didn't know how to make instant coffee or Campbell's soup when he moved in. Grateful that I showed him, subsequent weekends we consumed much Old English 800 malt liquor and Korbel brandy while his burly baton-wielding security-guard girlfriend cooked delightfully greasy roasts and ribs for us to soak all that drink up.

There was a pop-up greengrocer on Sundays, set up in front of the State Employment Office by a goateed black Colonel Sanders who loaded up his truck at Alemany Market and hired Latino teenagers to put on crisp white lab coats and staff it. Elderly women, just returned from church, would shop there and offer me advice on cooking greens—"You got to jes' add a little piece o' salt po'k". My big blonde girlfriend, another Michigan transplant and artist, affectionately called them "the Hats" for their finery; perhaps they welcomed young whites supporting the black business, manifesting the integration they'd marched for in the 1950s and '60s.

In 1980 I exhibited my artwork in a show at Western Addition Cultural Center Sargent Johnson Gallery with Dora de Miranda, who was then directing the gallery. Every one of my works included black people. "Fillmore Venus", a teenager with braided hair I saw carrying her saxophone to school, appeared alongside cubist treatments of the 22 Fillmore bus and of Janis Joplin and Rufus Thomas backstage at the Fillmore Auditorium (symbolizing black culture and white hippie harmony). Three paintings in a "Detroit, 1943" series were based on badly-xeroxed pictures of the wartime race riot. I also included my impression of a grim arrest I observed of a Chicano teenager in the Haight by two cops, one white and one black, the round face of the latter enlarged into an African mask.

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Detroit, 1943 #3"

painting © Mike Mosher 1980, 2015

The crowd at the opening reception included my mostly white artist friends, Dora's Mexican-American family, and a few black neighborhood residents. Yet one elderly black woman was not pleased to see Dora and me exhibiting there, complaining "Can't you people leave anything just for us?"

Racial tension seemed to increase with the new decade. By this time I was no longer the sole white in 733 Fillmore. Songwriter (and later poetry newspaper publisher) William Perkins moved in to a third floor studio. Shortly after came a studious white guy with a biracial performance-artist girlfriend, who (Facebook recently reunited us!) now runs a Berkeley restaurant with her Chinese-American husband.

Tension was provoked by some gay men who bought properties, upgraded them, then raised the rents to the detriment of long-time black tenants. I remember a gay man hollering as he chased a teenager who snatched his gold chain from his neck, onlookers laughing. Yet there had always been black gays in the FIllmore whose circles included whites—a gay club Black and White Together advertised—like the elegant black florist on my block, who spray-painted roses black for Halloween. I once applied for a mural project in the Fillmore in collaboration with muralist Kemit Amenophis, originally from Detroit, who had painted a fine Egyptianized Grace Jones at the time, but we didn't get the commission.

One Sunday morning, after my girlfriend had dropped me back home, as I walked up Fillmore Street to a big coffee and sweets at Hunts' Donuts, a car full of three menacing white guys—they looked like off-duty cops—hollered "Faggot!" At first I thought defensively, hey, you don't mean me. Then I realized: this must be what gays have to go through all the time.

Once I was mugged, walking one evening past the low-level church-managed housing development near Buchanan, a humane alternative to the morbid concrete "Pink Palace" towering over the area. I teenager with a knife appeared, punched me in the eye, demanded my wallet growling "I'm gonna cut you, I'm gonna cut you". A concerned middle-school girl cautioned "Be careful, sir, he's been in Napa State Hospital twice!" I hurried on, until a stout man stood between us, which after being chased a couple times around him like dogs around a tree, gave me a chance to sprint for the 5 Fulton bus.

I didn't call the police, for I feared they'd as likely hassle the stout black man as the perp. The knife didn't go into me, my wallet didn't go into his pocket, so I came out ahead. People at work asked me about my black eye. But it changed my relationship to my surroundings, what had previously felt like my neighborhood. I didn't go to evening meeting at a church concerned with missing black children in Seattle, so I never pitched my idea for a community mural project in solidarity with the parents.

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Public housing at Webster and Page, mid-1990s.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

The Palestinian man who owned the store on the corner was shot to death in a robbery. When I visited in 2006, his son was running it, pleased when I said kind words about his father pictured on the wall, the son grown equally gray. Willie Kelley was stabbed by a young woman resisting his advances, the police supposedly following a trail of blood (Willie chased her?) back to her place in one nearby housing project. At his funeral neither the waxy figure in the coffin, nor the paragon of virtue his weeping female relatives spoke of, was the Willie I knew and mourned, so I left early.

After my CETA job ended in 1981, someone I'd rented scaffolding from tipped me off to a job on a crew restoring the leaf and painted plaster ceiling of the old Oakland Hotel, built in 1915 for Panama-Pacific Exposition overflow. At the work's completion, I got a nice cash bonus, which allowed me to upgrade my residence to a loft on Clarion Alley in the Mission, beginning another chapter of my San Francisco adventure. I knew I needed more space when I realized how many good clothes I was throwing out to make room for paintings in my Fillmore apartment closet. When I moved, I suggested to Carrico’s company that Leroy be hired to manage the building, a job he held for many years.

Looking back at my Fillmo' days, I see my tale contains violence, petty crime, sexism, racial friction and contradictions...but I remember it warmly, and value its lessons. I tell twenty-somethings graduating in art and design from my mid-Michigan university to head to a city, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, wherever. A new big city should be a nurturing, exciting part of life for creative young people, important for their true education and breadth. San Francisco was that for me, and I hope it can still be for young artists today.