Resurrection City


America’s great cities have failed. The 21st century needs “good” cities that work. And San Jose may be the first.

By Richard Rapaport

“There’s the Emerald City,” Tom McEnery says, only half jesting from behind the wheel of his green Lexus as it crests Communication Hill traveling north on Highway 87 toward downtown San Jose. To the west, Mount Umunum and the Santa Cruz Mountains loom darkly. To the east glow the ochre-colored foothills of Mount Hamilton. Directly ahead, in the broad valley between the heights, lies a verdant plain in which five miles distance, a score of gleaming glass towers rise Oz-like through the haze. McEnery, a former two-term mayor of San Jose and one of the key movers behind the decade-long resurgence of its downtown, points out a steel skeleton visible to the east of the San Jose arena. This is the future home of Adobe Systems, the giant software manufacturer, and a critical piece of San Jose’s downtown-redevelopment plan. “You cannot overestimate Adobe’s importance. It’s the first corporate world headquarters here since FMC began turning plowshares into swords,” says McEnery tartly. The reference is to the farm-machinery manufacturer that went into defense contracting in the fifties and into bankruptcy in the eighties. FMC’s decline and fall symbolized the fortunes of San Jose, the civic core of which was so moribund as recently as fifteen years ago that, McEnery suggests, “they should have called in Dr. Kavorkian.”

Today, by contrast, San Jose is held up as an example of one of the nation’s most successful, safe, prosperous, and modern cities. Even critics say its sense of having arrived as an urban center of national import seems palpable. Five years after passing San Francisco as the Bay Area’s largest city, San Jose seems finally to have overcome its century-old inferiority complex and emerged from the shadow of its northern neighbor.

The transformation of San Jose becomes spectacularly evident as McEnery and I approach downtown. The Children’s Discovery Museum on Woz Way (named after Apple Computer cofounder and San Jose benefactor Steve Wozniak) serves as a shocking-purple portal to the high-rises, among them the Fairmont Hotel, Silicon Valley Center, River Park Towers, and Park Center Plaza, on or near the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, which is the commercial heart of the new San Jose.

To the west of the plaza, the Guadalupe River Park Project flows in serpentine arcs around and under Highway 87, and the newly completed Guadalupe River Park Walk attracts increasing numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists to the restored gorge running through the city. Here, McEnery notes, “people can get a feeling for what the valley was like three hundred years ago.”

Paseo de San Antonio, a new pedestrian concourse, stretches between downtown and the campus of San Jose State University; and Ryland Mews, a condominium project designed to boost downtown’s base of young professionals is nearly completed. By early this month, the twenty-year-old Horizon Center on North Second Street will house two hundred employees of Netcom On-Line Communication Services, another corporate coup for San Jose. Running nearby, the twenty-mile Light Rail System connects downtown to the Civic Center, two miles distance, and to neighborhoods and high-technology industrial parks to the north and south.

The San Jose McEnery Convention Center (named for my guide, who, at fifty, looks far too young to be an edifice) has become a major trade-show site. While the twenty-thousand-seat San Jose Arena-home to the Sharks of the National Hockey League-has brought the city major-league status in box scores and sports reports around the nation. In just three years, the arena also has taken its place as one of Northern California’s gilt-edged concert venues, the hall Pavarotti and Streisand chose to play, rather than any in San Francisco.

The litany of civic improvements goes on. The San Jose Museum of Art, one of seven local museums, is in the second year of a four-show collaboration with New York’s lofty Whitney Museum that allows curators to select from some ten thousand pieces in the Whitney collection. The deal has helped vault the Museum of Art into position as the region’s most interesting venue for modern art, and San Jose into an unexpected mecca for art lovers.

There are less tangible signs of urban gravitas as well. The San Jose Mercury News enjoys a national reputation; for the past two years San Jose has placed high on Money magazine’s annual list of America’s most livable cities; and its police force has become a national model for community policing, and innovation that has kept many of the city’s neighborhoods from falling into the spiral of crime and neglect that plaques other urban cores.

But the arrival of this city, sprawling across the land where orchards once thrived in the alluvial soil at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay, did not occur without pain or controversy: And if the physical resurrection of downtown, the Whitney coup, the popularity of the Sharks, and other achievements have helped it gain national respectability, San Jose is still a city facing itself in the mirror and not always liking what it sees. Indeed, many citizens believe that what has been good for downtown has not necessarily helped the rest of the city’s two hundred square miles.

If it is too much to suggest trouble in paradise, there are key issues that threaten to sloe the civic juggernaut. There is the fact that the Fairmont Hotel and Plaza, the cornerstone of the billion-dollar downtown redevelopment, has yet to turn the economic corner. There is the failure to attract an anchor department store or much other successful retail business to the nearby Pavilion Center, forcing city planners to rely on nightclubs and entertainment to keep paying customers downtown after working hours. There are questions about the wisdom of the deal that brought Adobe to town. (Would the company even have considered downtown San Jose, critics ask, without the givebacks that included the cost of the land?) There is the on-again, off-again deal-currently off-to bring IBM’s regional headquarters into downtown. And there is a downtown office vacancy rate that only at year’s end had dipped to 10 percent after hovering between 15 and 20 percent for the past few years.

McEnery, whose book The New City-State holds up San Jose as the model for what he called the “good city” of the twenty-first century-as opposed to the “great cities” of the present, rife as they are with decay and despair-takes the long view. He insists that the area around the Guadalupe River was the center of San Jose for the vast part of its existence and argues that it will be so again. “It was only in the short term that the center could not hold,” McEnery says about central San Jose’s three decades of urban decline, “when the suburbs and the highway system conspired to keep people out of downtown.”

McEnery drives us through suburbs ranging from the million-dollar homes of Silver Creek Development to the Alum Rock neighborhood nicknamed Sal Si Puedes, roughly translated as “Get out if you can.” He even drives south into Coyote Valley, where he fought what he calls his “Manichean battle” against developers who “wanted to cookie-cutter it up” into housing and mall developments.

Both McEnery and his successor, Mayor Susan Hammer, sought to preserve as much land as possible for future high-tech development so that San Jose would have a commercial tax base that could keep the city fiscally healthy. When high-tech businesses began to locate in San Jose in the mid-eighties, the idea of land-banking was deemed a winner. (It looks as if the success will continue: Mark Ritchie, a real-estate broker with Ritchie & Ritchie who tracks office-use trends, says the current market for businesses seeking space throughout Santa Clara County is “not just red hot, it’s white hot.”)

The tour takes us back downtown to San Pedro Square, the historic center of San Jose, near the Guadalupe River, where the Fallon House and the Peralta Adobe sit on opposite sides of West St. John Street. If the argument over development can be reduced to geography, the symbol might be here, where the mansion of Thomas Fallon, the Anglo-adventurer who raised the American flag over San Jose in 1846, looms over the last remains of the original Spanish settlement.

Toward the end of McEnery’s tenure as mayor, a fierce controversy broke out over a proposed statue of Fallon. Hispanic activists complained that it was the equivalent of honoring their subjugator. McEnery’s response was that Fallon’s wife had come from one of early California’s leading Hispanic families. “Fallon wasn’t the most saintly of people,” admits McEnery, “but he does exemplify the beginning of assimilation that embodies what a San Josean is.”

Controversy aside, there is general agreement that San Jose has benefited from one of the most successful experiments in American cultural integration. A spin east on Santa Clara Street reflects the city’s ethnic stewpot. At Fifth Street, two Vietnamese restaurants stand across the street from one another. At Ninth, St. Patrick’s, once the Irish Catholic church in San Jose, serves a predominately Hispanic and Vietnamese parish. At Twenty-first, the Chaparral Supermarket flies the Mexican flag.

Finally, on the corner of Twenty-eighth and Santa Clara, we pass an empty lot destined to become the Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens and Plaza, and $25 million music and arts center with a five-hundred-seat theater scheduled for construction in 1997. In a sort of Fallon controversy in reverse, there are those who believe that the project should not be built here in east San Jose. “A lot of people think the gardens should be downtown,” explains McEnery. “That misses the point of what the center of the city is.”

And here is the question that lies at the heart of the debate over San Jose’s future and points up a growing political disputation. Was the empire-building that led to a celebrated, modern downtown also responsible for the city’s failure to spend necessary money and effort on its ethnic neighborhoods and outlying communities?

The schism between downtown proponents and the neighborhoods first appeared in 1988, during the successful campaign to finance the San Jose Arena; it widened during the unsuccessful bid in 1992 to build a San Jose stadium for the Giants. More important, it precipitated the rise of a new breed of leader, such as current Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Honda and US Representative Zoe Lofgren, who even then objected to the direction the city was taking, lamenting that, as wags put it, “Tom McEnery was building a San Jose of which [publisher] Tony Ridder and the Mercury News could be proud.”

Lofgren’s narrow defeat of McEnery in the 1994 Democratic congressional primary may have signaled a fundamental shift in the political climate. Ironically, the shift toward neighborhood-centric politics seemed to reach critical mass just as the grand civic vision of McEnery, Hammer, and Ridder was reaching fruition. It is a phenomenon similar in many respects to the rise of the anti-development forces in San Francisco in the mid-eighties, whose vocal opposition to downtown development led directly to the 1985 passage of Proposition M and the 1987 election of Art Agnos as mayor.

Tony Ridder no longer steers the course at the San Jose Mercury News, but his successor is a man familiar with the tensions that arise between downtown interests and the disenfranchised neighborhoods. Jay Harris, a veteran Knight-Ridder man who arrived in 1994 to run San Jose’s daily newspaper, had lived in Miami, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia before his move to the South Bay. From his sumptuous, wood-paneled office in Mercury News headquarters on Ridder Park Drive in north San Jose, Harris can survey his newspaper’s kingdom and admire what he sees.

“What excites me about San Jose,” Harris begins, “is that it is not burdened by its history the way other American cities are.” Harris is intrigued by the harmony in San Jose, as opposed to a place like Miami, where, he says, “there are three-decade-old tensions between the Anglo, Cuban, and African-American communities.” In San Jose, Harris feels, there is “a pervasive sense of optimism among various groups that doesn’t exist elsewhere.” A large part of it is economic, here, Harris sees none of that he calls “the burden of opportunity denied.”

Among civic leaders there is a sense that Harris is a far different publisher than Tony Ridder. Supervisor Mike Honda believes that he “is more people than structure-oriented” and suggests that Harris is bringing “a critical shift in focus” away from the monumentalism f the eighties.

Harris has turned attention to what he believes are previously undeserved communities in San Jose, opening a Mercury News bureau in Vietnam and going as far as to print key stories in Spanish and Vietnamese. The Mercury News also focused attention on the first plans for the Adobe headquarters, criticizing its design for. In effect, turning its back on the Guadalupe River. After a stinging piece by architectural critic Alan Hess, Adobe went back to the drawing boards that produced a design with an entrance that opened onto the river park.

Harris spent his first vacation as publisher getting to know his new home and generally finding San Jose “a pleasant place, with the amenities of a big city but not the crowds, angst, hatred, or deterioration.” Still, he worries about downtown’s need to develop a retail base in order to prosper, and wonders about the ultimate success of the redevelopment. “If you build it, will they come?” he asks rhetorically. Then he answers his own question: “If you don’t build it, they certainly won’t come.”

Unlike Jay Harris, Zoe Lofgren has the distinct recollection of looking out her office window one day and not at all liking what she saw. It was early afternoon on a day not long before her victory over Tom McEnery, and what met Lofgren’s eyes was the sight of students from the local middle school wandering the street because budget cuts had forced the early closing of district schools. “Imagine,” she says, “one thousand ten-to-twelve-year-olds hanging around and getting into trouble.”

The voluble, peppery Lofgren, now in her second year in Congress, proposes an image that to her symbolizes San Jose’s downtown renaissance: “a huge, beautiful edifice with graffiti all over it.” It is an uncompromising take on downtown redevelopment, a process that she believes “has left us unable to deal with pressing health and education needs.”

The 1994 primary was a squeaker, with a turnout so low that Tom McEnery could rightfully characterize it with the question “What would happen if you had an election and nobody voted?” What pushed the results in Lofgren’s favor were her populist positions and 250 “get out the vote” volunteers from grassroots organizations like Coalition 2001 and PACT. Coalition 2001, a neighborhood-oriented organization, and PACT, a church-based community group, both have anti-development agendas that, Lofgren says, “closely match mine.”

Long critical of what she characterizes as “larger downtown business interests who don’t live in San Jose,” Lofgren has a different community in mind when she talks about her constituents: “They are working people barely getting by on low-income jobs, living east of Twelfth Street, two families to a two-bedroom house.”

Personally, Lofgren doesn’t disagree with civic involvement in projects like the San Jose Arena or the Adobe headquarters deal. But she suspects that “gung-ho Sharks fans are mostly from the East Coast” and believes that “the jury is still out” on Adobe. “The issue,” she says, “is whether the investments that have been made can produce real economic growth.”

It is an issue that will be put to the test in the 1998 mayor’s race, for which battle lines are already being drawn. With Susan Hammer unable to run for a third term, neighborhood groups will likely put forth several candidates and play a prominent role in setting the tone of the electoral debate. Supervisor Mike Honda, though he is more likely to be a candidate for state assembly than for mayor, predicts that the struggle will be in terms of “achieving a balance of attention more favorable to the smaller communities, and making sure we get our fair share of the resources.”

A similar sentiment echoes from the northwest suburb of Naglee. I take the Light Rail to a stop that I believe puts me close to my appointed meeting place with lawyer/activist Mohinder Mann, only to discover I’ve missed it by miles and no easy way to recoup by transit. A phone call convinces Mann to pick me up, and when he arrives, he uses my snafu to illustrate his difficulty with the way San Jose planners have made civic improvements. “They split this town in half,” he complains. “Going north-south is great; there’s just no way to go east-west.”

Born in India but raised in San Jose, Mann is an effervescent fellow with a broad smile and a didactic manner. In 1991, he helped found Coalition 2001, a loose affiliation of young ethnic professionals. Most of them, like Mann, grew up on San Jose’s poorer east side, attended San Jose State University, and now possess “the computers, phones, faxes, and clout to mobilize the community.” Along with other grassroots groups, Coalition 2001 has singed the hairs of a number of San Jose’s powers-that-be and largely won their respect, if not their affection.

Coalition 2001’s first major battle pitted it against San Jose’s social-welfare agencies. The coalition felt that agencies were unfairly displacing children from ethnic families whose disciplinary customs differed from the accepted standard. “We found too many minority children removed for child abuse and wondered why,” Mann explains, recounting tales of puzzled, brokenhearted Indian and Laotian parents who would come to his office telling of their children being taken away. “We found that social-services people were not trained in the cultural diversity that has come about here.”

By bringing together representatives of Hispanic, Chinese, Filipino, and Indo-American communities, Coalition 2001 forced county social-services agencies to recognize they demographic realities that were transforming the Santa Clara Valley and to train workers to act with more sensitivity.

In 1992, Mann’s group discovered that the San Jose Police Department had been collecting photos of a large number of the city’s Vietnamese youth in what was called the “Asian Mug Shot Book.” Many Asians found this booth racist and demeaning. Coalition 2001 worked to bridge the gap between police and San Jose’s growing but still largely isolated Vietnamese community, a culture that has traditionally feared police authority. For their part, police came to realize that any solution to gang problems had to involve reaching out to the Vietnamese. “Coalition 2001 is about trying to get people and communities to come out of their shells,” Mann says of the group’s efforts. “If you keep groups in isolation,” he believes, “they will move away from each other.”

Mann praises Mayor Hammer and her administration for showing sensitivity to the new San Jose from the beginning of her first term in 1990. At that time, she inaugurated Project Diversity, which encouraged members of San Jose’s various ethnic minorities to serve on city boards and commissions. “We’re fortunate to have Susan Hammer,” Mann says. “She’s very open and has helped open up the process.”

But Mann is also clearly looking for a new power structure in San Jose, and he is confident of the role that neighborhood constituencies will play in that process. “There are ten city council districts and we can mobilize two thousand people in any district. This means we can determine who will win or lose,” he declares.

In the San Jose of the twenty-first century, Mann believes, Hammer may be looked back on as a transitional figure. “What we have conceived of is an idea that our diversity can be a vehicle for change,” he says. And that change, he freely admits, includes the fact that Coalition 2001 has begun to look for a 1998 mayoral candidate “who is not a part of city hall.”

Thuan Huu Nguyen and his wife, H. G. Nguyen, apologize for the clutter in the office of their Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, which they have only recently moved from outside of San Jose into a pleasant, atrium-centered office building just north of downtown.

The Vietnamese community is perhaps the South Bay’s fastest-growing constituency. Well over 10 percent of the one million Vietnamese who fled their country after the Communist victory in 1975 now live in Santa Clara County.

Keen observers of the central city’s renaissance, Thuan and other leaders in the Vietnamese community have gone against the tide of other ethnic groups and supported downtown development. His rationale, he says, is community self-interest: “Downtown is going through a transition, and we wanted to be part of it.” San Jose’s redevelopment plan includes the creation of community enterprise zones and Thuan wanted to be able to take advantage of newly available tax credits.

This bit of fiscal sophistication is typical of the Vietnamese business community as it enters its third decade in San Jose and begins to emerge from its culturally imposed isolation to become a viable business player in the city. Part of this is the natural evolution that all new US immigrants go through.

“In the beginning,” says Thuan, “we tended to do business inside our community,” at first concentrating on service businesses such as restaurants, convenience stores, auto repair shops, and janitorial contracting. But as the Vietnamese established themselves and educated their children, the community produced an increasing number of lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, and entrepreneurs. Santa Clara County now boasts several Vietnamese-owned high-tech companies.

Emblematic of this emergence, Thuan and H.G. founded the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in 1993, at a point, Thuan says, “when Vietnamese were beginning to serve the whole San Jose community.” The chamber was designed, H.G. adds, “to help small businesses reach out, network, learn to work with other communities, and help them work with us.”

The need for the chamber was obvious to Thuan, who recognized the difficulties of running a successful business in the US. “You have to divide your attention to too many things,” he says. “Taxes, legal issues, marketing, manufacturing, and accounting.” In each of these areas, the chamber offers support for community members.

There were also cultural barriers to be overcome, such as the Vietnamese tendency not to reach out to strangers to solicit business. To counter this, the chamber has set up monthly mixers at which Vietnamese businesspeople are introduced to their counterparts in other communities and are encouraged to make at least five contacts per mixer. The chamber has also turned to other Asian organizations to draw on their similar experiences. Collectively, the Filipino, Indo-American, Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese chambers of commerce celebrate and Asian American Heritage Festival at Guadalupe River Park each May.

Thuan sees the development of the Vietnamese community in San Jose breaking down into ten-year periods. “In the first,” he says, “it was a question of a new environment: learning a language, making a living, and surviving.” During the second decade, he says, “we’ve solidified being here, seen the need to grow into different areas and to different communities.”

And the next ten years? “People are starting to adapt to a new system,” Thuan says. “You’re beginning to see a new generation of Vietnamese Americans, who came at a younger age, or were born here, and went through school here. They are the ones who understand the American mentality and way of doing things. We are very excited about the future.”

San Jose’s political future got a sudden jolt last year with the unexpected retirement of veteran US Representative Norm Mineta, which set off a flurry of activity and a race to fill Mineta’s seat. Tom Campbell’s victory over former San Jose councilmember Jerry Estruth was predicted, but locally, the special December election to replace Mineta was seen as the unofficial kickoff of the all-important 1998 mayoral campaign.

If neighborhood constituencies don’t strictly determine the campaign’s outcome, it’s clear they will be at least equal partners in charting San Jose’s future. Mayor Susan Hammer recognized in her first term how important it was to reach out to the neighborhoods. That lesson has not been lost on Margie Fernandez, a longtime Hammer aide and current city councilmember, who is considered one of the strongest contenders to replace her mentor. Throughout her term, Fernandez has made a point of doing outreach work in the communities she serves.

Another local leader who seems to have learned the same lesson is Santa Clara Supervisor Ron Gonzalez. Gonzalez recently moved from Sunnyvale to San Jose, many suspect in order to run for mayor in 1998. Even Zoe Lofgren is mentioned by observers as a possible community-based candidate, especially if she grows tired of being a low-ranking Democrat in a Republican-ruled House of Representatives.

If the regional and downtown interests that reshaped San Jose in the eighties and nineties want the opportunity to push their vision into the next century, their hopes may ride on city council members David Pandori and Pat Dando or San Jose Chamber of Commerce President Steve Tedesco. Each may have what Tom McEnery suggests are the necessary assets for all candidates in 1998: “an understanding of the economic engine that drives San Jose and good neighborhood instincts.”

Even McEnery is suggested as a possible unifying force. While not entirely dismissing the idea of another shot at running San Jose after and eight-year absence, he says, “It’s not on my radar screen.”

It’s no surprise, however, that so many other local leaders are lining up support to become San Jose’s first twenty-first century mayor. The reason, McEnery says, is a simple one. “The next mayor could be the one to appear on the cover of Time magazine, presiding over one of the few cities where you have both economic opportunity and a civility impossible in all but a few places in America.”

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