Leola King has lived your life, the lives of three friends and then some.
She’s traveled to Africa with the legendary entertainer, Josephine Baker. She’s featured jazz great Louis Armstrong at a popular Fillmore nightclub she helmed in the 1950s called the Blue Mirror, where she also once convinced a roomful of patrons to drink sweet champagne from the heel of her shoe.
She’s played host to the crusading television journalist Edward R. Murrow.
She’s even had a fling with championship boxer Joe Louis. From the ring at Madison Square Garden, he glanced toward her front-row seat, which she’d secured by chance during her first trip to New York, and had his lackeys retrieve her for a date afterward. Their rendezvous appeared as a gossip item in an Ohio paper and remains in its archives today.
Most of all, Leola King has come as close as anyone possibly can to experiencing bureaucratic hell on earth. For half a century, she’s been fighting with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which has taken four pieces of her property, wiped out a restaurant and two nightclubs she owned, and left her with a string of broken promises.
Her story is evidence that the ugly local chapter of Western Addition redevelopment history still isn’t over – and it’s a demonstration of why so many African Americans in this town will never trust the Redevelopment Agency.
Beginning in the 1940s, King successfully operated a series of restaurants and nightclubs in the city, remarkable enough in an era that imposed a double-paned glass ceiling on black, female entrepreneurs.
“Back when I first moved onto Fillmore, it was very popular,” King told the Guardian. “Market Street didn’t have shit. They didn’t have traffic. They didn’t have nothing on Market Street.”
During the height of King’s accomplishments, the Redevelopment Agency infamously launched an ambitious project to clear out “blight” in the neighborhood. It was part of a nationwide urban-renewal trend, and while the project here still won’t be finished until 2009, it’s widely regarded as one of America’s worst urban-planning disasters.
In theory, Western Addition residents who were forced to give up their homes or businesses were given a “certificate of preference,” a promise that when the sometimes decaying buildings were turned to kindling and new ones built, the former occupants could return.
In practice, it didn’t work out that way. An estimated 5,500 certificates were issued to families and business owners shortly before the second phase of Western Addition redevelopment began in 1964. Some 5,000 families were dislodged and many of them fled to other sectors of the city (including Bayview-Hunter’s Point, which is today slated for its own redevelopment), or outside of the Bay Area completely.
Only a fraction of the certificates have benefited anyone. The agency has lost contact information for more than half of the holders, and redevelopment commissioners now openly admit the program is a joke.
“If we’re going to boast about being this diverse community in San Francisco, and we’re going to allow our African American population to become extinct, then how can we show our faces in government if we’re not really doing anything about it?” asked London Breed, a redevelopment commissioner appointed by Gavin Newsom in 2005. “And not just putting black people in low-income housing. There [are] a lot of middle-class African Americans all across America, specifically in the East Bay and in other places. Why do they choose to live in the East Bay over San Francisco?”
A renewed interest in the certificates by City Hall led to hearings this month, and District 5 Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has planned another for April.
King obtained two certificates, and attempts to later redeem them both devolved into costly legal wrangling with the agency that lasted more than two decades. She has never regained what she lost.
Leola King’s story is about more than certificates of preference. It’s a story about the troubling legacy of urban renewal.
King welcomes guests into her home on Eddy Street near Fillmore with ease. The living room in what is little more than a two-bedroom converted garage apartment swells unimaginably with antiques – three stuffed chairs with vinyl slips, crystal chandeliers, an ornate dining-room table, lamps, a fur throw.
She insists that she’s just 39 years old, but public records put her closer to 84.
When the Guardian first visited with her in person, she was dressed in black cotton leisure attire. Two chestnut braids cascaded from a gray Kangol-style cap, which she smoothed with her hands as they hugged a pair of light-skinned cherub cheeks.
King made her way west after spending her earliest years behind the barbed wire of a Cherokee reservation in Haskell, Ok. Her mother died when King was young, and her restless father had meandered off to Los Angeles. Her grandparents oversaw her adolescence before she trailed after her father to California, where he was establishing a chain of barbecue restaurants. She married a man at just 14, and a year later, she was a mother. Tony Tyler, her son, is a San Francisco tour guide today and remains a close confidant and business partner.
It was 1946 when she first landed in San Francisco and eventually started her own barbecue pit at 1601 Geary St., near Buchanan, historic building inspection records show. She called it Oklahoma King’s, and hungry San Franciscans were lured to the smell of exotic buffalo, deer and quail meats.
“That end of Fillmore was very popular all the way down until you got almost to Pacific [Avenue],” she said. “Heavily populated. There was at one time in that area of Fillmore over 100 bars alone. Lots of hamburger places. That’s where I had the barbecue pit.”
By 1949, however, Congress had made urban renewal federal law with the goal of leveling slums and deleting general “blight,” still the most popular and awkwardly defined threshold for determining where the government can clear homes and businesses using eminent domain.
The first redevelopment zone in the Western Addition, known as A-1, included Oklahoma King’s. She was paid approximately $25,000 for the property, but offered no relocation assistance or other compensation for the revenue she lost as a result of ceasing her day-to-day business.
Forging ahead, she opened in 1953 what became a hub of jazz and blues entertainment in the Fillmore, the Blue Mirror, at 935 Fillmore Street. The place was decorated with brass Greek figurines on the walls, a circular bar and velvet festoons. King spent a year hopping onto buses full of tourists and begging the driver to drop them by her nightclub for a drink. Before long, her brassy personality had attracted world-class performers, each of them adding electricity to the club’s reputation.
“She was the type of woman who knew how to handle people,” a Blue Mirror regular later said in the 2006 collection of Fillmore jazz-era photography, Harlem of the West. “She could talk to the pimps and hustlers. She didn’t play around, and they knew how to conduct themselves in her club.”
A musician who formerly worked there told the Guardian the Blue Mirror was one of the few places on Fillmore that actually provided live entertainment at that time. Bobbie Webb backed up B.B. King, Little Willie John, T-Bone Walker and others as a young saxophonist at the Blue Mirror with his band the Rhythm Rockers. He said the other establishments nearby on Fillmore were mostly bars except for headlining auditoriums where mainstream acts like James Brown and the Temptations performed. Smaller venues abounded up the street on Divisadero, he said, save mostly for King’s Blue Mirror and the Booker T. Washington Hotel.
“[King] didn’t only have a personality” said Webb, who now airs a show Tuesdays on 89.5 KPOO, “she was a beautiful lady. Personality just spoke for itself. All she had to do was stand there.”
But like virtually everyone in the neighborhood at that time, King rented the place where the Blue Mirror operated. Redevelopment again reached her business in the early 1960s. State booze enforcers, she says, claimed to have witnessed a bartender serving alcohol to a minor and her liquor license was taken away. When the Redevelopment Agency showed up shortly thereafter to sweep the block away, she was ejected without compensation because she wasn’t at that time technically in business.
Two more commercial and residential properties she owned on Post and Webster streets respectively were also eventually taken under redevelopment.
She pressed on, encouraged by Jewish business owners in the area she’d befriended, including liquor wholesaler Max Sobel and Fairmont Hotel operator Benjamin Swig.
“Whenever I’d lose something, they’d say, ‘Keep on moving. Don’t stop, because you’ll lose your customers. When you open back up, they won’t know who you are.’ They’re the ones who told me, ‘Go get another spot.'”
By the time King began work on her third business in the Fillmore, urban renewal projects had wreaked havoc on minority communities across the nation, including neighborhoods in west-side Boston, downtown Atlanta, the celebrated 18th & Vine District of Kansas City and elsewhere.
King opened the Bird Cage Tavern at 1505 Fillmore St. in 1964 near O’Farrell complete with a jukebox, 30-foot mahogany bar, a piano and a gilded birdcage. Then-police chief Thomas J. Cahill tried to block her liquor-license renewal by complaining to the state about “winos” and “prostitutes” in the neighborhood, records show, but regulators dismissed the claims.
“We had viable businesses all around us,” King said. “I had one fellow I worked with a lot named Willie Jones. He was a blues singer. The interesting thing was, I had music in the daytime at the Bird Cage. I specialized in afternoon jazz.”
Despite a triumphant resettlement, nonetheless, the redevelopment agency arrived yet again and bought her building during the expansion of it’s A-2 redevelopment phase and served as landlord for the Bird Cage, a barber shop and a liquor store as it waited for another two years deciding what to do with the building.
On the agency’s watch, a fire broke out next door to the Bird Cage that led to water damage in her space. Federal Housing and Urban Development records show that no insurance claim was ever filed by the Redevelopment Agency. King says the agency removed some of the bar’s contents, mostly kitchen supplies, and made only stopgap repairs to the building anticipating that she would later be ousted anyway. The items they took, she says, were never returned.
The agency then evicted all of the building’s tenants in 1974. This time, King stood fast and had to be forced out by the sheriff. The agency promised relocation assistance, but those empty assurances became her biggest headache yet. In fact, she would spend the next 25 years quarreling with the agency over relocation terms.
King and the agency searched fruitlessly until 1977 for a suitable replacement building before King purchased her own out of desperation at 1081 Post St. She was then forced to begin another endurance test of working to actually extract money from the agency owed to her for properly outfitting the new building.
Meanwhile, the Bird Cage’s leftover furnishings – from oil paintings, rugs and curtains to an ice maker, wood shelving and an antique porcelain lamp – were destroyed when the agency amazingly chose to store them on an outdoor lot off Third Street during her move, a fact later confirmed by an agency employee in an affidavit.
“They moved it all out,” King said, “all these antiques and stuff, into this field where the weather ate it up.”
The agency’s initial response was to determine how it could best avoid legal liability. Redevelopment officials finally offered her about $100,000, which she needed desperately to keep things moving with the Bird Cage’s new location, but King insists today the materials were worth closer to $1 million.
As she was fighting to reopen her bar business, she attempted to redeem an earlier certificate of preference given to her when she’d lost a residential property on Webster Street to redevelopment. In 1983, she bought a condemned, 12-unit apartment building on Eddy Street hoping to rehabilitate it using a federally backed loan.
The deal only led to more trouble. The agency paid for its own roving security to patrol Western Addition properties it had purchased, and before 1431 Eddy St. was ever officially conveyed to King (as well as two other neighboring developers), thieves gutted the building of windows, doors, plumbing, light fixtures and other hardware. (Two buildings belonging to neighboring developers were also hit, and the agency addressed their losses the same way.)
Almost immediately, the agency told her she’d purchased the building “as is” and that they weren’t responsible for the break-in. But according to an internal 1983 memo marked “confidential,” later unearthed when friends of King submitted a records request to the agency, staffers clearly were concerned about the legal implications of offering one building for sale “as is” and actually providing another one on the date of delivery that had been thoroughly burglarized.
The memo shows that the possibility of a lawsuit was of greater concern to the agency than any obligation to compensate King for the lost hardware, regardless of whether proper security was the agency’s responsibility. Records show they did discuss a settlement of little more than $2,000, but King considered the stolen goods to be worth thousands of dollars more.
She managed to eventually finish the rehabilitation of her Eddy Street property after several years of work, and while she lives there today, time and angst took their toll. Each step of the transition to what she hoped would someday become her new bar, Goldie’s on Post Street, involved a seemingly endless round of yet more negotiations, letters, legal threats and bureaucratic backbiting before the agency would lift a finger and allocate money for contractors, necessary seismic upgrades, architects and equipment.
In 1997, then-Rep. Ron Dellums (now Oakland mayor) wrote a letter to top local HUD official Art Agnos (later a San Francisco mayor) on King’s behalf.
“On August 26, Ms. King met with a member of my staff and detailed issues surrounding a 25-year dispute she has attempted to resolve with HUD and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency,” Dellums wrote. “Your expeditious attention to this matter is [a] request, as Ms. King is elderly and experiencing health problems. The resolution to this issue would allow her to live the remainder of her life with some piece of mind.”
It was too late. The federally backed loans she’d received from HUD to rehab her Eddy Street property, from which the Redevelopment Agency strictly enforced repayment, fell into default. Loans leveraged against her other remaining properties began to slip, too, all while she fought with the forces of redevelopment to recreate what she had once proudly possessed.
King’s story may seem like an unfathomable streak of bad luck, but there’s a paper trail for all of it. And her battle, laid out in hundreds of pages of documents saved by King over several decades and reviewed by the Guardian, was ultimately unsuccessful..
By 1997, King was submerged in bankruptcy proceedings and would lose pretty much everything that she owned, including an Edwardian landmark home on Scott Street near Alamo Square where she’d lived for years (partially burned in a 1986 fire, believe it or not) and a residential building on Sutter Street.
Goldie’s was to be her final resting place, a roost from which she hoped to feature cabaret dancing, fresh crab at happy hour, a refined art deco aesthetic and live music performances. She lost that, too. Today, it’s Diva’s just off Polk Street.
Urban renewal won.
Hopeful press accounts lately foretell a jazz revival in the Fillmore District fueled by enterprising developers deft at financing lucrative redevelopment projects through tax incentives and low-interest loans half a century after the promise of “renewal,” now described euphemistically as “historic preservation.”
But with such a sordid history behind them, it’s no wonder residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point, many of whom escaped Western Addition “renewal” in the first place, are leery of a pending years-long plan to redevelop nearly 1,500 acres in the southeast neighborhoods.
Bayview newspaper publisher Willie Ratcliff led a petition drive last year in an effort to put the plan before voters. Over 20,000 petition signatures were certified by elections officials, but City Attorney Dennis Herrera ruled the petitions were technically invalid because circulators hadn’t presented the full text of the redevelopment plan to signers. Redevelopment foes have since sued to have Herrera’s decision tossed.
“The misuse by these people is just unbelievable,” King said. “They were fighting me every inch.”
Thanks to Susan Bryan for joining the Guardian in reviewing hundreds of pages of public and personal records preserved in Leola King’s estate. Bryan is currently working with Monkey Paw Productions on a documentary about King’s life