Preservation gone wrong in San Francisco



State Historical Resources Commission

April 16, 2009

Palm Springs City Hall

Palm Springs, CA


John William Templeton*

President/Executive Editor

eAccess Corp.

San Francisco, CA



Good morning, commissioners. When I appeared before you in August 2007, we celebrated your foresight to prioritize the preservation of the diverse cultures of California in the Statewide Consolidated Historic Preservation Plan.

One need only witness the more than 100,000 visitors who trek to Allensworth each year in a remote locale to understand the need among the African-American community for interpretation and preservation of its heritage.

But just as Monroe Work reported in 1920 that Allensworth was one of six all-black towns in California, so does the solitary state historic landmark for the original site of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco beg the question of why the other two black churches founded there in 1852 are not properly designated.

It is not for lack of knowledge. James deTarr Abajian saw the significance of California and the West’s African-American heritage for more than 50 years, collecting items as diverse as Black Panther posters to Spanish land grants.

The formation of the S.F. Negro Historical and Cultural Society in the mid-1950s predated the national observance of Black History Month by 20 years.

When I compiled a variety of primary sources and peer-reviewed texts in Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 1 in 1991, it coincided with the restoration of the Lucille Lloyd mural of Queen Califia in the Senate budget committee chamber in the Historic State Capitol.

Even though the Huntington Library in San Marino has many of the personal papers of William Alexander Leidesdorff including his agreement with John Sutter to divide the gold-bearing territories, we were still recently able to find the original appraisal of his estate in the State Archives, where the estate had been the subject of a select committee in 1856.

Although 40 of those properties lie or near historic and conservation districts, they have not been systematically identified, including the house where Leidesdorff hosted both John Fremont and where his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, first stayed in California.

As you may recall, those are among the solemn tasks which a team of historians and architects has undertaken as part of the Invisible Pioneers context statement, including our two annual conferences Preserving California Black Heritage. Even the late Dr. John Hope Franklin and his collection at Duke University came to our assistance.

Unfortunately, I have to report that your guidance in the Consolidated Statewide Historic Preservation Plan has not only been ignored, but deliberately flouted.

Our efforts to point out the numerous errors in the interpretation of already-designated historic districts and the enormous number of Category B resources not added to the California Inventory of Historical Resources have been met by retaliation, deception, illegal behavior and profound conflicts of interest.

We also now have an environmental and preservation emergency. More than 95 percent of all foreclosures in San Francisco are in the southeastern sector of the city, more than 650 to date. This is an area of potential historic and architectural significance which is prime for the kind of “Community Cloroxing” that has been seen from Cottage Row to Alamo Square to Market-Octavia.

Compared to the multiple submissions from Los Angeles at today’s meeting, where a person walking through Central Avenue today would have little indication of the area’s glorious history, but yet the redevelopment agency commissioned a context statement to chronicle it; in San Francisco, we still have members of the historic communities living in the neighborhoods, and we still don’t do the preservation work.

As I have alluded, a community that has hosted everyone from John Fremont to the African attendees to the United Nations conference certainly rises to the level of national and statewide significance, so the vagaries of local politics should not be allowed to deny the entire country and world the benefit of a full telling of the history.

A new book on San Francisco’s labor history by many whose names are familiar to you only mentions African-Americans once among 88 locations it deemed of significance to labor history.

A New York Times article on the Haight-Ashbury district never mentioned that it had been a predominately African-American area for more than 30 years, including Connie’s restaurant, where James Baldwin and Huey Newton lunched.

A San Francisco Chronicle article on the sale of a house in the Alamo Square historic district glossed over its African-American residents by calling them “other families.”

In that Jackson Square National Historic District, first recognized in the 1970s, there are eight buildings which were occupied by African-American nightclub owners immediately after rebuilding from the earthquake, a fact chronicled by a police memo which designated them as “colored.” A new thesis on “animal dances” quotes Capt. James Reese Europe of Harlem fame as crediting San Francisco with the origins of the dances and the music that went along with it. A new UC Press book by Phil Pastras notes that Jelly Roll Morton was a homeowner in San Francisco, a fact backed up by the 1919 voter registration rolls. A review of the application for the district omits these critically important details. The lack of that interpretation means that much of our literature about American culture, such as the recent PBS series by Ken Burns, is just flat out wrong.

The origins of jazz had roots in the Underground Railroad, the opening of the transcontinental railroad and campaign to pass the 15th Amendment as a purposeful response to the spread of minstrelsy.

From that beginning, we find that many of the current landmarks have omissions of context or omission. Yet recent developments threaten to worsen that trend.

• The San Francisco Preservation Element and the Historic Preservation Work Plan ignore the role of African-American heritage in their plans for the next five years, a clear break with the Statewide plan.

• In practice, the City and County has a single-minded focus on “architectural preservation” instead of the other five criteria for preservation.

• The Redevelopment Agency closed Area A-2 in December 2008 without doing a historic resource survey of the area, and commissioned a study of the upcoming Bayview area which pointedly ignored the African-American contributions to the area. A discussion of the Alice Griffith Homes, a prime development opportunity, was silent on the Sargent Johnson “Seven Animals” sculpture inside.

• The opportunities for tax relief and credits through the Mills Act and the federal tax credit have been excluded from African-American residents for more than 40 years.

• Contrary to the Historic Preservation Act, there has been a lack of public outreach on historic preservation beyond a select group of insiders with a financial interest in a particular way of “neutron preservation” which looks only at buildings and not those who inhabit them.

A couple Sundays ago, I was walking from church up Fulton Street at Divisadero when I noticed a young white couple peering over some hedges at a house. That wasn’t unusual until I also saw an elderly black lady in the yard working diligently on her extensive flower garden. The couple was almost rudely ignoring her and looking at the house, which needed some paint. I could not have scripted a more telling metaphor. Although the lady has probably lived there for more than 50 years, the market incentives, some created by the state and federal governments, make her story irrelevant.

It would take far more time than you have in this meeting to discuss how many ways this is contrary to the California Environmental Quality Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Brown Act and the Civil Rights Acts.

I would urge you to immediately put the full weight of the Commission behind the courageous stand of Commissioner Moss that the City and County of San Francisco not pick and choose the parts of their Certified Local Government status which enrich a small minority.

There should be a resolution expressing the desire of the Commission that the barriers to the Invisible Pioneers context statement be eliminated and that the City abide by its own Preservation Bulletin 13, giving an emphasis to the interpretation of underrepresented groups.

There should be an investigation of the $20,000 grant awarded to the Planning Dept. in August 2007 for submissions to the California inventory as to whether the department’s refusal to support the Invisible Pioneers context statement represents a violation of federal and state civil rights laws.

The Commission should begin procedures to place San Francisco’s Certified Local Government status on probation for six months pending a resolution of its systematic exclusion of African-Americans and other underrepresented groups from historic preservation programs.

Like the lifeboat on the Maersk Alabama, historic preservation in San Francisco is intended to be a lifesaver, but in the control of the wrong hands can take the very communities it is intended to serve hostage.

We definitely need to tow it back to the open seas of transparency, environmental justice and sound science before it runs aground.

In the words of that former Muni trolley driver, Maya Angelou, these developments have not deterred our desire to bring a full account of California’s history to the fore. “Still we rise.”


7 thoughts on “Preservation gone wrong in San Francisco

  1. Thank you for your work. Will you include the East Bay – Oakland, etc. in your future efforts?

    Jim Cook

  2. You’re quite welcome. Our book Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California has been used to preserve several properties in Oakland. We do work closely with AAMLO and are doing genealogical research with several descendants of 19th century musicians. We are always open to working with neighborhood groups, churches, schools or local jurisdictions to explore this history further. Each October we have a conference called Preserving California Black Heritage designed to train practitioners in historic preservation methods and educators in how to infuse this local and state history into classrooms.

  3. hi!!!
    I am a student of USC and i am doing my masters in historic preservation I would like to come for the conference you are planning to hold.
    could you tell me the time and venue.
    thank you.

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