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Family-run mortuary closes its doors after nearly 60 years in the Fillmore

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The Bryant Mortuary on Fulton Street on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A family-run mortuary that has operated in the Fillmore District for nearly 60 years closed its doors to the community last week, with its owner citing financial hardships linked to gentrification of the area.

The Bryant Mortuary at 635 Fulton St. has donated it’s pews and furniture to churches and other mortuaries, owner Anthony Kelley told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday. The Kelleys, who took over the family business 20 years ago, were given until Saturday morning by the property’s new owner to move out.

“It’s a sign of the times — it was hard to keep up with the changing population,” said Kelley, adding that he has long struggled with paying the bills, as well as his employees.

Kelley said he’s lost business in recent years as many of the neighborhood’s long-time residents were displaced by rising housing costs, but added that a predatory loan he took up nearly a decade ago contributed to the mortuary’s decline.

Supervisor Vallie Brown, whose district includes the Fillmore and Western Addition, told the San Francisco Examiner that the mortuary “was respectful to the family’s financial situation, and would work with them to make sure their loved one received a proper funeral and burial.”

“It’s difficult to find businesses that still do that,” said Brown.

As one of the few black-owned businesses still operating in the historic black neighborhood, the mortuary’s closure prompted calls for more economic investment in the area.

“Predatory lending and bad policies by the Redevelopment Agency have destroyed this black community,” said Third Baptist Church’s Rev. Amos Brown, a civil rights activist and former supervisor. “Politicians have not taken the plight of black folks in this town seriously.”

“Although we have gone through tremendous trauma with the loss of this population, no one is in a hurry. What’s happened to Bryant will continue to happen [in the Fillmore],” he said.

Brown estimated that fewer than five large businesses are operated by black entrepreneurs in the area. The City’s black population has dwindled, decreasing from 13 percent in the 1970s to less than 5 percent today, he said.

Once a vibrant hub for black culture, music and business, the Fillmore commercial district and surrounding Western Addition neighborhood were targeted for redevelopment under The City’s urban renewal program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, resulting in the displacement of thousands of its residents.

An effort to revitalize the area once known as “Harlem of the West” with the construction of the Fillmore Heritage Center at 1330 Fillmore St. in 2007 has largely failed, with anchor tenants Yoshi’s and the restaurant 1300 on Fillmore, both shutting down.

That facility sat vacant until its recent temporary reopening by neighborhood advocates and the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation as a hub for housing, workforce development and educational resources.

Other businesses like Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles and Black Bark Barbecue have also left the neighborhood.

Amos Brown said that business slowed down because the area’s “population base is destroyed,” adding that the average annual income for a black household is $29,000.

He has long called for equity for San Francisco’s black community, but on Friday renewed demands for government and financial leaders to develop a financial plan for the acquisition of the Fillmore Heritage Center, which he called “one of the last broken promises of the government-led redevelopment of the neighborhood.”

He also pressed city leaders to address predatory lending in the neighborhood, citing Bryant Mortuary’s experiences.

Kelley said he stepped in to run the mortuary after his uncle, Ralph Bryant, suffered a stroke two decades ago. Bryant had moved the mortuary to 635 Fulton St., where he operated it at that address for some 40 years alongside his wife, Lillie, and his sister-in-law, Juanita Bremond Kelley.

“It was difficult being that young and thrust in that position, it wasn’t something I was prepared for financially,” said Kelley. “It came with the inheritance tag with it — it was an uphill climb and a constant struggle since.”

In 2017, plans were proposed by Kerman Morris Architects to redevelop the mortuary’s property into residential units and moving the actual building some 14 feet to the edge of its lot.

Kelley said he decided to sell the property to developer Tim Brown, of Brown & Co., to be able to pay off his $1.6 million loan.

“That’s why we are under a deadline. He’s gotten the permits and he is ready to start developing the lot,” said Kelley, adding that he has relocated to Sacramento with his wife and is unsure “what the future holds” for the business.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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