September 25, 2019

San Francisco’s mayor returns to her roots

The first Black female mayor of San Francisco helps unveil a new mural bearing her portrait in a changing neighborhood.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed (center) poses in front of her portrait in "The Spirit of Fillmore" mural while holding a framed mural-planning sketch by currently-unhoused artist and longtime Fillmore denizen Clifton Hyson (left of Breed). Hyson was one of many Mall-area residents who collaborated with artists from the Bay Area Mural Program (BAMP) to plan and paint the documentary artwork. Photo by Aurora Jiminez

On a cloudless Saturday morning in August, San Francisco Mayor London Breed led the unveiling of a brilliantly-colored, community-created documentary mural on the exterior of the Rosa Parks Senior Center on Buchanan Mall. The five-block-long pedestrian plaza runs through a historically Black neighborhood in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.

At the microphone, the mayor’s first words were, “Hello, community! It’s really good to be home.”

Breed—the first Black female mayor of San Francisco—grew up steps away from the mural she was celebrating, in one of the seven public housing complexes that ring Buchanan Mall. Her deep personal understanding of the neighborhood is part of what motivates her support of Buchanan Change, a community-informed initiative to revitalize Buchanan Mall.

“I grew up walking up and down here, where we had a thriving African American community,” she told the audience. “Now we look at the Fillmore and how much it’s changed over the years. So I want to thank all of you for being here today, because this is about a renewal.”

Mayor Breed recalled the Mall as it had been for decades, and as hundreds of residents still remember it: a central passage and series of parks where children played, teens strolled, and neighbors socialized and gathered for entertainment. In the 1980s, however, after drugs and turf wars overtook the Mall, it became dilapidated and avoided by the residents who had once enjoyed and enlivened it.

Since 2014, Buchanan Change—a consortium of community-based organizations, artists, and residents convened by local arts organization Citizen Film—has engaged the largely low-income, predominantly African American community in a process to collectively envision a revitalized mall, and bring that vision to fruition. The neighborhood’s new mural, titled “The Spirit of Fillmore” and filled with portraits of local heroes including the mayor, is one outcome of the process.

The process originated with Citizen Film’s cycle of story-collecting and story-sharing. Citizen Film organizes community members of all ages to interview one another about personal histories and aspirations for their neighborhood. Citizen Film then works with its community partners to turn the interviews into short documentary films that are screened all over the neighborhood, in locations such as community centers, housing association meetings, and the African American Art & Culture Complex, located next to the mall. The stories frame topical conversations about the neighborhood’s history and context and inform the work of the activists who are bringing community and culture back to the mall.

Mayor Breed understands the value of arts engagement and she understands the Buchanan Mall neighborhood (she was the Executive Director of the African American Art & Culture Complex for more than over a decade). She has been instrumental in screening Citizen Film’s short documentaries in city agency offices and at hearings to frame conversations between officials and residents, making collaboration far more productive. Residents feel seen and heard, and officials better grasp the nuance of their constituents’ perspectives.

This has resulted in a community-driven collaboration with city government to make a range of improvements to Buchanan Mall, which is once again becoming safe and vibrant. Plans include new planting beds, lighting, play areas for kids, exercise zones for youth and adults, and a range of art installations in different mediums that convey the history of the mall and its residents. Citizen Film and its partners also co-produce an annual slate of 18 public events and festivals that draw thousands of people to the mall.

All of this is the result of the mayor’s embrace of innovative arts-based projects as a key strategy for bridging longstanding disparities among San Francisco residents based on income and color of skin. Storytelling has helped residents of the mall neighborhood gain access to policymakers and increased their agency in shaping the narrative of San Francisco for all residents.

As Mayor Breed told her audience on Aug. 3, “This is about activation. Telling our stories uplifts this community and brings us together. This incredible project tells an amazing story about our history, our culture, and our future.”

Darcy Brown-Martin

Darcy Brown-Martin

Citizen Film

Darcy Brown-Martin is a Bay Area-based writer, filmmaker, and nonprofit fundraiser. She has dedicated 20 years to raising attention and money for children's causes, social justice, and the arts.
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