Only in San Jose would decades-old assembly lines of canned asparagus trigger one to walk down Monterey Highway and raise the ghosts of the Sun Garden Packing Company.
Just last week, on a cold gray evening at dusk, the noir atmospherics of Monterey Road near Cottage Grove evoked the long-gone Sun Garden Packing Company, plus Bold Knight Steakhouse and the Monterey Steakhouse, directly across the street from one another. Highlighting the urban decay was the abandoned An-Jan Feed & Pet Supply warehouse, glorious as it reflected in the various pools of water and mud that occupied the vacant lot next door.
For the sidewalk journey, I brought with me a screenshot of the 1974 city directory for this exact stretch of road and then consulted it as I wandered around, comparing the landscape to what used to exist here 50 years ago. The directory page was a fantastic travel guide. Some of this stuff was already present in 1974, including An-Jan Feed & Pet Supply, as well as the two steakhouses, both old-school establishments originally owned by Greeks, Louis Pappas and Gus Panos, respectively.
Last week, the Bold Knight building was long gone, but the former Monterey Steakhouse structure at 1595 Monterey still remained. There was once a separate bar, in the same building, at 1593 Monterey. It became several other businesses after Monterey Steakhouse, but today the building remains an empty, crumbling panorama of ruin.
Don’t get me wrong—as I walked around, many still-operating businesses remained in-between all of this decrepitude. I saw auto repair places, body shops and used car lots all heroically trying to survive. The Walmart neighborhood grocery store was thriving.
Now, these parts of town were certainly not for everybody, especially after dark. But I’m not an “influencer,” so I rarely think in terms of recommending stuff. I just hope to inspire curiosity and exploration.
As I continued my wanderlust, a buggy-eyed old-timer with a cigarette dangling from his mouth started following me on a kid’s bicycle and tried to sell me a backpack. It took me five minutes to make him go away. Then later on the Walmart block near Alma, an entire bag of hamburger buns was thrown all over the sidewalk. I felt like following the trail to see where it led.
All of the despair was inspiring, so I soldiered on. Why? Because even though Walmart was not my favorite place, I just had to relish in the history of Sun Garden Packing Company, which occupied the same parcel for decades and decades. On the front of the Walmart, I gazed up at large placards memorializing the cannery and the whole DiNapoli operation that unfolded here over much of the 20th century, at the same spot. After the melancholy evoked by the rest of the street, standing there in front of those placards, I felt like I had reached the promised land. There should also be placards of the Bold Knight and the Monterey Steakhouse, but I doubt anyone on the planning commission has the cajones to pull it off.
The story of Sun Garden Packing is one every San Josean should know. There are Facebook groups, discussions, nostalgia, memories and all sorts of former employees left. Founded in 1939 by Joseph Amori, Frank DeNapoli and Joseph Perucci, Sun Garden became one of the most successful cannery operations in the entire country. Amori later invented the Rapid-Cleave, an apricot-pitting machine that was used all over the word. Between those three families, all their descendants, and those who married into the families, there is barely anything in San Jose history they are not mixed up in, somehow.
Even better, there’s a rocking 17-minute silent film from 1941 uploaded to YouTube, thanks to History San Jose, that documents the entire process by which asparagus came from glorious Firebaugh, California, all the way to Sun Garden Packing, right here at Monterey and Alma. The film shows the whole assembly-line operation and all the machinery. Employees trim, clean and cook the asparagus before hand-packing it into cans for labeling and shipping. We’re talking zillions of cans of asparagus. The footage is amazing.
To sum it up, after I persisted through the ruins, I found the promised land of memory. Now I want a plate of steak and asparagus.