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The Library’s Neighborhood

The Library is located in San Franciso’s Western Addition, which has long been among San Francisco’s most interesting and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Other Jewish institutions currently located within a four-block radius of the Library are the Jewish Community High School of the Bay (whose campus the Library shares), Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the JFCS Holocaust Center, Rhoda Goldman Plaza, Sinai Memorial Chapel, and Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen. These institutions hearken to a distant past when the Western Addition hosted the largest Jewish population of any neighborhood in San Francisco’s history. Growing in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, the area became the second largest Jewish neighborhood west of the Mississippi, after Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Most of the Jews of the district did not descend from the wave of Jewish immigration from central Europe during the Gold Rush era that gave San Francisco many of its most prominent families. Rather, they were Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, who arrived in San Francisco beginning in the late nineteenth century, albeit in fewer numbers than on the East Coast. This community’s epicenter was initially South of Market. When that area was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire, most of its Jewish residents made their way to the Fillmore District (the historic business core of the Western Addition), which lay west of the fire line. Jewish immigration continued until the federal restrictions of the 1920s reduced it to a trickle, with the Fillmore as the primary destination for Yiddish-speaking Jews coming to San Francisco.
Fillmore Street was a lively thoroughfare, and became the city’s central business and entertainment district while downtown was being rebuilt. There was even an amusement park on Fillmore at Eddy Street. In 1907, to celebrate the neighborhood’s new status, local merchants helped construct curving, metal arches adorned with lights over fourteen intersections along a one-mile stretch of Fillmore Street.
The area once hosted prominent synagogues. Congregation Beth Israel built its first building downton in 1879, but eventually constructed its third on Geary Street between Fillmore and Steiner Streets. Unfortunately, it was close to completion when the earthquake struck. This area did not see the fire, but it was not immune from the quake, and masonry buildings were very vulnerable. It was rebuilt, becoming one of the biggest synagogues in San Francisco. Starting out Orthodox it eventually leaned Conservative, finally merging with Temple Judea, a Reform congregation, in 1969, and moving to Brotherhood Way. After an unusual afterlife as a punk rock concert hall and an ornate art installation called the Duquette Pavilion, it was gutted by an electrical fire in early 1989 and demolished. A good summation of that block’s storied history can be found here.
The primary synagogues serving Orthodox Jews were Anshey Sfard (known as the Golden Gate Avenue Shul, standing at 1140 Golden Gate) and Keneseth Israel (known as the Webster Street Shul, which was at 935 Webster). Anshey Sfard moved from the Fillmore area in 1958, when its building was taken through eminent domain for demolition. Keneseth Israel, which had been the city’s largest Orthodox synagogue, left the neighborhood in 1973, a shadow of its former self.

The Fillmore included a large number of Jewish bakeries, markets, restaurants, butchers, bookstores, and other businesses, and was a destination for Jews from throughout the city. The epicenter was McAllister Street. Here is a description from the 1930s WPA Guide to the City by the Bay by the Federal Writers Project:

“Near the southern end of Fillmore Street’s lengthy market place, where its noisy turbulence give way again to prosaic respectability at the foot of another hill clustered with turrets, bay windows, and mansard roofs, lies the city’s Jewish commercial center, the heart of the before-the-fire section, where bedizened old houses of the 1880s advertise housekeeping rooms on grimy signs. Yet, paradoxically, here is a gourmet’s paradise; along adjacent blocks of Golden Gate Avenue and McAllister Street the atmosphere is spicy with the odors of delicatessen shops, bakeries, and restaurants. In a dozen strange tongues, bargaining goes on along McAllister Street… Gathered in this district are a large number of the city’s 30,000 Jews, most of them immigrants from eastern Europe, many being recent arrivals.”

Although the area described above was later bulldozed, several notable Jewish sites from the past do remain in the Fillmore. Most prominent is the former home of the Hebrew Free Loan and Jewish Educational Society at Buchanan and Grove Streets, built in 1926. This is where the community’s Central Hebrew School met, led by Rabbi David Stolper. It is today a Korean community center.

The remarkable former mansion at the corner of Steiner Street and Golden Gate Avenue served from 1917 to 1923 as the Emanu-El Sisterhood’s Residence for Single Jewish Women, where they provided acculturation and services to working Jewish women. Outgrowing the building, they then built a larger structure at Page and Laguna Streets, designed by Julia Morgan, which has since 1969 been the San Francisco Zen Center.
In 1929, the Steiner Street building became the Yiddish Cultural Center, and for 30 years it provided secular Jewish activities, lectures, a theater troupe, and music for the neighborhood, as well as a secular Jewish school conducted in Yiddish. Next door at 1043 Steiner Street stands the boyhood home of violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin, whose father Moshe came to San Francisco from Jerusalem to lead its Central Hebrew School. For more on the Jewish history of the neighborhood, enjoy J.’s cover article from 2009; this piece from the neighborhood newspaper The New Fillmore; and these photographs collected by the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. You can also watch this presentation by Jewish Community Library director Howard Freedman.

A Home for Many Ethnic Groups

The Jewish Community Library lies just five blocks from Japantown. The first and oldest neighborhood of its kind in the United States, Japantown (also known as Nihonmachi) has a rich and also sobering history. In 1940, more than 5,000 Japanese Americans—around 95 percent of the city’s residents of Japanese descent—were living in Japantown, running more than 200 Japanese-owned businesses. In February 1942, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, expelling “all persons of Japanese ancestry” from the western states. Most of San Francisco’s Japanese residents were sent to the Topaz internment camp in the Utah desert. By April 1942, not a single person of Japanese origin was left in Japantown.

After the war, about half of Japantown’s former residents were able to return, and the community soon regained much of its size. However, a subsequent wave of redevelopment would take away many of their homes and businesses.

Black San Franciscans had been in the Fillmore since the turn of the century, but not in great numbers. Before World War II the city had fewer than 5,000 Black residents, and slightly fewer than half lived in the Fillmore. But the war changed everything, with people arriving both for wartime jobs and for a way out of the Jim Crow South. While the jobs were plentiful, so was housing discrimination. The Western Addition, which had long been ethnically diverse, was more hospitable than most other neighborhoods to Black housing applicants. Additionally, the absence of Japanese American residents after February 1942 meant the sudden availability of a vast number of vacant apartments and storefronts. Between 1940 and 1950, the Black population of the Western Addition went from just over 2,000 to nearly 15,000.

Maya Angelou, who lived in what had been Japantown as a teenager, portrayed the area’s transformation in her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“The Yamamoto Sea Food Market quietly became Sammy’s Shoe Shine Parlor and Smoke Shop. Yashigira’s Hardware metamorphosed into La Salon de Beauté owned by Miss Clorinda Jackson. The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes away from home for the newly arrived Southern blacks. Where the aromas of tempura, raw fish, and cha had dominated, the aroma of chitlings, greens and ham hocks now prevailed.”

The Fillmore became an important Black cultural hub, known as the Harlem of the West. This period was recorded superbly in the book Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era by Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts. You can watch a program the authors presented for the California Historical Society here. This article by Richie Unterberger features a good summary and selection of photos. Although the community was harmed severely by redevelopment in the 1960s, it remains one of the few neighborhoods in San Francisco with a large Black population, and features many Black institutions–ranging from churches to the African American Art and Culture Complex–and community celebrations for occasions including Juneteenth and Mardi Gras. Other ethnic groups also have roots in the neighborhood. During the 1940s the area boasted the largest Filipino population in San Francisco. The neighborhood also had a significant Mexican population. In fact, the much-beloved Casa Sanchez was a longtime institution in the Fillmore before moving to the Mission District in 1968.


It is impossible to discuss the history of the neighborhood without addressing the impact of redevelopment. Shortly after California enacted legislation supporting urban renewal in 1945, San Francisco published a “Master Plan” for reshaping the city by replacing blighted areas with new buildings and landscaping. The primary neighborhood identified as suffering from “blight” was the Western Addition. In 1947, the city’s planning commission issued a report, asserting that “Nothing short of a clean sweep and a new start can make of the district a genuinely good place.” It stated further:

“In view of the characteristically low incomes of colored and foreign-born families, only a relatively small proportion of them may be expected to be in a position to occupy quarters in the new development.”

In June 1948, the Board of Supervisors declared the Western Addition a blighted area and designated it for redevelopment, creating the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency to do so. With the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, the federal government would pay two-thirds of the costs of “renewing” blighted areas. And cities could pay their share in credits achieved through public improvements, rather than in cash.

The city’s plans were enacted in two phases. The A-1 area, approved in 1956, had two primary objectives. The first was to transfer more than a mile of Geary Street into an expressway, expanding it from four lanes to eight lanes in order to facilitate the movement of traffic between the Richmond District and downtown. The second was to demolish most of Japantown, replacing it with a new shopping center on the west and with luxury apartment buildings on the east side.

A-2, which was approved in 1964, covered a much larger area, including the rest of Japantown. It sought to remove nearly all of the housing in the Lower Fillmore and create a new commercial strip along Fillmore Street.

It took a long time. The picture on the right from the 1970s (with the Jewish Community Library’s parking garage at the bottom) shows some of the cleared blocks that would remain vacant for more than a decade before work on the  Fillmore Center started.

The area’s development resulted in the destruction of thousands of Victorian homes, whose architectural style was not valued as it is today. At the end of the redevelopment era, opposition to the wholesale destruction grew among preservationists. The Redevelopment Agency allowed for the possibility of relocating some of the few remaining Victorians if prospective buyers would assume the cost of moving them. The two blocks to the west of the Library has the city’s highest concentration of moved buildings. The photograph on the right, taken by Dave Glass in 1976, shows two Victorians that have been moved about a mile to an already bulldozed block. These buildings are visible today a half block west of the Library on Ellis Street (see lower photograph). Many of the buildings facing the Library on Scott Street, and most of those on the north side of Ellis between Scott and Divisadero Streets, were moved from other parts of the Western Addition. The buildings were dropped onto vacant lots that, ironically, had themselves been the sites of destroyed Victorian era homes. 

As a result of the two redevelopment projects, by the Redevelopment Agency’s own numbers, 883 businesses had been closed; 2,500 Victorian houses had been demolished; and between 20,000 and 30,000 residents were displaced, most of whom left the neighborhood permanently. It remains an open wound for many people with connections to the area. For a good discussion, read this two-part article by Walter Johnson, or view this timeline from KQED.


In spite of its challenges, the neighborhood surrounding the Library remains a vibrant one, with nightly concerts a few blocks away at the Fillmore Auditorium and Sheba Lounge; such culinary destinations Jane the Bakery and State Bird Provisions; and baseball, soccer, lacrosse, and swimming at the Hamilton Recreation Center. Just six blocks from the Library are the bustling Divisadero corridor and the Upper Fillmore shopping area. We at the Jewish Community Library are proud to be part of a multicultural neighborhood with a rich history.