Dear (White) Liberal San Franciscan,
I regret to inform, you missed it: The final day of celebration for the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street was Sunday. Aside from its usual meditation on “A Love Supreme” and a service to deliver the wisdom in its creator’s words, there was even a bit of time that day reserved to remember Prince, a kindred spirit and sound messenger of love who transitioned last Thursday. But really, there is no need to cry for the Coltrane Church: Going strong for nearly 50 years, it will continue to thrive in one incarnation or another, in accordance to its creed proclaiming life everlasting. Armed with a faith that knows no bounds, no building is going to hold down Archbishop Franzo King and his congregation. He and his musically gifted family of ordained ministers will remain in the light of Coltrane consciousness and on the move for truth and justice. However, if you’d still like to grieve our losses, please consider the sorry state of San Francisco, and our complicity in the soul murder of the city the Church calls home.
Once dubbed Harlem of the West, christened the Fillmore Jazz District, and finally subtitled “The Heart and Soul of the City,” with the exit of the internationally known destination for Coltrane fans and jazz pilgrims, so goes the last living breathing expression of Black culture on the street. When the people who make the neighborhood leave the neighborhood, we are all poorer for it. I know you know this because I’ve seen your passion, particularly at the rallies to support anti-displacement in the once-predominantly Latino Mission District. But as we continue to lose more and more of our friends, family, and neighbors to displacement, illness, unemployment, police violence and other consequences of over-gentrification, it would help if those of us who remain in opposition to these forces move as one body and one voice against the evil that has taken up residence here.
I mention your participation in regard to the Black communities specifically because over the past two years, when it came time to stand up for another cultural and community-serving institution in the neighborhood, America’s oldest Black bookstore, Marcus Books (housed in a regal purple building that was also once home to the historic jazz club, Jimbo’s Bop City), y’all may as well have been whistling Dixie. I know you have your reasons: Small businesses are supposed to be self-supporting. But in a city that is hostile to its working class residents, people of color, and the neighborhood businesses serving them, it’s not that easy. There is not what we call a Twitter tax-break for sole-proprietorships. Small business is at the mercy of real estate speculators, and banks that set customers on a lending track that leads to foreclosure instead of away from it. There is no rent control on commercial space according to state law. Add to that a customer base caught between cheaper prices online and three jobs that don’t allow for leisure-time browsing and you’ve got a crisis. Just look at all the empty storefronts in the Haight, the Tenderloin, and even in (gasp) Noe Valley. In the Mission, the difficulties are far from over: Longtime businesses struggle to remain open; mysterious fires are all too common and police violence escalates. There is, perhaps as you’ve heard, a hunger for justice. A hunger strike, now on its seventh day, is occupying the area around the police station. At a rally organized by peace and justice workers calling for the firing of the chief of police and the mayor, a speaker asked, “Where are the Democrats?” She had a point, I thought, looking around for my peers. The Black and Brown communities however are working in solidarity: Last month they tied the knot in a symbolic ceremony conducted by Archbishop King.
The Kings of the Coltrane Church are simply too kind to use their spirituality as a weapon or to shame people into action, but I’m not that evolved and so I will. Perhaps you are holding back in supporting the cause for racial justice because you are not a joiner; you don’t do street protest, you gave at the office. In the case of supporting a place like the Coltrane Church, maybe you opted out because you are an atheist, a non-sectarian, or wish to hold the line of separation between church and state. Maybe you’re solid in your chosen faith, or otherwise committed on Sundays. I understand. Though surely the reason you resisted can’t be that the Coltrane Church venerates a saint and a Holy Trinity that is rendered Black in its iconography — -I know you are way too open-minded to let pictures stand in the path between yourself and a higher purpose. So what is it?
The Archbishop and his family share a surname with the greatest, freedom fighting, God-loving American this country has ever produced, the one who connected the dots between racism, poverty and war, and the moral imperative to end them. But because you are a liberal San Franciscan, there is probably no need to invoke the memory of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement or to mention the people of faith embedded in it, who worked alongside students and a broad spectrum of allies on the grassroots and political sides to end segregation, then went on to contribute to the ending of the war. Some of these same people forged the women’s movement, gay liberation, well, you get the picture…You were in their midst or read about them in books. So why am I telling you this? I’m getting to it.
Certainly poverty and racism have never ended, and other wars have come and gone, but the political war in the Fillmore has raged on, unabated. Why? That is for people better equipped than I am to uncover, though the neighborhood’s well-known history of oppression is a backdoor to understanding its sustained troubles. First settled by Jewish immigrants following the 1906 earthquake, Japanese settlers came next, but were interned during World War II. The next wave of migrants were working African Americans in the ’40s and ’50s. The razing of their homes began in earnest in the ’60s. The decades of ousting residents from the area continued into the 21st Century even after the so-called Redevelopment Agency, a well-documented program of disaster from top to bottom, was retired in 2014. Its effects are still being played out in the current rent strike at the Midtown complex and in the eviction case of 99-year-old Iris Canada, to name but two examples.
We know San Francisco has housing issues, but the details of the buildings ceded to the Fillmore as community benefits during and post-Redevelopment seem to have their own special circumstances that are not easily understood by people who live outside the community. Some would say it is not our business. Names are occasionally called, but inquiries are usually relegated to insular meetings of neighborhood councils, and overruled by a couple of pairs of iron hands. But what if the truth were to be discovered and prevailed? Chances are, the Coltrane Church’s mission would not have been interrupted, nor would its space be contested, nor would the lives of all the folks who’ve been pushed from their neighborhood at center of the City, to the outer limits and beyond it be disrupted to this day. Who specifically is gaining when the Fillmore’s cultural resources are repeatedly displaced?
Having a community’s cultural cachet, its attractions, and its gathering places — -in this case its bookstore and jazz church — moved out is tragic for all the reasons you can imagine. Jazz clubs Rasselas and Yoshi’s are gone: With the absence of the Coltrane Church, the Fillmore is left particularly bereft. This Black community’s cultural assets are no longer so readily accessed and all benefits to the communities exposed to them are suddenly ceased.
When a neighborhood corridor’s artifacts and active existence disappears, only to be presented encased in the steel and glass institutions of downtown and civic center (where the needs of the organizations there must comply to more monied, bureaucratic, and middle of the road interests) or get annexed to the Bayview (also battling gentrification), Black music and art and literature in the making cannot just be happened upon, discovered, or shared with neighbors spontaneously. Advance tickets are required, the cost may often be prohibitive, and the experience is mediated, with conditions attached. The revolution has been institutionalized. And yet Black culture, often born from pain and designed to transcend it, could and should be our greatest ally and friend right now. It is after all, America’s great export, to use the crass language of commodification. I also realize describing a canon of arts so diverse and magnificent it cannot be cataloged, contained, or quantified with such a tiny brush stroke is my folly. What I mean to say is, here in San Francisco, Black Culture has become a destination rather than an integrated part of our cultural experience. We have become the mono culture we feared, much like the places you fled from, and the fault is ours to bear. We can no longer stand by and point the finger at Ed Lee, Ron Conway, Chief Suhr, Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Chronicle, Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, or any other villain du jour, as inept as they are and as easy as it might be. We the people of San Francisco need to take responsibility for this blessed mess.
We need to make room for inspiration and improvisation again; we need to live more of a jazz existence and less like squares or risk diving deeper into the jazz-free zone. We’re already enveloped by “hipsters” who not only appropriated jazz words and clothes, but wouldn’t know hip if it hit them upside the head, ya dig? We need to show them how it’s done, San Francisco-style and we need everyone, Black and Brown, LGBTQ, Asian, Native, seniors, women, youth, homeless people, and yes, straight white men too (though we could use you to turn down the volume on yourselves). If you just moved here and work for a tech company and feel what you’re reading, we need you, too. The City of St. Francis has always welcomed you, but it needs you to become an active participant in the lifestyles and values we prize.
For going on 50 years, the Coltrane Church has been there, to feed and cloth and tend to the spiritual and musical needs of San Franciscans. If ever you’ve traveled by car across town on a Tuesday afternoon or found yourself with time to listen to KPOO 89.5, and got lost in the notes from John Coltrane’s saxophone or the voice of Sister Wanika, speaking his words and wisdom, then you know. Or if ever you’ve attended an event against police violence or during the banking and foreclosure crisis, you’ve heard Archbishop King speak. These are the ways in which the Church of St. John Coltrane has been woven into the fabric of our everyday lives and benefited all San Franciscans. The church and its people are examples of our best selves, moving in harmony in the name and sound of truth, justice, and love. This is Coltrane consciousness in action, attempting to better the conditions of the world around us.
“I know there are bad forces, forces out there that bring suffering and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force, I want to be the force which is truly for good,” said John Coltrane.
People of conscience cannot and will not let the bad forces that have descended on us here prevail. Grieve if you must, but there is no better time than now to get involved in the movement for racial and economic justice. Now is the time to stand up and become a force for good, for the benefit of all San Franciscans.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. She writes from San Francisco on gentrification issues and the arts.