My mother-in law called me this morning to tell me her mother had died. Fran, at age 94, had wrestled for months with a quick decline that would've been much quicker if not for six mournful daughters and countless grandchildren clinging to her memory by clinging onto her. They wanted to let go—and she wanted to be let go—but for reasons human and inexplicable, neither party could muster the nerve until her body made the call.
When I told my husband Jeremy, his eyes welled. He said that a week ago, Fran said she might like to see her late husband Bill upon final passage, waiting for her at the other end with a Manhattan.
Letting go is not easy. But I’m merely an in-law, viewing all of this with the privilege of intimacy and the benefit of distance. I am Fran’s admirer but not her kin. The same is true for the Fillmore.
JOY AND PAIN
As my fellow students and I have learned, community cohesion—the give-and-take between a small business and its patrons—is under threat in the Fillmore. This became strikingly clear in conversation with Teresa Bennett, co-owner of Miyako on Fillmore.
“We’ve watched a lot of the businesses not make it,” Ms. Bennett says. “It’s sad when a business doesn’t make it. We feel like there’s enough for everybody. Everybody should be able to make it—to have an opportunity to open up a place and make it—and when they don’t, it’s almost like a death, you know.”
Ms. Bennett helped us realize that by providing a place to gather, small businesses not only help people forge relationships—they help people grieve over the passing of a place or an era, and in a sense, steel themselves with the resolve to carry on. But these businesses were going extinct. Every time a shop closed up, it took a piece of the Fillmore’s resilience with it.
This insight helped us frame our design challenge more clearly: How might we support small, local businesses in their role as community gathering places? How might we strengthen those businesses that remain?
It’s this mindset that led my group to prototype a free interactive walking tour through the Fillmore neighborhood, bringing rich stories to the ears of local residents and ample foot traffic to the steps of local shops.
Called Discover Fillmore, the tour highlights the establishments lining Fillmore Street between Post and Eddy. It draws diverse crowds that otherwise might not be seen walking around together, and it bolsters business for shopkeepers on the receiving end.
But most importantly, it teaches residents, both newcomers and old-timers alike, the significance of the Fillmore’s history so that they might develop a shared understanding and common language—not only about the neighborhood’s past but, more pressingly, its present and future.
Admittedly, I am the Fillmore’s admirer, but not its kin—I observe it with the privilege of intimacy and the benefit of distance. But through this project, I’ve come to respect the Fillmore in ways I never predicted. As I’ve learned the story of its past, I’ve mourned for what it was.
I have wondered if the searing vividness of the Fillmore’s memory isn’t in some ways holding it back, preventing that glittering heyday from embarking on its final passage. I have wondered if perhaps that rich past has never been properly mourned, instead brushed under the rug where it’s more prone to produce feelings of regret than feelings of hope.
I have wondered if in some ways, community resilience has to do with letting go—with rebuilding the present instead of resurrecting the past. It is my hope that by properly remembering a bygone era—by giving the community a shared understanding and common language around its collective past, present, and future—projects like ours can help the Fillmore build up a new history together and let the old one peaceably go. Who knows—maybe there’s a Manhattan waiting on the other side.
Lisa Baird is a former principal designer at IDEO and freelance journalist. She is currently undertaking a master of design at California College of the Arts and is a member of the student group mentioned. She previously earned her MBA at UC Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter at @bairdlisa.