Features & Columns

San Jose Bureaucracy Fumbles its Way into an Interesting Scene

Evolutions of the physical landscape added awesome new
dimensions to the environment
'Urban Rooms' might just salvage the city of San Jose's misguided attempts at urbanism. Photo by Nick Veronin

A microism of San Jose history can be summed up in the following sequence of events: In order to remove hookers and homeless people from a tiny park, the city destroys one end of the park with military precision and replaces it with a sun-baked slab of colorless concrete, devoid of foliage and shade, to create an eyesore that no one would possibly use even if they wanted to navigate the hick-town bureaucracy of bloated permits.

Once that idea predictably fails, the space sits empty for years on end. Then comes the next phase: An architect from a real city builds something on the slab of concrete, and then, after a few more years of meetings with public art bureaucrats, urban planners and construction companies, San Jose finally unveils a new project by having the mayor stand there and declare suburban sprawl out and urbanism in.

The result? Well, it debuted last week with the opening of "Urban Rooms" by Teddy Cruz, a colorful activation of the concrete slab at the northern end of Parque de los Pobladores at First & William in the SoFA District. We get a small outdoor stage, plus overhead tarp shading and vivid chainlink cages, seemingly floating above the space. It looks like something discarded from Chuck E. Cheese's, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Fortunately, the project debuted at the SubZERO Festival, which proved a logical way to kick off the space. SubZERO took advantage of "Urban Rooms" by using the permanent stage both Friday and Saturday, filling up the whole intersection with beer, DJs, musicians and artists—exactly what it should be used for. The space was turned into a keen gathering spot, surrounded by food trucks and other activities for teens and adults alike, a perfect way to bookend a street festival. MACLA was raging, as were SJICA and the Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Of course, the protracted process of transforming the concrete into something unique will only succeed if it gets used on a regular basis—never a guarantee around here—and not just once every five months whenever someone gets the ambition to shell out for the asinine permit prices. And if the Roscoe P. Coltranes in the police department keep forcing everyone to pay for two officers to stand there all day, seemingly whenever a group of any more than 20 wants to gather anywhere, then maybe this whole plan won't succeed at all. I guess history will judge.

From there, the SubZERO festivities proceeded up South First Street, in prime form, as always, with thousands of people attending. By now, SubZERO is one of the most anticipated weekends of the year. This time around, the festival showcased many of the same vendors, plus a few new ones. Which brings me to my only criticism.

This year, three-quarters of SubZERO, at least on the street, was the same stuff that transpires every single year. I walked up and down, thinking, with a sigh, "OK, there's the steampunk booth, there's the vintage clothing, there are the people using 25 audio mixers on a table to create disco music," etc., etc. I began to miss the early years of the festival, when a predominance of random interactive nomadic weirdness awaited around every single corner—you know, stilts, contraptions, robotic gear, wandering cellists, floating orbs or LED bicycles. It felt more raw back in those days and much less contrived. This year, as with last year, the empty spaces were quite noticeable. I would like to see the organizers constantly evolve the festival rather than settling into the same formula. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a counterculture version of Tapestry in Talent, which is what nobody wants.

None of which ruined the experience, though. In addition to "Urban Rooms," evolutions of the physical landscape like Forager added awesome new dimensions to the environment. Friday bands were playing inside, while Saturday saw a lecture series. Both nights catered to an entirely different crowd than what unfolded outside on the street. That's a good thing. I will still continue to hail the progenitors of culture, as the saying goes.