.Breath of Life

A tale of downtown San Jose’s renewal and its future

Only in San Jose would a photo of South First Street from the downtrodden ’70s trigger my enthusiasm for the live music festivals currently on the horizon.

Plus, sometimes one just needs to revisit the despair of the past in order to more adequately assess the sunny days ahead. So this is an optimistic column, I assure you. 

Summer is beginning and the sun is out all the time these days. Even better, large outdoor music festivals are returning to the landscape of downtown San Jose and I am craving the outdoor Mediterranean sit-around-in-the-plaza life again. Even with the existence of backward-thinking types who refuse to close tiny side alleys like Post Street, I am hopeful that things remain on the upswing. Especially after two years of hibernation, once people see thousands returning to hear music downtown, the optimism will return. And people will finally understand that San Jose with its 300 days of sunshine should always prioritize its outdoorsy potential. At least in the summer, there should be large outdoor music festivals every weekend. Not just downtown, but everywhere. There should also be outdoor dining everywhere, all the time. It just takes politicians who care, of course.

This is why a classic shot of Sal & Luigi’s triggered all sorts of memories. I first went there much later than the era depicted in this photo, but Sal & Luigi’s was a rocking Italian place. Old school as old school gets, in all the right ways. The grumpy old woman there would practically throw the salad at you. It was fantastic.

But in the days of this photo, there were no live music festivals anywhere around here. At the time, South First Street was a rundown skid-row bastion of despair, featuring decrepit furniture stores, adult entertainment and dying retail. Much of the neighborhood was boarded up. What’s now the California Theatre was an abandoned wreck of a building, one of the last venues remaining from the heyday of San Jose’s past. Mr. Packard had not yet dumped millions into transforming the place. So it sat empty.

At that time, there was no such thing as an urban festival mindset anywhere downtown. The closest event was Tapestry N Talent, a blasé suburban-style art & wine affair, after which everyone just drove back to their tract houses. No one imagined anything citylike, that is, an ecosystem of people dining outdoors on a daily basis or even having pedestrians anywhere, except for the peep-show pervs, the drunks and the hookers. Despair ruled the landscape. There weren’t even any trees on the sidewalk.

For decades, the entire rest of the city had been designed to prioritize cars over everything else. No one in the planning department wanted to design a city that worked for people. Instead, they designed it to work against people. And we’re still suffering as a result. 

But this is an optimistic column, I said. Sometimes one has to look back through the fog of memory, far into the despair of the past, in order to see the sunny days ahead. Especially in the summer when everything should be outdoors. This should be the priority for every aspect of downtown’s future. Forever. Everything available outdoors. All the time. There’s no reason why every restaurant shouldn’t have outdoor seating. 

This is not an anti-automobile rant. I’m not saying block off all the streets. I’m just saying if you prioritize people, not cars, then things might actually get better. And people might actually want to come back.

But enough of the past. Even as the previously invisible versions of downtown continue to emerge and inspire the poet in me, even as I slither around like a tapeworm with its head cut off through the interstices of history, the time is now to focus on the present. By the time you read this, Music in the Park and the Fountain Blues Festival will be taking over Plaza de Cesar Chavez—both reborn from the detritus of San Jose’s past. I got a thing for detritus. But you probably knew that.

So, this is the present, here and now, from which I will report next week. See you then.

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