By Tom McEnery
On a morning very early in 1989, I heard the wail of police sirens as I was finishing a speech at the Fairmont Hotel. As mayor, I was acutely aware of this sound, but this time there seemed to be a confluence of many sirens quite nearby.
I hurried over to Fifth and Santa Clara to see what the problem was and much to my dismay, learned that two of our police officers, Gordon Silva and Gene Simpson, had been shot in a gun battle with a deranged man.
Simpson died immediately; Silva a few hours later. For years I have never been able to pass that spot without thinking of that tragic morning.
East Santa Clara Street has been many things over the years: a center of commerce, gateway to San Jose State University, home to a neighborhood of fine people, the site of schools like St. Patrick’s and Horace Mann, and wonderful churches-first Methodist and St. Patrick’s. There was glue that held it all together.
In the 1960’s, we began to lose that. With the closing of state institutions, troubled and dangerous people began to make it “their” home-often on the streets. An Orwellian nightmare world was created and the neighborhood was in a tough fight. It received only marginal help from City Hall, and one of the last vestiges of that battle was the death of the two police officers.
The neighborhood has fought back, though, and with the new entrepreneurial energy of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Mexico, held its ground. There is resurgence here. The schools are thriving, a new church has been proposed and a “new” and improved Horace Mann school is being built. More and more families are choosing to make this neighborhood their home.
Yet something is lacking. There is one other element to be provided: the commitment of a new Civic Center. One of the great mistakes of San Jose history was the evacuation of City Hall to the more peaceful climes of North First Street.
They say some of the worst acts are done with the best intentions. So it was with this. As the downtown, its neighborhoods and the collective values of a center of commerce, culture, entertainment and government was abdicated, our city lost something very important. We lost our heart; we lost our way. You see, none of the decision-makers had to suffer what the families and small businesses had to endure day after day.
It was so convenient for the bureaucrats and politicians at the remote City Hall to concentrate on growing San Jose into a megalopolis of suburbs, without a backward glance at the intrinsic values that make a city a good place to live.
This philosophy was mirrored in the East Side and other older areas. It is the job of political leaders to redress old wrongs. East Santa Clara Street has been selected to be the site of a new civic center. It was voted on by the people and spurred on by the leadership of two former council member, Frank Fiscalini and David Pandori, and one current one, Pat Dando.
The unrequested, but invaluable, criticism by former Mayor Al Ruffo has been a positive to the project, and no one in this city stands higher in my esteem. But now is the time to act!
I don’t know if I would have chosen this site. And I don’t know if I would have been any more efficient. But I do know that the people of San Jose deserve the best and this building can offer the best, in location, in the potential of spin-off development (the private sector won’t go there first), in maximizing transit, and in restoring the center of municipal government to the place it should never have left.
When we voted on the arena, many issues were raised in opposition-and all proved baseless. Who today could imagine our city without that center for families and children? Now, I could not say that I would exchange the new City Hall for the arena or the Tech or the Rep-but this is not a zero sum balance.
We can and should do it all.
I have spoken to Mayor Gonzales (who, incidentally, will probably spend less than two years in the new digs), and he pledges that the chambers will be available to cultural and performing arts groups, and that the building will be enriched by the collections of our historical museum, heralding our splendid and diverse past, and pointing to the future. He is dead right on this issue.
And one other thing: We can find an appropriate spot for Silva and Simpson to be honored, along with the others who gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep our city safe. It will be a memory we can all savor. That and a little vegetable garden for Al Ruffo will surely let us say that San Jose is indeed the city that knows how-and does it.
Tom McEnery is a former mayor of San Jose.