.Silicon Alleys: An Imperfect Signpost to the Real San Jose

A masterpiece of imperfection remains untouched by developers

The intersection of East Hills and White Road still features one of the most vibrant old-school strip-mall signs anywhere in San Jose.

I use the phrase “still features,” because I don’t get to type those words very often when describing signage. These days, when real estate developers relentlessly smash whatever is in their way, one doesn’t get to see a masterpiece of diversity like this particular sign. The colors. The fonts. The cracks and imperfections. Luckily, few of the conniving developers ever venture past Tenth Street, so they haven’t targeted this little gem for destruction. Yet.

So I am here because I love this sign. It’s like hanging out with some old salt in a bar somewhere just to hear the myths and legends he’s put together in his head over the years. Oh, the stories this sign can tell.

First of all, there is a bar here, the Gaslight, and it needs absolutely no introduction. The sign at the sidewalk tells you all you need to know.

Now, of course, as I would expect, this stretch of road has its challenges just like many other neighborhoods. It’s not for everybody. No one from Saratoga will ever come wandering down this block.

But I’m not here to “recommend” things. I’m not an “influencer.” I don’t write tourist guides. 

I’m prowling around this particular sidewalk because I will continue to yap about this sign for its superb hodgepodge incongruity. The damn thing just screams to the piecemeal nature, the cobbled-together aspects of San Jose in general, providing a marvelous glimpse into the historical continuity of the strip mall, which goes back to at least 1972, if not earlier.

Just look at it. Every business is noted by a different sign, a different design, a different typeface. Newer signs sit right below older ones with ancient sun-faded lettering. The big red and yellow “liquor” on top is where the Corona Taqueria sign used to be. LV Hair and Nails used to say Paris Jewelers. The Joyeria del Sol sign is where the Sprint sign used to be. The Sprint shop is no more, as a Metro by T-Mobile sign now hangs underneath “Y Market,” right where the Hermanos Navarro Western Wear sign used to hang.

The whole conglomeration is a righteous mishmash of component parts, a paean to the organic miscellany of life in any real city. As a presentation, it exudes more character and invokes more intrigue than all the Chase Bank-ified monstrosities you see throughout the rest of San Jose. There is no need for any faux-Tuscany horseshit anywhere in this strip mall.

Standing right there on the sidewalk of White Road and looking up at the impure glory of this sign, any interesting person with a shred of imagination would wax philosophical. For example, in Leonard Cohen’s tune “Anthem,” he riffs on Rumi by saying, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Such are the vibes transmitted to me by this colorful sign. The cracks are what make the sign gorgeous.

All of which then directs me, in the same vein, right to a Japanese term, kintsukuroi, or “golden repair,” a common image in our meme-saturated social media culture, where broken pottery or ceramics are glued back together with gold lacquer, the point being, just because someone or something is broken doesn’t mean it’s no longer valuable. The brokenness and the flaws are what make it enduring and attractive. Form, by its very nature, is imperfect.

You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate these perspectives, but there’s a reason why several painters over the decades have depicted old-school San Jose street signage in their paintings. Someone should do a painting of this one. 

I say so because the comfortable classes in San Jose rarely understand this stuff. Thanks to boring landlords, tasteless planning commissioners, and city councils who function like glorified suburban school board members, colorful janky signs like this often get replaced with lifelessly uniform crud that no one wants to look at.

So I am glad this imperfect masterpiece is still here doing what it does. This is the real San Jose. And I’ll keep coming back.

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.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Well said. Ive lived in this neighbor hood 43 years now and you nailed it. Thank you, and yes the eastside of San Jose is not for everyone but it’s home for me.

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  2. I knew where that sign was before I even read it. Lived next to Capitol Park, but used to Party around that area. Great to know it’s still up there… Ol’ School for sure🙂

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  3. Eastside San Jose is a place were you don’t roll around the area solo. But the area is still my favorite area.

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