Longtime black San Francisco church faces eviction amid gentrification

SAN FRANCISCO A long-standing and unconventional African American church in what was once the heart of San Francisco’s thriving black population is just days from eviction, marking the latest example of the region’s ongoing renting crisis and the city’s decades-long black exodus.

The St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church faces eviction next week from its home in the Fillmore District, a neighborhood best known for its jazz roots that in its heyday was dubbed “the Harlem of the West.”

“It’s the most urgent example of the push-out of the African American population right now during our housing crisis and our affordability crisis,” said San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, who is advocating for the church in its eviction fight.

The church, founded by Archbishop Franzo King and his wife Reverend Marina King in 1971, is well known throughout the city as a place where worshippers play instruments and sing along as well as a leader in social justice movements for decades.

The Kings were inspired after watching the legendary jazz musician John Coltrane perform. The church, effectively a one-room storefront, is adorned with paintings of Coltrane as well as images in which Jesus and Mary are black.

The West Bay Conference Center, which owns the property, said church leaders have failed to pay rent for the space for a year.

“You can’t run a facility on promises, on prayers, and on saying you are a historical institution,” said Amos Brown, a Center board member and NAACP official in San Francisco.

Negotiations with the center about back rent abruptly ended in December, said King, who is going to court on Tuesday to try to stop the eviction. The church has the money to pay the outstanding rent, but the center will not accept it, he said.

The church’s struggles are part of a broader exodus of African-Americans from San Francisco. The shift started amid 1960s-era urban renewal programs that targeted low-income, often minority neighborhoods for redevelopment, and continues in today’s tech-boom.

The city’s share of black residents has dropped by more than a half since the 1970s, according to census figures, to 6.1 percent in 2010 from 13.4 in 1970.

If the eviction goes through on Wednesday, King said he would likely not be able to find a new location in ever-more expensive San Francisco.

“We can probably find places to hold a service,” he said. “But to put a chapel together or a sanctuary […] I don’t think that’s going to be the easiest thing to do.”

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Lisa Shumaker)

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