Features & Columns

'Our Lives in This Place'

Artist input sculpts San Jose's grand plan to grow urban villages
POSTCARD CLUB: Moses Mena, manager of the East Santa Clara Street Farmers Market, has pushed for the preservation of public spaces.

Near the Naglee Park Garage, a portable kiosk sits on the southern side of San Carlos Street. At the kiosk, anyone can walk up and rifle through stacks of bright, artsy postcards, all printed with quotes from various community members of proposed urban village projects.

For several months now, the kiosk has traveled around the neighborhood, mostly along the East Santa Clara Street corridor, as part of a new art project titled, "Our Lives in This Place."

It's designed to help community members voice their concerns and tell the city planners what needs to be done to make the neighborhood more interesting. The plan is much larger, of course.

Over at City Hall, the Envision San Jose 2040 General Scheme includes a zillion different "urban villages" throughout the sprawling city landscape. One such village emphasizes East Santa Clara Street from Seventh to 17th Street. For the planning of this particular village, which should eventually add a few hundred more units over the next several years, the city recently did something it has never done before: A trio of artists—Robin Lasser, Trena Noval and Genevieve Hastings—were commissioned to create a new social sculpture and a social engagement project as part of the urban planning process.

As artists, the three created a series of postcards featuring reproduced portraits of specific people in the neighborhood (yes, analog art!), replete with quotes relaying their ideas for the future. Each postcard features a resident in his or her element, illustrated by artists Dax Tran-Caffee or James Gouldthorpe. Then, on the flipside, we see statements from the resident.

For example, Moses Mena, who manages the East Santa Clara Street Farmers Market, wrote that public spaces need to be saved: Half-park and half-work spaces are necessary for people, small businesses and small community-based organizations. This is what fosters real community involvement, he wrote. On another postcard, Alan Johnson of Needle in the Groove record shop remembers the word "urban" as described in rap and R&B a quarter-century ago. He wonders if another word should be used instead. In still more cases, historian Anthony Raynsford talks about the neighborhood's architectural heritage; Barbara Goldstein talks about the elderly population; Ivy Thu-Nga Vuong focuses on rooftop gardens and healthy food choices. Overall, it's a pretty good benchmark of the neighborhood's diversity.

When all was said and done, the postcards were then placed into a traveling kiosk, which, in turn, inspired more residents to voice their concerns and hopes for the future. Thus, the project became an iterative process. The artists functioned as a "connection-machine," interfacing with local residents, business folk and other community members to find out what people actually wanted from this newly defined East Santa Clara Street corridor. The result was much more interesting had everyone been forced to attend endless bureaucratic urban planning meetings.

One of the artists, Genevieve Hastings, went to San Jose State University and lives within reach of the neighborhood. As a result of this project, she became more connected and made new friends.

"We interviewed and spoke with so many incredible people along the way," Hastings says. "I feel like I have a stronger sense of community now. I also took away a far greater understanding of the urban planning process. When we started, I don't think we had any idea of the steps it takes to create these plans for urban villages. It's been a steep learning curve at times, but very rewarding."

Yet again we see artists making neighborhoods more interesting.

Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, this wouldn't have happened. I can't imagine how utterly genteel and nauseating this process would have been, had the artists not participated. And with a public kiosk, filled up with postcards, traveling around the 'hood, giving residents a chance to chime in and learn more about their own neighbors, everyone wins.