Features & Columns

Viva CalleSJ: San Jose's Annual Street Activation Returns

Viva CalleSJ will add more length of road and a wider smorgasbord of activities along the route
Viva CalleSJ has become an annual tradition to celebrate pockets of San Jose.

With its third incarnation this year, Viva CalleSJ, an adventurous open streets initiative, will add more length of road and a wider smorgasbord of activities along the route. For 2017, the gig is titled, Downtown and Eastbound: El Corazon, and it will close off streets from Japantown to the East Side, and on to Lake Cunningham.

Inspired by similar open streets initiatives throughout North America and the world, Viva CalleSJ is a temporary autonomous zone created by closing several miles of San Jose streets and shutting them off to cars for a day. People from anywhere can walk, bike, skate, play and explore the city in ways they don't normally get to do. It's not a race.

With the road closed to automobiles, everyone takes to the streets however they want, in either direction. There is no end and no beginning. Businesses along the streets often get nervous until they understand just how many more potential customers will come their way thanks to the streets being filled with tons of people, everyone as free as the wind.

Each year the route is different. This time the party begins at Seventh and Jackson streets in Japantown, heads west to Third Street, and then south to Santa Clara Street. From there, it goes all the way east down Santa Clara to Alum Rock Village before heading south on White Road to Lake Cunningham Park. The total distance is just over six miles.

At each end and along the way, key activity hubs will feature vendors, activities, artists, dancers and all sorts of unexpected environments. For example, people are constructing a beach on Alum Rock Road in front of the Mexican Heritage Plaza. Alum Rock Village will feature live performances, yoga classes and mural painting. In Japantown you'll see the San Jose Jazz Boom Box Stage, San Jose Taiko, chalk art, a farmers market and youth activities. At the opposite end, Lake Cunningham Park will feature all sorts of family-friendly and fitness activities. Perhaps the craziest additions this year are the site-specific Pokemon games spawning along the entire route.

By now, most people understand that trying to explore San Jose by car is just laughable. At the base level, Viva CalleSJ connects previously disparate communities of San Jose that wouldn't normally get to interact with one another. Participants get a chance to prowl around and discover neighborhoods, businesses, buildings, vacant lots, gardens, strip malls and various other pieces of ignored landscape. The city comes closer together, both in a geographic and mental sense. The physical and temporal components of the city, and how they intertwine, become more apparent. People begin to appreciate their hometown a bit more, or at least their curiosity increases. And that's always a good thing.

Look at it this way: Viva CalleSJ proves that in pure Zen fashion even the mundane becomes glorious. Just walking or cycling down the whole length of East Santa Clara Street illuminates a beautifully incongruous hodgepodge of the urban fabric. Humble Vietnamese establishments juxtapose with Mexican strip malls. Swaths of peeling, cracked retail exude what Paul Theroux would call "an air of ramshackle permanency." There are also a few branch libraries, a Catholic cemetery, defunct railroad tracks, Portuguese clubs and all sorts of ethnic focal points. And of course, don't miss the famous house where Beat Generation speed freak Neal Cassady lived for a short time with his wife, Carolyn. It's the same house where Jack Kerouac showed up in the early 1950s.

But aside from all that, I'm already thinking ahead. The future of Viva CalleSJ looks bright, with City Council members already huffing and puffing about when the event will come to their districts. I guess a good thing about vast sprawling swaths of suburbia is that Viva CalleSJ has a huge landscape of potential routes. With so much of San Jose going unexplored, the possibilities are endless. I can imagine all sorts of zonked-out titles for future events: Five Different Almaden Roads to Percolation Pond Happiness; or Kaiser San Jose to Good Sam: The 27 Unleashed. I could go on and on.

In the end, with enough of the right kind of funding and support—clean-air philanthropists, alternative energy companies or even new Google mapping applications—there's no reason Viva CalleSJ shouldn't aim to become a monthly event. Long live the streets!

Viva CalleSJ
Sunday, Sept. 17
10am - 3pm