Features & Columns

San Jose's Abandoned Spaces

An ode to urban blight and the history of San Jose's abandoned spaces
SOUNDS OF SILENCE: Sound engineering pioneer Don Buchla, pictured, used to haunt the now-vacant Stevens Music building on Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen.

In his heyday, this urban blight exploration junkie created smash hits on Stockton Avenue, 24th Street, Willow Road and Phelan Avenue, among many other decrepit thoroughfares. In the latter case, he wrote a column called "Phelan Groovy." There were many of these caustic screeds. You can go look them up, if you wish. For example, just Google "Gemco" with my name and see what happens.

Here's the skinny in case you weren't there: The junkie was addicted to the process of exploring abandoned places. Back when he was still in the machinery of urban blight addiction, the junkie was often overwhelmed with feelings of abandonment and hopelessness, so he had to go search out the most neglected, rundown neighborhoods as he could possibly find. These are places with which he found a sense of identification. Didn't have to be a whole neighborhood; maybe, perhaps, simply a particular shining symbol of what San Jose has thrown away and discarded. A defunct hardware store on the outskirts of Willow Glen. A weed-filled yard of broken shopping carts. Rat-infested couches on the railroad tracks by Monterey Highway. According to the therapy he received from acquaintances on the street, these were some of the best columns he ever wrote.

These days, the blight junkie still works hard to avoid relapsing and going on a bender at some feeble, derelict shopping center near Hillsdale and Meridian, surrounded by tract-house wastelands and ugly 1970s medical-office buildings. He could snap at any given moment, so he takes life one day at a time. He has learned to forgive the junkie still residing deep inside him, the one who still occasionally rises to the surface and causes him trouble.

These days he simply strolls down Lincoln Avenue, engages in walking meditation, and contemplates the former blighted days (daze?) in a more productive fashion. This is precisely what transpired during a recent urban prowl along Willow Glen's main drag. (Yes, it is indeed a drag.)

With that, for the rest of this week's screed, allow me to briefly contemplate 1202 Lincoln Ave., the former site of Stevens Music, former global innovative epicenter of the Gordon Stevens Empire of San Jose Music Retail History, a former kitsch masterpiece in all its ignored glory, a building now on its way to being completely fixed up and thus ruined forever. Gordon abandoned Stevens Music in 1984, but he kept using the building until a few years ago. Historically speaking, Stevens Music was a diamond in the rough, a gorgeous exotic oasis of mystery amid the surrounding genteel wasteland.

The stories from that building are legendary. In the 1960s, Stevens Music supplied many local bands with their instruments. You know, the Count Five, the Chocolate Watchband, Moby Grape—all those characters. I was once even told by an anonymous source that Don Buchla might have done LSD in the back room when building his own modular synthesizer. Yes, crazy geniuses from the East Bay like Buchla did indeed come down here to the hinterland for fun. According to Gordon, Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers bought his first guitar from Stevens Music. Countless others have similar stories.

By the time I came around, that building was the first place I ever took music lessons. They had a room filled up with ridiculous Lowrey Organs and I learned I-IV-V chord progressions at age 9. That place ignited my interest in music theory, even if all we played was cheesy simplifications of horrid easy listening standards. In that sense, 1202 Lincoln is part of what made me who I am today. Since my mom is from Willow Glen, I tell people I was the first Indo-Willow-Glenian of the entire damn city. In other words, after my dad, I was the original exotic intruder of that whole stinking neighborhood. And since I grew up playing cheesy organs in that building, it blew me away decades later when Gordon told me that his dad, Tom Stevens, was the one who put Korla Pandit on the map. Pandit was the godfather of exotica, of course. Look it up.

With such thinking, the urban blight junkie now feels more serene and connected. Onward and upward.