The entirety of San Antonio Street, when navigated from Naglee Park to Capitol Expressway, can be experienced as the Hero’s Journey.
As always, to experience this stretch of road in a car is futile. You’ll miss everything. Try a bike. If you’re really crazy, walk the whole damn thing.
Now, first of all, west of SJSU, what’s now the pedestrian Paseo de San Antonio used to be an actual street. That piece is now long gone, so as a result, we will focus our expedition toward the east instead. I’m an eastward journey kind of dude anyway.
On the other side of campus, San Antonio runs from SJSU straight through the leafy confines of Naglee Park before making a slight jump at 17th Street. From there, as it crosses Coyote Creek, more residential areas emerge, but there are newer roundabouts in the road. You won’t see roundabouts in very many places in San Jose.
This is an old, old street, dating back to the 1800s, when East San Jose was a separate town. Before you get any further, the most famous specter of the neighborhood is probably Astley David Middleton Cooper, aka A.D.M. Cooper, San Jose’s most famous painter at the turn of the century. He arrived in 1886, then spent the rest of his life here, before dying in 1924 at the age of 68.
Cooper was an avant-garde aesthete far ahead of the hick-town locals. In 1909, what’s now the intersection of 21st and San Antonio was then the intersection of Jones and Franklin. At this corner, Cooper built an elaborate Egyptian-style art studio building, a scaled-down replica of an authentic Egyptian temple unlike anything San Jose had ever seen. This was 18 years before the Rosicrucians showed up and built their complex at Park and Naglee. Photos do exist, but the building was torn down after Cooper passed away.
Fortunately, a few blocks down, the legendary Cal Foods Mexican deli at 28th and San Antonio does still remain. The old Chicano mural on the exterior of the building is partly painted over and the street sign at the corner has returned after a long absence, but the market still carries on. This is another one for the carnivores, with killer burritos and burgers. It was a cabinet warehouse in the ’60s, but it’s been Cal Foods for at least 50 years. A must, this place.
The rest of these few blocks are a glorious mishmash of decrepit mobile home parks, defunct railroad tracks, an auto repair garage tucked behind houses, a Quonset hut converted into a body shop and a crumbling apartment complex with the unit address spray-painted on the front. And, of course, you might see a stray character, older than dirt, wearing a torn flannel and drinking cans of malt liquor at 9am while helping someone he doesn’t even know fix a radiator.
One block later, with a gorgeous view of the East Hills on a clear day, one can see what San Antonio looked like before 101 existed. It used to connect straight through at ground level—fragments still remain—but now it curves over the freeway before descending back down into more blocks of downtrodden residential, odd stucco churches and a masterpiece of decay simply called Felix Market, which has been falling over since at least 1960.
Hell, if the Ramones can write a song about 53rd and 3rd in Manhattan, then I can celebrate 33rd and San Antonio Street in San Jose. What a crossroads.
Don’t worry, I won’t forget Cesar Chavez. His old stomping ground is just farther down, across King Road. In particular, you’ll find McDonnell Hall in the parking lot behind Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where Cesar first cut his chops at community organizing.
Then the landscape gets ugly. Half a century ago San Antonio ended at Jackson. Now it turns into Capitol Expressway, one of the most congested monstrosities in all of San Jose.
At that point, only cars are allowed, so you must turn around. But that’s OK. You’ve made the Hero’s Journey, survived the ordeal, and are now ready to navigate the road back in order to tell everyone what you learned. Who needs Joseph Campbell when you’ve got Cal Foods?