Features & Columns

SoFA District's Future in the Balance

Artists and real estate developers come to a meeting of the minds
Barbara Goldstein transformed the San Jose Public Art Program and is now working to bring together artists, architects and other creatives for C2SV.

For once, artists and real estate developers just might come to a meeting of the minds. As grotesquely expensive housing begins to leach onto the SoFA District in downtown San Jose, where many have labored for a quarter-century to make the neighborhood artsy and interesting, here comes a slew of events to see how stakeholders might possibly find common ground.

As part of C2SV, San Jose's three-day music and tech-industry powwow, MACLA will host a rocking Cultural District Forum at 10am Thursday, Oct. 6. Later that evening, the second annual siteSoFA Design Crawl will unfold, with more than a dozen designers, architects and other creative agencies opening up their offices to showcase current projects. Both events are free of charge. (Full disclosure: Metro is one of the lead sponsors of the whole shebang.)

When it comes to real estate, everyone knows the usual sequence of events. Artists and other interesting people transform an underutilized neighborhood into a destination, or at least a place where other interesting people can find each other. Next, real estate bullshitters monitor what the artists are doing and swoop in to erect lifelessly uniform residential and retail, often gentrifying the neighborhood so artists and interesting people can no longer afford to live there—despite the fact that it was the artists and interesting people who made the neighborhood interesting in the first place.

Real estate bullshitters wait until the artists make a neighborhood viable before willfully destroying the artists' livelihoods, just so developers can make a fortune dumbing down the whole neighborhood all over again. This is not illegal by any stretch. It's just how the real estate business often works. And since downtown San Jose is apparently prime territory for transient tech workers who don't care about the neighborhood anyway, a much-touted "housing boom" is currently unfolding to giddy euphoria.

Barbara Goldstein, who transformed the San Jose Public Art Program into something interesting for a change, organized both the Cultural Forum at MACLA and the SoFA Design Crawl.

"All these developers are developing here because the neighborhood has an interesting vibe," she said. "So, how do we begin thinking about the fact that it's an ecosystem, and arts and culture are a critical part of it? At the same time a lot of development is coming in, so how do we get everybody to work together, to make sure that we retain what's here and build on it, rather than forcing it out?"

Thanks to Goldstein, along with C2SV, the Cultural District Forum at MACLA should be a prime moment for San Jose to bring developers and interesting people into the same conversation for once. An awesome selection of panelists will make the conversation a rocking one. Moderating the panel will be Jessica Cusick, who is currently devising a plan to implement legislation for a new type of "Certified Cultural District" in California—a fantastic idea. Additional speakers include actor/writer/director Teo Castellanos of Miami's Wynwood Arts District; Moy Eng, executive director of the Community Arts Stabilization Fund in San Francisco; Ayodele Nzinga, organizer of Oakland's Black Arts Cultural District; and Steven Oliver, a philanthropist, arts enthusiast, advocate and civic leader. In Oliver's case, he is both a real estate developer and a person literate in contemporary art, proving those personas aren't mutually exclusive.

The Design Crawl will feature numerous creative people who work in the SoFA district—graphic and industrial designers, architects, animation interns, ad agencies—but aren't normally visible to the average person frequenting the scene.

"One of the most interesting things about this region is that everyone knows what Silicon Valley is, but nobody knows where Silicon Valley is," Goldstein said. "And I thought it would be a really interesting idea to turn it inside out by getting the designers to open up their offices once a year and allow people to come in and see what they're doing."

Last year, the SoFA Design Crawl attracted roughly 200 people, but now that it's coupled with C2SV, more designers are involved and more attendees are expected.