Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: This Year's VivaCalle SJ Holds Potential to be Best Yet

Who knows what people will encounter on San Jose's lovely Monterey Road when no cars are allowed on it? Photo by Gary Singh

Last week, the city of San Jose announced the route for this year's annual Viva CalleSJ open streets initiative, which will expose tens of thousands of residents to the best and worst of San Jo, all in one afternoon. On Sept. 23, the route will start at South First and William streets in downtown San Jose, right smack in the middle of the SoFA Street Fair, where 100 bands will already be gigging throughout the afternoon.

Then the route proceeds all the way down Monterey Road, the Champs-Elysees of San Jose's underbelly, before briefly veering down Branham to Martial Cottle Park. As always, various nodes of activity will erupt at specific parts of the route.

Every year, Viva CalleSJ creates a temporary autonomous zone by closing several miles of San Jose streets and shutting them off to cars for a day. People can then walk, jog, bike, skate, exercise or play, all to explore specific neighborhoods they don't normally see, in ways they don't normally get to do. With the road closed to automobiles, everyone takes to the streets however they want, in any direction. There is no end and no beginning. Curiosity and the spirit of adventure reign free.

Forward-thinking cities all over the world stage similar open streets initiatives, in some places even once a month, and in my view, Viva CalleSJ is one of the most inclusive, unifying events ever to emerge in San Jose. The effect of connecting isolated neighborhoods and previously disparate demographics via open streets really works. It's obvious to anyone that participates. Last year, the positive response was overwhelming. Lifelong residents explored areas of the city they hadn't seen in years.

Unfortunately, although everyone is informed of the route several months in advance, the celebration does not come without grumblings from angry suburban get-off-my-lawn types that for half a day can't drive their cars to a store two blocks away, or, more cluelessly, didn't even know the event was happening. This is expected. If Jesus Christ came back to life and gave a public sermon in San Jose, half the city would probably say, "Why didn't I know about this?"

Nevertheless, I predict this year will be the best Viva CalleSJ ever. The SoFA Street Fair will be a game-changer for the open streets party. I cannot stress it enough. From there, imagine thousands of people navigating Monterey Road without cars, past miles of crumbling junkie motels, weed-infested vacant lots, bent chain-link fences, trailer parks, hookers, pimps, recycling centers, graffiti-stained tire shops and sun-cracked parking lots, not to mention Oak Hill Cemetery. An activity hub will exist at Monterey and Umbarger, near what's left of the County Fairgrounds, possibly the most despair-ridden swath of squandered potential in the entire South Bay. These days the fairgrounds look more like a deserted movie set than anything else, but word has it county fair peeps might help orchestrate a Ferris wheel for Monterey Road, just for Viva CalleSJ. That's right, instead of clawing at each other's throats, the county and the city are actually collaborating for once, in this case to get a Ferris wheel rocking.

Monterey Road itself soaks in history. It was mythically part of the historic El Camino Real connecting the California missions. Later it became a stagecoach route and then a state highway during the decades before 101 existed. There is perhaps no street more "San Jose" than Monterey Road.

This year, the other end of Viva CalleSJ occurs at Martial Cottle Park at Branham and Snell, one of those drab intersections with no pedestrians for a mile each direction and virtually indistinguishable from any Central Valley stopover along Highway 5 to Los Angeles. Martial Cottle Park, though, is a former century-old farm beautifully reincarnated as a urban park with mucho activity space.

All in all, for this year's Viva CalleSJ, I can only say, what a combination: At least 100 bands playing live in the SoFA District. Tens of thousands of people out of their cars on the pavement of Monterey Road. Rock & roll. Suburban underbelly. Strip malls, flower beds, garbage, asphalt, sun, food, drink and San Jose's agricultural past, all in one day's adventure. It doesn't get any more local than that.