When you talk about
African-American history in Northern California, you have to talk about Willie
Brown. He was the first black person to serve as speaker of the California
legislature. In that role, Brown was one of the most powerful people in the
nation's biggest state for 15 years.After leaving that post he served as the Mayor of San Francisco from
1996 to 2004 years.
I start with this travel
blog with a shout out to the dapper retired politician because you can’t really
travel to San Francisco without feeling Brown’s fingerprints on the city in
large and small ways. Though San Francisco has been losing its black population
for a number of years, much of the city’s remaining black identity owes its
existence to the ex-Mayor.
A prime example is the
Museum of the African Diaspora (685 Mission Street, 415-358-7200,) an
institution dedicated to making connections between the movements of African
peoples around this globe. Brown played a major role in its development and
funding while Mayor, making it the first African-American focused addition to
San Francisco’s museum district.
MOAD focuses on the themes
of origins, movement, adaptation and transformation. Using state of the art
technology and video screens you can track the history of our people from
African to every corner of the world. There are film presentations on slavery
and the middle passage. There is an amazing wall of 2,000 photographs that
creates a tapestry of our collective history, which you could look at for a
week and still not take it all in.
exhibitions are featured there as well. Most of 2009 MOAD hosted an exhibit of
photos and memorabilia celebrating SF’s two most famous Willie’s – Brown and
Mays. The legacy of these two legends is intertwined at Pac Bell Park, a
baseball stadium that Brown fought to make happen and that Mays’ twenty years
with the Giants helped inspire.
You may not be a baseball
fan, but if you'd like to enjoy a beautiful day chillin' outside by the bay, Pac Bell Park is ideal.Perched right in the China Bay section (you can literally
boat to a game), Pac Bell has a great vista, comfortable seats and some of the
best ballpark food in the nation.
Out in front of Pac Bell
is a beautiful statue of Mays; while along the sides of the park are also
statues dedicated to Willie McCovey and Juan Marchical, two other black San
Francisco Giant greats.
Now if you wanted to see
some black San Francisco legends in the flesh I suggest you travel over to the
Fillmore district. Before World War II the Fillmore had a large Japanese
community. After the war it became the heart of the city’s black community. The
area is in transition again, becoming more gentrified with new developments.
But on any given night at
the 1300 on Fillmore restaurant the neighbor gets its black swagger back. When
I was in there last summer I saw Willie Brown himself, sitting in a beautiful
beige suit and matching hat, at the bar with a drink. Apparently it’s a hang
out for the ex-Mayor. Truth be told, if I lived in SF I’d be hanging there as
Owned by the husband and
wife team of chef David Lawrence and Monetta White, 1300 on Fillmore is as
architecturally elegant as any soul food restaurant in the country. The color
scheme is as honey colored as a good glass of Hennessey and has a smooth
feeling to match. There is a wall filled with illuminated photos that show the
history of the Fillmore district with vintage photos of African-Americans and
Japanese residents. Many of the photos are entertainment greats (Sammy Davis,
Jr., Billie Holiday) performing in now long gone nightclubs.
David, who is also the
restaurant’s chef, is British and received his culinary training in Europe, so
his approach to soul food isn’t like your Grandma’s. Lawrence calls his style
“soulful American.” You’ll find traditional dishes like barbecue shrimp with
creamy grits as well as progressive meals like spinach & goat cheese
Just up the block from
1300 Fillmore is 1330 Fillmore, better known to locals, as Yoshi's. This
Japanese restaurant/music club is an institution in the Bay Area, since there
is also a Yoshi's in Oakland. Black musicians, and audiences, are major parts
of the Yoshi's experience, with everyone from Mos Def to Lizz Wright to Stanley
Jordan, appearing at one or the other.
There is a very strong
retro-soul music scene in San Francisco with many regular parties that feature
DJs playing soul music of the ‘60s and young people (many of them white)
dressed up in the styles of that period. The Elbow Room has a soul party twice
a month, while once a month a party called Lonely Teardrops, named after the
Berry Gordy penned Jackie Wilson hit, is held at the Knockout. The web site www.sfsoulscene.com is the Bible for
those seeking old school soul.
If your looking for more
contemporary r&b and hip hop while in SF any event where DJ Sake1 is
playing is where you want to be. His regular party, Pacific Standard Time, is
Tuesday nights at 330 Ritch (330 Ritch, 415-541-9574) in the SOMA (south of Market)
section of town, but he plays at other clubs around town as well. To check out
Sake1’s style download his remix of “Milk & Honey,” a track by Bay Area
soul siren Goapele that’ll be on her up coming album. You can find his schedule
If you want to get a sense
of the contemporary black view of life in San Francisco (and a nice travelogue
of the town) rent or VOD the film ‘Medicine for Melancholy.’ Released late last
year and directed by 29 year old Barry Jenkins, it is a black version of films
like ‘Before Sunset,’ where a couple spends a day together talking about love
and life. But in Jenkins’ film its two black hipsters who spend an awkward and
romantic day together. ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ is a true independent film
about African-Americans who live in a predominantly white indie music scene. We
see them wrestle with attraction, class and gentrification as they fall in and
out of love in twenty-four hours.
Across the Bay in Oakland,
a city with a long, complex history of radical politics and progressive
thought, things are changing. While the Oakland that gave the world MC Hammer
and Too Short still exists, there has been a lot of gentrification there as
well. In fact many of the folks I ran into during last couple of trips to San
Francisco, actually owned homes in Oakland.
In particular the Lake
Merritt section of that city, which is dominated by a gorgeous lake, is
attracting folks priced out of San Francisco or those looking for the strong
sense of community Oakland is known for. The Oakland Hills has a long history
as a base for upper and middle black class black families, while the rest of
the city is also seeing rising rents and an influx of big box stores.
Oakland has a long legacy
of black activism. Mayor Ron Dellums was considered a radical during his 17
years in Congress. Dellums’ legacy continued on when he was succeeded by
Barbara Lee, now considered the most left leaning member of the House of
Of course Oakland’s
radical rep goes back to the Black Panther Party, a group of self-described
black revolutionaries who emerged from this city to inspire (and intimidate)
people around the world. David Hilliard, who served as chief of staff the Black
Panther Party, author of the book ‘This Side of Glory: The Story of the Black
Panther Party’, and cofounder of the Huey Newton Foundation (www.hueynewtonfoundation.org,
770-6447730). Hilliard has been running Black Panther tours of Oakland for
several years, taking folks to the homes of Newton, Bobby Seale, and the sites
of several bloody confrontations with the Oakland police. These tours aren’t
regularly scheduled so you should e-mail (www.blackpanthertour.com,
510-9860690) for details.
Another place for an
alternative look at our history is the African-American Museum & Library of
Oakland, which has a mission to document the experiences of black folks in the
western United States. Vision Toward Tomorrow: Oakland 1890 to 1990 is a recent
exhibition. A good example of what AAMLO offers is copies of the Black Panther
Party on microfilm.
Though not an official
black history site, Marcus Books (3900 Martin Luther King Blvd, 5106522344) is
crucially important to the city’s cultural legacy. Marcus Books, named after
Marcus Garvey, the leader of a black-to-African movement in the ‘20s, has been
in business since 1960.
Though quite unassuming
looking, this bookstore has hosted readings by any one and everyone in black
literature. Bay Area residents Alice Walker, Terry McMillan and Ishmael Reed
have all read here. I’ve even been lucky enough to read my work here for some
twenty years. In a world of chain stores that sell as much latte as books, Marcus
is all about supporting black authors and informing black readers.
While there is plenty of
traditional southern cuisine in Oakland, two spots I’d recommend push its
boundaries. Souley Vegan (301 Broadway, 5103939186) is a healthy eatery that
features items like southern fried tofu.
dinning experience can be had at the Brown Sugar Kitchen (2534 Mandela Parkway,
51083976785), which is a lunch spot run by Tanya Holland, a Paris trained chef
who is the author of the book New Soul Cooking, which uses European cooking
techniques on traditional favorites like chicken & waffles.
Because of it's only open
for lunch; the crowd at the Brown Sugar Kitchen
has an interesting mix of downtown businessmen in suits, groups of mothers with
small kids, and black firemen from a local firehouse. I chatted with the
brothers when they leaving and they praised Brown Sugar Kitchen's menu and told
me they were regulars there.Tanya
has plans to open a nighttime restaurant near Oakland’s Jack London Square within
Though San Francisco and
Oakland can seem as different as night and day, they share the same weather,
are connected by the very useful BART mass transit system and, most important,
a sense of the progressive in food, music and politics.