Seeking Civic Image by Building One



Residents of this city 50 miles south of San Francisco are turning on their radio these days and being reassured that San Jose is a nice place to live.

”We’ve got it, all right” proclaims a radio commercial. ”We’ve got it all right here in San Jose.”

Another commercial, one of 18 like it being broadcast by local stations, praises a reborn downtown: ”Welcome to the leading edge. Hope you like the view. Everywhere you look you see the future breaking through.”

The messages represent an effort by some civic leaders here to diminish a sense of civic inferiority rooted in the city’s proximity to San Francisco. While the City by the Bay’s population of 740,000 is not much more than San Jose’s estimated 715,000, its scenic beauty and charm have long overshadowed its neighbor, a farm town-turned-high-technology center.

”It’s not that San Jose has a bad image,” said Steven Snell, chairman of the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is sponsoring the radio campaign. ”It’s that it doesn’t have any image. We’re trying to emphasize the good things here and create an image.”

While boosters work to make San Joseans prouder of their town, the city itself and private investors are gambling almost $1 billion in an effort to restore San Jose’s deteriorated downtown.

A forest of new office towers and a glass-and-marble luxury hotel have risen in the last year in the heart of San Jose, until recently a refuge for derelicts. A huge retail shopping complex is under construction, as is a convention center and $500 million trolley system that will link San Jose’s southern suburbs and the industrial area to the north with the downtown retail area, part of which will be off limits to private automobiles.

In June, voters will be asked to approve a $100 million sports arena in the hope of luring a professional basketball franchise, and there are also plans
for a museum about the computer-oriented high-technology industries of the area.

The burst of activity prompted the Santa Clara County Supervisor, Ron Diridon, to say, ”Nothing can stop us to rival, ultimately, Paris, London, Zurich, all the great communities.”

For decades, San Jose and the surrounding Santa Clara Valley had no difficulty defining its image: It was California’s best-known producer of prunes and apricots.

But in the 1960’s, a flood of immigrants from around the country moved in to work at aerospace and electronics plants in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and other nearby towns. San Jose’s prune and apricot trees fell to make way for new homes, and before long the area that the Chamber of Commerce had dubbed the ”Valley of Heart’s Delight” became known as ”Silicon Valley,” a tribute to the raw material of microchips.

Many residents are skeptical that the current construction and plans for residential complexes in the downtown area can revive a neighborhood long abandoned by middle-class residents and a city policy that stressed a style of living centered on far-flung housing developments, the automobile and some of the country’s largest shopping malls.

As motorists commute across the valley, they produced chronic traffic tie-ups that are among California’s worst; skeptics doubt San Joseans will brave still more traffic jams to reach a rebuilt downtown.

At best, a difficult transition appears likely for downtown: the new hotel that opened last year, The Fairmont, is operating well below capacity, and the vacancy rate in downtown office buildings, 27 percent, is among the nation’s highest.

Still, as he travels around downtown and points out improvements, Mayor Tom McEnery, a 42-year-old native and driving force behind the redevelopment, expounds on it with the zeal of a preacher reporting a miraculous resuscitation of the dead.

While the city and developers have not had much success so far attracting high-technology companies from the suburbs, Mr. McEnery says he is
confident. As more office workers arrive, he said, the moribund business district will become vigorous.

”We shouldn’t be compared to San Francisco, which is a great city that should be compared with London or Paris,” he said, noting San Jose’s real growth, ”only started 30 years ago.”

”San Jose ought to be compared with other cities of rapid growth in the Sunbelt, like San Diego, San Antonio and Dallas,” Mr. McEnery said. ”San Jose has set itself up to take off in the nineties.”


Find this article at:

Bookmark the permalink.