.Silicon Alleys: A Different Downtown Entertainment District

Pre-1990s, downtown was a very different entertainment district

In March of 1991, a church burned down at Fifth and Santa Clara. Thanks to an old photo, the ghosts have re-emerged.

I’ve written about this corner before, but when I recently looked at an early-’80s aerial shot of downtown San Jose, the deep noir history of that crossroads would simply not go away. Right next to the Vintage Tower, you can see the First United Methodist Church before it went up in flames. It was an amazing building.

What I distinctly recall from the fire: A few hundred people filled the streets to watch as dozens of firemen tried in vain to save the building. A few more rubberneckers emerged from the Lucky’s Supermarket at Seventh and Santa Clara with 12-packs of Budweiser, after which they popped open a few cans and watched the horror.

This was a different type of downtown entertainment zone, of course. Also in the photo we see a rare historical glimpse of the notorious Charlie’s Liquors, at Fourth and Santa Clara, the only one open until 2am, and more than worthy of all the police attention given to nefarious folks that always seemed to float around the parking lot and the alley behind the place. Everyone who lived downtown had a Charlie’s Liquors story. Everyone. Thanks to that place, you will never see a liquor store in downtown San Jose ever again.

Two years before the church burned down, the dark history of the corner was already in full swing, due to the tragic death of two police officers near the Winchell’s in 1989. One officer was murdered with his own gun by a mentally ill street person and the second officer was lost in the subsequent shootout. Plaques are embedded in the sidewalk on each side of the street. The triangular Winchell’s sign is easy to spot in the photo. It later became a Pizza Hut.

By this time, the former Red Barn at Sixth and Santa Clara was torn down in favor of a stupidly-24-hour Taco Bell, which became a hotspot for unhoused people, drug dealers and juvenile delinquents even more than was Charlie’s Liquors. I recall being there one night and a few kids were running from the cops through the Taco Bell.

Across and down the street, right where the Miro Apartment towers are now, was the dive bar to end all dive bars, Lenny’s Cocktails, the kind of place you’d wind up after you were cut off at every other bar. Now, I often get into trouble when I paint with broad strokes, but Lenny’s was a dump, and that’s why people went there, but it wasn’t just for the downtrodden. Classical musicians who performed at Le Petit Trianon Theatre around the corner on Fifth would often show up at Lenny’s after the gig. Everyone currently paying $4,000 a month to live at the Miro Apartments should forever be haunted by the sweaty alcohol perspiration rising up through the building from the former 7am regulars at Lenny’s.

Right next door to Lenny’s, and you can barely see the sign in the photo, was the Quality Cafe, where breakfast was $1.99. The cook looked like Captain Lou Albano from the ’80s pro wrestling era. On a good day, they’d practically throw the plates of food at you.

I’m reliving all of this because I am starting to believe the entire neighborhood is probably haunted. There have been protests. And officers shooting at protestors. When Viet Thanh Nguyen finally publishes his memoir, I’m assuming it will include stories of his parents’ grocery store, which was right there, in the next strip over from Lenny’s Cocktails. I remember it.

And there’s more. Near the bottom left, on a blue splotch of a now-long-gone building, we see a sign for Underground Records. Yep, we once had retail. Along the bottom of the photo, one sees the locally owned Allen’s furniture, a legendary place, plus the Jose Theatre, where I saw Chopper Chicks in Zombietown for 25 cents right before the Jose closed. I had to step over empty vodka bottles, month-old popcorn containers and a few bums slumped over in ripped-up seats.

Those were the days, my friends. They just don’t make downtown entertainment zones like they used to.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Giveaways

Win a $50 gift card to Henry's World Famous Hi-Life in San Jose. Drawing July 5, 2023.
Win a $50 gift certificate to Capers Eat & Drink in Campbell. Drawing July 19, 2023.
Metro Silicon Valley E-edition Metro Silicon Valley E-edition