Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Fundraising to Restore Dancing Pig Sign Passes Halfway Mark

Grassroots fundraising to restore the neon dancing pig sign passes the halfway mark
If efforts to save this iconic San Jose sign are successful, Porky will once again be dancing his way to the meat grinder. Photo by Heather David

A local grassroots effort to fix San Jose's most iconic sign, the Stephen's Meat Products neon dancing pig masterpiece, has raised more than half the money it needs. The Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC*SJ), as well as passionate enthusiasts like Heather David, have tapped their networks and pooled their resources, so far raising more than $25,000 toward an estimated goal of $40,000.

The plan is heroic: Paint the sign, fill up the bullet holes, re-illuminate the neon components and get that pig dancing again.

Over the years, many of San Jose's neon signs have disappeared, while others have been rescued and saved in storage. The Stephen's sign still occupies a minuscule piece of real estate in a parking strip infested with waist-high weeds overflowing onto a perpetually cracked sidewalk. It rises from the ground right next to a small surface parking lot by Diridon Station, a parcel that many expect will be snatched up by Google as part of the company's plan to build a neighborhood for its employees. At this point, the money being raised is for the day when the sign's future is solidified. Otherwise, there's no reason to start the repairs just yet.

"Google is well aware of the issue with the sign," says Brian Grayson, executive director of PAC*SJ, "both from us and a large number of members from the community that have raised it enough times at meetings. So they're certainly aware of the sign and its importance. We're hopeful that we can work well together and come up with a solution that works for everybody."

Stephen's Meat Products was a local company that provided meat to restaurants and residents for generations. The sign was and is a definitive piece of San Jose lore. Back when it was working, many people traveled to downtown to see the sign, people who would otherwise never visit. When illuminated, the sign is a zillion times more visually appealing than any of the homogenous condo monstrosities currently uglifying the landscape. A fully restored sign would be awesome. Cultured people with personalities understand this.

"People don't want to live in Everywhere, USA," says David. "When people come to visit, they want to see what makes your city unique. They may go to get their coffee at Starbucks or go to P.F. Chang's to get 'Chinese food,' but they also, if they're going to be in San Jose, they'll want to know, 'Well, what's San Jose all about?' And we've got a really, really bad marketing problem. Even locals don't know the history of San Jose."

The dancing pig, however, is known throughout the United States. For as long as Flickr has existed, meaning about 15 years, online photography groups, neon enthusiasts, signage geeks, connoisseurs of high camp, or even just fans of Americana and roadside attractions have captured the sign and included it in their albums. Younger generations are now doing similar things on Instagram. Local and non-local artists have created paintings, watercolors, postcards or other ephemera based on that sign. In San Jose, it provides a sense of place, whereas piles of overpriced apartments for obnoxious tech-industry hipsters and their $18 hamburgers will never provide a sense of place.

Now, the point here is not to impede progress or throw a monkey wrench in whatever plans Google might have. It's just that with San Jose's penchant for slaughtering its own history while pandering to bro-coder schmoes and their bland tastes, it's more than logical to fight for what little interesting ideas might still be possible around here.

"At minimum, we could have a neon courtyard downtown," David says. "And it could be a tourist attraction, a destination for selfies, something to connect people to the community. And a big corporation like Google should pay for it."

For the time being, PAC*SJ is still raising money, much of which is trickling in from everyday folk, young and old, throughout the city. It's a grassroots effort of the highest order. This is not a complex issue. Everyone loves the dancing pig sign.

"The only negative feedback I ever received about that sign was some vegan that was offended by it," David says.

To donate: preservation.org