Dear Khary (An Autobiography of Gentrification),
Last I saw you, you were stamping a kiss onto my forehead. I don't remember what you were wearing, or your smell. Only that you gave me a kiss the night before you left. That was twenty-three years ago. I was five.
Much has changed since that embrace. I’ll start with the constants. There is one: Marcus Books, our bookstore—selling “Books by and about black people everywhere”—is still there. Even Chicago Barbershop— that place we looked toward to say, “well, at least there are two black businesses in the Fillmore”— closed a few months back.
This year marks the bookstore's 53rd anniversary. Mom is in the store everyday. Our sister Tamiko, too. Pops is more smiley since his retirement and stays fixing stairs, building shelves, making collages: beautifying our home. Thirty years administrating at General Hospital, plus your absence, wore his happy down. The house is full like it’s always been. In '89 there were eight of us sharing four rooms. There were many people always, but I never felt hungry for space.
Did you know that in the Fillmore strangers would call me one of two titles: Richardson Baby or Khary’s Little Sister? Like Orville Luster (who was one of those elder black men who, you were certain, was ridiculously fine in his day) would ask while buying his morning newspaper “How’re your grandparents doing young lady?” and I would stop, stand erect, compose my little girl mess: “They’re fine thank you. I’ll tell them you say hello.” Or alternately, when Mean Jennifer was trying to make me feel small, a young black dude would walk by and say “Haa-ay Khary’s Little Sister.” Their public acknowledgement of me was also a recommendation for Jennifer to retreat. On our block and in your light I was both proud and protected.
A family whose job is buying other people’s houses purchased our property. that purple Victorian that holds your family and your bookstore. A predatory loan forsaw the neighborhood’s future worth. It slowly wrenched us out. A nonprofit offered to buy it back from these new folks – purchasing price plus profit. Keep the bookstore operating, they say. But the new owners would like nothing less than double the money.
We are waiting to see if the city will understand what the community already does: that Marcus Books is a historical landmark; that it is San Francisco; that it is the Fillmore’s best self. If they do, perhaps the store can stay. We—your parents, sisters, nieces—will have to go.
Do you remember the Goodwill next door (the roof to which you always jumped from our hallway window)? It’s gone. Got scooped out like the middle of melon and turned into Dosa, a South Indian restaurant that folks make reservations for on their cell phones. The Goodwill moved to where the corner store was. (Isn’t it funny how every corner store was "the corner store" even if it was in the middle of the block, and we could tell by the specificity of goods sought which one we meant? The one I'm referring to had a slim candy selection (no sour straws!), but it had cheaper toilet paper, so sometimes we'd go there for that. Or, if we were walking to the 38 Geary stop we'd get chips or something else we didn’t need simply because it was in our direction.)
Overall, the corner stores have less candy, more wine, and plenty of organic everythings. The Kabuki theater across the street (the one that felt like one big stain-soaked carpeted bathroom) is now the Sundance Kabuki Cinema where you can eat sushi and have cocktails in your assigned seats. Perry's, the black-owned ice-cream shop with the big jar of electric yellow pickles—where your sisters, Lealah and Gina, worked summers—is gone. Goodwill, which expanded east to add a "boutique," stands in its stead.
I wonder if Fillmore will ever be done with its “renewal.”
There is a jazz club, Yoshi's, where the black hair supply and dusty parking lot used to be; an aquatic store sits in lieu of the law office where the black dude with the crooked glasses did dad's taxes. There's a hair salon, a pizza shop, a hookah bar, a wine bar – and there are many new places that describe their being there in the name of San Francisco’s "heritage." I've come to appreciate jazz, wine, hookah, and designer pizza. I am sure you would have enjoyed these things too, if it were not for your absence that in part made space for it all.
Even the parking lot holds your story, Khary, which is also the Fillmore's. The day you were murdered you were in the car with your best friend Kofy, and your murderer/friend/dope-dealer-competitor. Tamiko told me that she remembers you sitting in the passenger seat with the car in lurch.
You were waiting for her to moveonpastnow. She was waiting for you to introduce this new face. She did not move. You did not announce. Her surprise at your lack of introduction tells me something about the way the neighborhood used to be – a place where everyone said hello and was accounted for.
The next day, my friend and I were spending the morning painting nails with polish turned to goop. We perched our four little hands on the windowsill so our nails could dry. Mom called me, Lealah, and Gina into the small room facing the Fillmore side of the street to tell us you were gone. I grew quiet because everyone else was and focused down on my nails that were still undry: susceptible, already with markings of precarity.
We were told to go downstairs to see our grandmother who lived below us. We did. She held us long. I realized how quiet the kitchen was when the 22 Fillmore bus sounded the room in its quake. Mom handwrote a sign she taped to the inside of the bookstore window. Closed. She asked me if I was hungry, which I regarded as an incredibly thoughtful inquiry since her only son had just died.
I walked with Nef, our aunt, to the store and as we approached the lot our cousin, Rysse, and Tamiko, with your baby nephew and cousin tucked in their car seats, drove in. We followed her car as she parked. Nef said something about you. I didn't hear it, but Rysse melted. I forget exactly what happened next but I do know that the parking lot where your big sister last saw you, and where your cousin turned soupy in response to your murder, used to be lightly peppered with cars. It was so empty, in fact, that I learned to ride my bike there. It’s where Lealah and I roller-skated in protective gear that entirely exceeded the lot’s potential danger. Today we circle, circle, circle, the block to find space to rest our car.
Dad's baby blue van, the one you were driving when it happened, was what we rode to and from school in for three years after you passed. Your murder was proof to a lot of Fillmore that we were vulnerable and unable to protect our sons, just like everyone else.
You were the face of anti-“black on black” violence in the Fillmore. You were on your way to SF State in the fall. Me and Lealah even made signs with your name on them for an event on black youth violence at the Cathedral Event Center on Geary. It was awkward. I didn’t fully understand why we were there and why folks held us in embrace for so long. Plenty bookstore customers said they thought mom should’ve been more “involved” with your murder.
I still don’t know what is more involving than sadness.
The Fillmore is now a “heritage” site. It feels like your tombstone and an apology, the kind a shamed child mutters under his breath.
The good news is that the bookstore continues to do what it always has; it provides a house where black worth, literacy, and genius live uninterrupted. But the folks who used to shop there don’t live in the area anymore. And I think you would find it hard to believe, Khary, but now folks read books on phones as light and thin as candy bars. Remember the very first cell phone you owned, the one dad joked needed its own seatbelt?
When I take Gina Raye— your second newest niece—up the street for a walk, folks look at us like we're the anomalies. Which, I suppose, we are. Not only are there no black people around (save the homeless folk who are the only ones who know my name and ask about our grandmother's well-being—or about you, for that matter), the parts of Fillmore that folks are too scared to walk through are getting smaller, more narrow, less brown. Clacking high heels sound the street and dudes in leather boots smoke cigarettes on our stairs. They and their carefreedom clench up when we walk toward our steps. They seem so surprised when we pull out keys to enter our home.
These days I'm am teaching. You would not be surprised that I read about black folk for a living in a field called "African Diaspora Studies." It is a name for what we've always known – that black folks are connected and disconnected at once. Our task as scholars is to figure out the how and why of both. Because I'm a scholar and because I am black, I think a great deal about ghosts and hauntings. I like this because it helps me know you and helps me better understand how you are and are not at home, and why I feel both when I am in 1716 Fillmore.
For example, Toni Morrison, who is just my favorite thinker (always, but especially when it comes to talking about ghosts and the "unremembered"), writes that "invisible things are not necessarily not there." Although you are dead, Khary, you have not died. What I have of you are the parts others have gifted me, plus that kiss. Sometimes I remember the embrace—your folding at the knees to reach my forehead, your palm at the hood of my head—and it keeps me safe.
Most days though I feel our end, your breaking away, and I think of just how very mean San Francisco can be.
I still wonder: Did you feel the gun? Was it cold? Did you know that day, in our parking lot, that you were going to die? Did you go right away or was there time to think? And if you came back right this instant, where in San Francisco would you go? Where could you live? Would the neighbors know which family you belong to?
The park and still-swings that were backdrop to your morning murder are today the spot where first dates go. It's a clean green park where couples with coffee sit on benches and read. Or meander. They unwind and relax where you transitioned. They exercise a luxury of time in the place where you were refused more. Your death spot was my high school bus stop.
I was always visiting your grave.
The 1980s (a la Reagan’s War on Drugs) tried to spin black folks into one pathologically tangled ball of poor decisions. You knew that crack cocaine was king. You knew that it empowered even as it destroyed and it rendered sovereignty to those who, along with their families, seemed like they were always being told to move. San Francisco is a history of black folks having to go. We know the difference between eviction and travel. We know that only one involves a real freedom of movement.
Marcus Books is the only thing that looks like you, Khary. No longer written into the news as tragedy, Fillmore lives in travel magazines and on Yelp. And isn’t that a good thing?, people who don’t know me ask. How good could it feel knowing that one will never be able to live where one grew up? How empowering can your brother’s death be as a yardstick for how positively far the neighborhood has come?
We will have to move soon.
So here is my letter to you—which is to also say, my letter to the neighborhood. Here is my autobiography of gentrification. My farewell to 1716. A family has purchased our home, and refused to sell it back as honest people would do, as a lover of the neighborhood would do. That is why I am here telling you that you are remembered, Khary. You are safe with us. In all the places we must go.
Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. She writes about race, gender, and performance.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]