Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Fire-Gutted Dick's Center Hearkens Back To A Bygone Era In Silicon Valley

ASHES TO ASHES: For the second time in a half-century, San Jose's Dick's Center—a mid-century strip mall—burned to a crisp.

Last week, one of San Jose's most decrepit and gloriously crumbling strip malls, Dick's Center on Bascom Avenue, spontaneously burst into flames. Again.

With a pandemic washing over the landscape, people often feel a sense of isolation, but the Anti-Man-About-Town prefers to view any situation as one of deep connections across time and space. In this way, one can sit with one's own scarred landscape—both inner and outer—in a much more productive fashion.

The history of Dick's Center alone could fill several pages. Every connoisseur of San Jose's underbelly knows this place, as it's one of the most celebrated local citadels of urban decay or "ruin porn," as many have come to describe these places. This is partly due to the long-defunct Zorba's restaurant way in the back, sitting there like a dead white whale rotting on the beach. Once a thriving 10,000-square-foot banquet and dining facility, Zorba's closed for good 20 years ago. I attended a wedding there around 1989.

Let us not forget Guido's, an old-school Italian restaurant at the end of the strip mall directly across from Zorba's, also gone for decades. You can still see label scars on the building. Both of those restaurants, like their peers in the day—Lou's Village, Italian Gardens or the Bold Knight—were throwbacks to an older San Jose that has long since disappeared thanks to the new normal of the condo-pocalypse. As the world burns around us, condos will always emerge in the aftermath. Everywhere. You can count on it.

However, the namesake of the whole parcel goes to Dick Yee, a Chinese immigrant who in 1948 started his own independent grocery chain, Dick's Supermarkets, the first one of which was on North Fourth Street at what is now Commercial Ave. In 1951, Yee's son Gene expanded the family business, scoring a 15-acre prune orchard on Bascom, making Dick's Supermarket the anchor tenant. Even though the grocery store died a natural death decades ago, the faded sign along Bascom still remains. At the height of their 50 years in the business, the Yee family presided over 15 Dick's Supermarkets throughout the South Bay, making their empire the largest independent grocery chain anywhere in these parts. Gene sadly passed away last year at the ripe old age of 92.

In this space, I covered these reverberations in 2007 and in 2010, but like many aspects of San Jose, they tend to cycle back, as if some deep inner wisdom is trying to burn its way out of me. That is why the fire last week fueled the inner fire of my own creativity.

So, I can't help but recall that in more recent decades, various tenants came and went, the most notable being Ernie the Butcher, whose tagline was "You can't beat my meat." He'd be out there in the parking lot, right at the sidewalk, grilling up tons of meat while the smoke drifted into the street, making it hard for anyone to drive by. Much, much later, I scored a red Ernie-the-Butcher T-shirt at a thrift store, but it was way too small for me, so I gave it to Traci Vogel, Metro's features editor at the time.

Still more recently, smaller and leaner businesses came into being, especially the glorious Tacos Mexico, seemingly the epicenter of the fire last week. Cell phone shops, a falafel place, a small Middle Eastern grocery and a beauty salon also rented out various spots. Plus, in the back of the strip mall near where Guido's used to be, an anonymous organization even occupied one of the units for many years to provide daily meetings for people recovering from the habitual process of trying to satisfy thirsty cravings.

All of which means the Anti-Man-About-Town cannot view himself as separate from the glorious ruins of Dick's Center. This is where inner wisdom comes bursting through, if one learns to trust it, so that a profound and ancient image of interconnectedness emerges, reminding me of Indra's Net: At every trans-historical vertex of the net, one finds a multifaceted diamond, with each face of the diamond reflecting every other diamond. Even during a pandemic, none of us are truly alone. We are all connected.

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