On Lincoln Avenue, I went looking for neon history and instead found the ghosts of Slavs and Italians.
Predictably, as soon as I escaped Willow Glen, everything became more interesting. The northern stretch of Lincoln, in its janky glory, presented a transnational matrix of liquor store signage and Dalmatian sea captains.
First of all, everyone knows the amoeba-shaped neon masterpiece outside Mr. T’s Liquor Locker at 900 Lincoln. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating neon signs in San Jose, a landmark against the nighttime sky. Like the North Star, just look for it and you’ll never get lost.
But right now, as you read this, another sign appears a few feet away, stretching out perpendicular from a telephone pole, about six feet from the ground. A bright red banner says: MR T’s LIQUOR (RAJ) UNDER OLD MANAGEMENT. As if that weren’t enough, a wooden placard with black lettering sits at sidewalk level. Handwritten, it says, “Raj is back” with arrows pointing toward the store. Raj was the proprietor of Mr. T’s for years before handing it off to another operator who apparently couldn’t get the job done, so Raj had to return.
As always, this neighborhood is best explored on foot. Since travel is not just a spatial experience, but also a research and historical endeavor, ghosts from previous landscapes emerged from the cracks. Each new tidbit drove me to research even more tidbits. This is the purpose of travel. And life.
From what I can tell, the “T” of Mr. T’s Liquor Locker was probably the original owner, Amos Louis Tester, although his wife, Anne Batinich Tester, was the one mentioned on the permits when the building was constructed in the mid-’60s, the one listed in the phone books, and the one whose family was already living at 920 Lincoln during earlier decades of the 20th century.
Batinich came from a family of Croatian immigrants. Her dad, Marko, hailed from Gromaca near Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian Coast. The family owned the surrounding land on this stretch of Lincoln, which was populated by numerous storied Italian and Slav surnames, many of whom went on to notable pursuits in San Jose history.
Yet Mr. T’s is just one major attraction on this part of Lincoln. Nearby, one also finds the Roberto Adobe & Suñol House at 770 Lincoln, included in the National Register of Historic Places. Native American Roberto Balermino built the original adobe in 1836, then ten years later sold it to Antonio Maria Suñol, who then in 1853 offered it to Stefano Splivalo, a former sea captain from the Dalmatian coast near Dubrovnik.
Italians later took over the house and property throughout the 20th century, most notably the heroic efforts of businessman and San Jose legend John Bruzzone Sr., who in the ’70s spent a fortune restoring the house to its current landmark status. His ghost will have the back of any lugubrious columnist skulking his way down Lincoln in search of neon, for sure.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I sorted all this out, the ghost of Stefano Splivalo also made himself known. A worldly and celebrated seafaring character from a family of sailors, Splivalo was born somewhere around 1810, when Dalmatia was a jumble of Italian and Slav influence, with residues from the Venetian empire, the Habsburg monarchy and Napoleon all mixed up in the whole mess.
Splivalo was trained in the Italian navy and married into an aristocratic Italian family, so both the Italians and the Croatians tend to claim him. He named his ship the Santa Teresa after his wife and then sailed from the Mediterranean around the world, operating in various places like China, Philippines and Peru before finally settling in San Jose and buying the Suñol property to become an orchardist and vintner. What’s now the section of Parkmoor running off Lincoln was named Splivalo until 1892. He and Teresa are buried in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, as are Anne Batinich and Marko.
Just as the Italians and Slavs battled over the Dalmatian Coast, now do their ghosts on Lincoln. If you go at nighttime, make sure to use Mr T’s as your North Star.