Any real urban place needs a public garden where poets can eat pizza and drink lemongrass-flavored water.
The quarter-acre splotch of land at 372 E. San Salvador, between Eighth and Ninth streets, is just such a place. The SJSU Campus Community Garden is a quintessential hidden microcosm crammed between old buildings in a blasé section of downtown. Barely a soul knows about it.
To get inside, I passed through a gate and ascended a short ramp up to a wooden deck, where I observed an outdoor literary benefit, titled, “Feeding our Hunger: Poetry Responds to Food Insecurity.” Students, faculty and wandering poets from the community at large were holding court. Emcee Mike McGee was sitting to the right of the stage, near enough to the compost heap to make cracks about all the flies. And there were lots of flies.
Initially, I stood at the back, by the strawberry guava plants. Further up, audience members sat on folding chairs underneath umbrellas and watched Anne Cheilek read “Excerpts from a War Vocabulary,” a text by a Ukrainian refugee.
A variety of amazing local scribes then commandeered the microphone. Brandon Luu read some poems including a triptych about St. James Park, mentioning the unhoused people, the geese, the drug dealers and the discarded clothing. A poetic park deserved a poetic treatment, of course. Then English Professor Alan Soldofsky read a few poems from his book, In the Buddha Factory, including one called “New Century Hotel,” a place he stayed at in China.
Various drivers and passersby on the sidewalk, intrigued by the words emanating from the sound system, craned their necks toward the space to see what was unfolding. Since the SJSU Dining Commons and Joe West Hall were across the street, students just tended to meander around the neighborhood.
The pizza delivery showed up after everything had already started, forcing Soldofsky to scramble from the front row and pay for the goods. Intermission then ensued, allowing the audience to make a beeline for the pizza. I slid out of the way, over to the Swiss chard, the blue kale and the basil, where garden director Matthew Spadoni was hard at work. On a table, I saw pitchers of water flavored with lemongrass, mint, lavender and cucumber.
Before too much longer, it became impossible to ignore the beautifully janky Zen urbanism of the situation, despite all the flies swarming toward the compost heap. The weather was fantastic—not too warm, not too cold, just a perfect San Jose fall evening. Everything about the event screamed the best of downtown San Jose: poets, gardeners and creative folks just trying to do something organic amid the worn landscape.
Even better, none of these people needed to spray-paint dorky promotional hashtags like “Catalyze 408” on their foreheads. The garden was by default an awesome spot, so therefore no one felt a need to relentlessly try and prove it over and over.
So, I continued to observe the scene. Next door, on the corner of Eighth and San Salvador, was a building that used to be the University Club about 30 years ago, but now it was a sorority. On the other side, at Ninth and San Salvador, was a standard concrete box of ugly apartments leftover from the ’70s, featuring ramshackle balconies that allowed residents to look down on the garden and the poets. The whole shootin’ match was totally urban—not NYC urban—but it worked.
After the poetry reading, I explored more of the garden. The chemical-free ecosystem featured more than 60 different plant species. Everything was sustainable. It all went back into the garden. A mural of Dolores Huerta was painted on the fence, a refreshing contrast to hideous crud like “Providence Credit Union Event Center” or “CEFCU Stadium.”
Back out front, near the now-empty pizza boxes, McGee was giving away stickers that said, “Be odd. Stay odd.” I couldn’t have agreed more, although I didn’t take one. I figured the students needed it more than I did.
Yes, San Jose is an odd place. I mean that as a compliment. If San Jose could just embrace its own oddness, and its own odd people, then we might actually become a real city.