Healing the wounds of Jonestown

Statement to Human Rights Commission Nov. 14, 2013

by John William Templeton, Chief Economist, Ibis Partners

Land use policy that is contrary to public health, particularly when applied in a disparate fashion, is constitutionally suspect.   In 1888, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had violated the 14th Amendment in the Yick Wo case by creating and implementing a land use policy designed to reduce Chinese laundries, although that was not the expressed intent.

Despite that guidance, the history of the building that houses Marcus Books suggests the same equal protection issues.  It has been acquired through eminent domain at least once before as part of binding commitments made to the community affected by Redevelopment Areas A-1 and A-2.

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, in her book Root Shock, interviewed persons affected by those policies in San Francisco.  She writes, “People who have been displaced experience “root shock.”  Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem.”  Some of her more recent research implicates serial displacement in the spread of urban violence and diseases such as AIDS.

This particular building is a symbolic marker for the state of the community which was impacted by A-1 and A-2.   She describes how “external structural factors” imbue “particular idiomatic meaning.”

For Frank Sinatra, the building meant “the hippest after-hours joint in America.”  Despite that entertainment appeal, it was moved from 1690 Post Street, approximately the site of the Japantown Peace Plaza, to 1714 Fillmore Street along with a selection of other houses saved from demolition.

On March 30, 1968, Mrs. Mary Helen Rogers, co-founder of the Western Addition Community Organization, laid down the community’s expectations for the use of eminent domain following a March 2 meeting with Mayor Joseph Alioto.

“Let us not have another A1 or a Japan Town housing and shopping center that we can not afford.  Renewal is needed in our area but we must be able to own, rent or lease property that is within our means.   We as black people can no longer afford to have everything we have worked for be taken over by a few power-hungry or money-hungry downtown businessmen.”

More than a decade later, the plans had not been carried out.  The demolished blocks were being used for farming, known as the Frederick Douglas Memorial Gardens.   That idiomatic message left the community vulnerable in an extreme way to “root shock.”

The pivotal year of 1978 brought a comprehensive school boycott, addressing issues dating back to 1868.   That boycott, like the student strike at San Francisco State, had the potential to change the direction of national policy.

But one of the worst tragedies in American history intervened – Jonestown, as 900 area residents were murdered in Guyana at the hands of People’s Temple leader Jim Jones.

It had the effect of accelerating the pace of action.

On May 17, 1979, Redevelopment Agency executive director Wilbur Hamilton affirmed, “We are absolutely, fundamentally  committed” to making sure the Fillmore District is developed largely by Black investors and with facilities that reflect the cultural and commercial interests of the Black Community.  “We could have marketed the entire center a number of times but we kept it essentially as a land bank until we could be sure of Black participation”   Deals for the property will be negotiated rather than just merely awarded  to the highest bidder, so that modest developers with community ties will be able to compete effectively against bigger companies.

One of the families hardest hit by Jonestown was the Richardson family.   At the Feb. 1, 1979 Consultation on the Implications of Jonestown for the Black Church and Nation at Third Baptist Church,  Dr. Raye Richardson noted that she lost many relatives in Guyana, including her younger sister.

The placement of the Victorian Square, became the only real manifestation of that commitment from the Redevelopment Agency, as banks redlined the area instead of financing Fillmore Economic Development Council, the designated developer for the Fillmore Center, a concept first advanced by the visionary Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett.

The Richardson business, Marcus Books, became the visible face of that Victorian Square.   Thirty years later, the same banking misbehavior put the building into foreclosure and bankruptcy despite the ongoing business.  The U.S. Justice Department has entered consent agreements with Wells Fargo and Bank of America specifically for racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the San Francisco-Oakland area, collecting fines of $175 million apiece. Additional cases are pending, along with the $25 billion settlement announced with state attorneys general.

The presence of Marcus Books, particularly following the closure of the other 50 year old business on Fillmore Street, New Chicago Barber Shop, is the “idiomatic message” to all the survivors of the Jonestown massacre and redevelopment that the commitments of the city are being respected.

“External structural factors” such as financial misbehavior, or as Mary Rogers described it, “a few power-hungry or money-hungry downtown businessmen” can not override those sacred commitments.

Given that the City and County of San Francisco as the successor to the Redevelopment Agency first displaced the Richardsons through eminent domain, then displaced their building through eminent domain on the suspect theory of eliminating blight,  the historic record indicates that the real intent was the removal of African-American businesses and residents from the Western Addition.

The continuing danger to community mental health from the unhealed wounds of Jonestown is a compelling state interest for the City and County to act against real dangers.   Visible signs of the “root shock” Fullilove describes are the majority of African-Americans among inmates in San Francisco jails, the overrepresentation in all categories of mental illness, disparities in heart disease, cancer, and AIDS and the high rates of poor achievement among African-American youth.

For those who suggest those problems are typical, we have a controlled experiment which shows the opposite.   In 1963, when the African-American community was still largely intact physically and emotionally, the young people staged the  United San Francisco Freedom Movement for 2 ½ years and later the San Francisco State student strike.   An incoming Dr. Nathan Hare would express amazement at the self-confidence of the black students in San Francisco who “thought they could do anything.”

Fullilove defines a healthy community as one where many generations of families are able to thrive and develop.

In addition to the building, the Richardson family, where four generations continue a family concern, is a continuing monument to the norm which San Francisco must take steps to restore, given the role of public policy in the environmental damage which we have seen.

Since 1854, when the first building erected by African-Americans was the Athenian Literary Society at 917 Washington St., there has been a continuous literary presence by African-Americans in the city, with a host of significant works of literature, most since the openign of Marcus Books.

Using eminent domain to return the property at 1714 Fillmore to the uses for which it was saved in the first place is not only advisable, but the only morally acceptable choice.

The funds available from the mortgage settlement should be used to fund necessary costs, or the City Attorney should bring litigation to recover the impact of the mortgage crisis on the city, particularly such quantifiable impacts as health costs and displaced families as well as preserving existing neighborhoods which were targeted.

Additionally, the HRC should go on record as calling for or researching itself each of the land disposition agreements for each parcel of redeveloped property; identifying the continuing streams of tax increment associated with those parcels and making that information available for a policy discussion of how those funds best contribute to the preservation of the neighborhoods which bore the brunt of the misguided public policies.

Values of properties which had been held in black hands for more than 50 years have skyrocketed as much as 1,500 times in the past 40 years, a value which would have accrued to those families had redevelopment not intervened.

Most of the reasons that San Francisco has prospered have been steps which were taken contrary to land use policy, like preserving the cable cars.

Without such a history, those who laid in front of bulldozers and their families are watching those with no connection to that history reap the benefits of their sacrifices.


Fullilove, Mindy Thompson, M.D.   Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What Can Be Done About It

Wallace,  Rodrick; Fullilove, Mindy Thompson; and Flisher, Alan J.  “AIDS, Violence and Behavioral Coding:  Information Theory, Risk Behavior and Dynamic Process on Core Groupo SocioGeographic Networks

Templeton, John William “History of Environmental Justice” multimedia presentation, EPA Region IX  Feb. 2012

Templeton, John William Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco

Templeton, John William “San Francisco’s Fillmore District: The Cutting Edge of Black Urban Removal,”  Chapter 7 in Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 3, 1950-2000


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s