Breed, who grew up in the Fillmore, led the ribbon-cutting for the mural celebrating local history and activist heroes including herself.
by Darcy Brown-Martin
When she took the mic under a cloudless blue sky in front of the Rosa Parks Senior Center on Buchanan Mall on Saturday morning, Aug. 3, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was rather literally in her element.
“Hello, community!” she called to the throng of Fillmore residents, visiting artists, political aides, police and curious passersby seated on folding chairs or standing on the low hillside facing her. “It’s really good to be home.”
Breed had returned to her childhood neighborhood to lead a formal unveiling of the brilliantly-colored, collaboratively-created “Spirit of Fillmore” mural enlivening the exterior of the Rosa Parks building. Breed grew up across the street, in what she refers to as the “notorious” Plaza East housing project, which has been rebuilt since her youth.
Both Breed and District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, who addressed the crowd after the mayor, acknowledged that the Buchanan Mall and Fillmore neighborhoods have been profoundly impacted by recent rapid change, increasing the value of public art that portrays local history. Said Brown, “When I walk through the Mall these days, I’m thrilled to see the work of so many people and organizations coming together. Art has always been part of the culture of this community, and it helps us preserve history.”
The day’s celebratory crowd had begun gathering shortly before the mayor’s appearance. Some attendees were drawn to the site by the sounds of a live jazz quartet, featuring a saxophonist in full SFPD uniform – who reminded the crowd that “Fillmore used to be a jazz district, back in the day.” Other guests had come for the chance to get facetime with Breed and Brown. Most, though, were present to celebrate the many Fillmore community members and organizations who helped create the “Spirit of Fillmore.”
Neighborhood residents, both housed and homeless, provided extensive input into the design of the mural, which depicts Fillmore history through portraits of heroes both well-known and unknown. Mayor Breed’s portrait is a prominent feature, as are images of Rosa Parks; Mary Helen Rogers, a longtime Fillmore activist and housing advocate who died in 2006; and contemporary local teenage youth leaders, many of whom were instrumental in the mural-design and painting processes.
The “Spirit of Fillmore” mural is the result of a yearlong community engagement conducted by a consortium of nonprofit organizations known as the Buchanan Change Initiative (BCI). BCI is led by convening nonprofit Citizen Film, a Western Addition–based, nationally recognized arts organization.
Citizen Film has spent the last five years working with local residents on a cycle of story-collecting and story-sharing. Community members of all ages – from teens to seniors – interview one another on camera about personal histories and aspirations for their neighborhood. These interviews are turned into documentary films that are screened in neighborhood community centers (including informal gathering places such as barbershops and beauty salons), where residents then collect additional stories and input from neighbors as they share reactions to the films.
The mural project was financially supported by San Francisco’s taxpayer-funded Community Challenge Grant program and engaged a huge number of Fillmore residents of all ages. Citizen Film is now collaborating with San Francisco city agencies to revitalize the mall in accordance with the community’s wishes, transforming it from a neglected, underutilized space into a nexus for art and social connection.
The “Spirit of Fillmore” is one of many community-driven renovations now being executed or planned in the near future for Buchanan Mall. Another is a lighted Buchanan Mall art walk featuring public artworks by local artists, with audio and multimedia booths. Citizen Film has already partnered with the Exploratorium and other BCI members to install sculptural multimedia clusters along the mall, which offer scan-code-accessible films about the neighborhood, and audio recordings of neighbors sharing personal stories.
Additional future plans include establishing micro-enterprise kiosks, adding play and exercise areas appropriate for residents of different ages, and creating new open-air performance and gathering spaces along the mall.
The idea for a mural on Buchanan Mall emerged from Citizen Film’s documentary work with and about the social enterprise Green Streets. Citizen Film co-founder Sophie Constantinou explains that “as we documented Green Streets’ recycling efforts in the Western Addition’s public housing complexes, we kept hearing stories from older residents about what Buchanan Mall had meant to them,” in the years before it became run-down, dangerous and little-used.
BCI contracted with the Bay Area Mural Program (BAMP) to steer the process of creating the mural in concert with residents. Citizen Film Community Outreach Director Tamara Walker, who organizes local youth to facilitate the story-gathering process which gave rise to the mural concept, also organized area youth to participate in mural painting. As a result, “Spirit of Fillmore” was painted by neighborhood residents of all ages under the artistic direction of André Jones, executive director of BAMP; Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith, creative director of BAMP; and a team of eight BAMP artists.
Says Jones: “After Citizen Film collected stories, BAMP Assistant Director Izze Drumgoole and I facilitated public workshops to decide how we would translate the stories into design. What came up repeatedly were themes of migration and a wish to see local heroes celebrated. We wound up with a chronological history of the Western Addition featuring community leaders as well as unsung and anonymous neighborhood residents who led the charge for justice and equity through different periods of history.”
Saturday’s ribbon-cutting commemorated Mary Rogers and her extraordinary efforts to protect affordable housing for Fillmore residents and preserve the community’s African American heritage.
Rogers’ daughter, Angela Rogers McPeters, an Oakland resident, reflected on her childhood neighborhood. “I love that Buchanan Mall is getting beautified, that it’s safer than it was. And it’s awesome that they did this mural and honored my mom.”
Says Citizen Film’s Tamara Walker, “All the work that led up to the creation of The Spirit of Fillmore has fostered real collaboration in this neighborhood, and enabled the community to tap creative sides to change the Buchanan Mall into a place where people want to be, and where new connections are being created.”
Mayor Breed seemed to agree, summing up the mural, the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and the community engagement process that led to both with words of hope and celebration. In her closing at Saturday’s unveiling, she said, “This is about renewal, activation, and uplifting this community.”
See, study and enjoy “Spirit of Fillmore” at the Rosa Parks Senior Center, 1111 Buchanan St., San Francisco.
Darcy Brown-Martin is a Bay Area writer and a producer for Citizen Film, a Fillmore–based production company that uses documentary storytelling to foster active engagement in civic and cultural life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.