Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Divine Blight

An urban explorer's trek through San Jose's industrial badlands, where new meets old
1966:John Steinbeck brought his 19-year-old son and namesake to the Oval Office for a meet and greet with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Who would possibly walk all the way up Hedding to the San Jose Flea Market?

So asked the urban-blight exploration junkie, to himself, as he approached the intersection of Hedding and 13th. Hedding, of course, turns into Berryessa, the main thoroughfare of the same district, named after a storied local family back in the Spanish-settler era. With the new BART station opening up right into the flea market, along with various trail connections and piles of luxury condos sprouting up everywhere, the blight junkie needed to reacquaint himself with one of San Jose's oldest industrial neighborhoods near Berryessa and 101, all as part of a solitary sojourn up to the flea market.

Not a pedestrian did I, the blight junkie, see for miles in any direction. It was fantastic.

In the spirit of blight-junkie columns of years past, the columnist began by segueing down the hidden part of Berryessa between Oakland Road and 101, a tiny side street where old San Jose collides with new in striking fashion.

On one side of the street, you have the Modern Ice Townhomes, a gated upmarket community sandwiched between the freeway and several blocks of downtrodden tract-house suburbia replete with abandoned '70s Oldsmobiles on the streets and makeshift party canopies in peoples' dirt yards.

Then, of course, after circling around past the El Bolero bar, the freeway sound wall and a few discarded mattresses, I arrived back at Hedding as it crossed 101 and bisected one of the most glorious industrial wastelands in all of San Jose. As the pulverizing sun beat down on the pavement, and with only the sounds of birds and sporadic traffic to guide me, I let it all sink in: the Brutalist strip malls with red tile roofing, the abandoned moving trucks with multiple layers of graffiti, the Chevron plant, the machine shops, the hazardous waste management services, the orange cement trucks, the recycling center and the cannabis facilities buried somewhere in the middle of it all.

Of course, had I strayed from Berryessa in any direction, even more industrial badlands were there waiting. Between fenced-in business parks, gritty warehouses and disconnected streets left over from before 101 existed, you'll find pallet storehouses, crane rentals, plumbing supplies, auto glass, welding, fabrication, towing yards, air conditioning parts, feed stores, trailer accessories, RV repair, refrigeration and all sorts of industry.

This part of San Jose has a barbed-wire beauty that the squeaky-clean types will never understand. With practically every other square mile of San Jose declaring its own ridiculous neighborhood association, I suggest we take the area bordered by Coyote Creek, 101 and 880 and launch the Berryessa Industrial Wasteland Neighborhood Association. It's a glorious and sullied swath of underbelly, a secret scrappy Shangri-La.

Since I was intent on exploring the new BART station, which was not too far up the road, I continued along Berryessa, past the brand new Market Park development's North Village across the street from the doomed flea market's main entrance. The real estate syndicates and land-use lobbyists who pushed all of this through would rather see a cookie-cutter "urban village" instead of black velvet Last Supper paintings, cheap sunglasses and piles of drill bits.

Ghosts of the flea market will haunt the new development for decades to come. Mark my words.

The Berryessa BART Station is awesome, but thanks to Covid-19, it feels empty. Upon my arrival, a hot desert-style breeze only intensified the isolation.

One side of the station connects right into the flea market property. The Garden at the Flea, an outdoor dining project, was open when I showed up. Masked customers dined from a handful of food trucks. Hand sanitizer was aplenty.

On the opposite side of the station, a garden is dedicated to the Ohlone peoples. Here the station also connects to the Penitencia Creek Trail. That means from downtown San Jose you can jump on a quick bus to Berryessa BART and then hoof it all the way to Alum Rock Park. No other BART station connects to portions of the Bay Area Ridge Trail in quite this fashion.

Despite the blight—hey, that rhymes!—the junkie came away intrigued, enthralled and comfortable in his own skin.