Features & Columns

The Whole Story

Two local projects with historical angles don't gloss over San Jose's complicated past
Tamiko Rast IN THE CAMP: Tamiko Rast highlights the dark aspects of local history in her show 'Veritable San Jose,' which includes this piece about the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans.

This week, two brilliant perspectives on local history will unfold. Right now, a full-blown documentary on San Jose history is in the works. The final gala hoedown fundraising cocktail spectacular transpires Thursday at the home of Norm Kline, one of the folks driving the project.

In a time-shattering coincidence, the very next night, Tamiko Rast, of Roy's Station in Japantown fame, will exhibit a handful of gorgeous paintings in the art deco style of old travel posters, with each one addressing historical San Jose atrocities. Talk about a double shot of history.

At presstime, the filmmakers had already interviewed a few dozen folks for what truly does look to be a rocking, multilayered lasagna of stories, each one depicting various flavors of the San Jose condition. In just a few minutes of talking with Kline in person and producer Tricia Creason-Valencia over the phone, our conversations covered multiple trajectories: the electric light tower, political gangs of the 1890s, the migrant farmworker experience, sprawlmeister Dutch Hamann's cannibalization of the orchards, the Latino and Vietnamese experience, rock & roll history, the Black Panthers and San Jose's pathological DSM IV-level inability to separate itself from comparisons to San Francisco. Even better, no one whitewashes the controversial stuff. They embrace it.

Like many native San Joseans, Kline gradually became miffed at the lack of coolness factor embedded in the human condition here, and the lack of common household interest in the myriad histories of this landscape. A seasoned nonprofit impresario and fundraiser, Kline decided to help launch a network of correspondence and get the ball rolling to fund a long-overdue documentary.

"San Jose grew so fast and a lot of people don't know the rich history of San Jose," Kline tells me, as we sit in his backyard, the site of the blowout fundraiser this Thursday. "There's these great, great stories of conflict, drama, it's almost like a Shakespearean play. There's this great city that grows up in the 1940s that's just bustling, you can't even walk down the sidewalks. And then the near-death in the '60s and '70s—they bulldozed downtown, it was like Dresden in World War II, they tore it down—and then the gradual rebuilding."

After discovering that History San Jose and CreaTV also harbored similar dreams to eventually realize a documentary, the solicitation of funds began. Cisco and the Knight Foundation kicked in big time. Kline remained the chief driver of the project while Creason-Valencia came on board as the producer and chief lasagna-layering orchestrator of interviews and stories. I don't have have enough room to name all those involved, but I am looking forward to the finished product debuting at the California Theatre in October. The fundraising cocktail party takes place at the Kline compound 6-9pm Thursday.

And then there's Japantown. As I sat there in Tamiko Rast's studio, she revealed a handful of paintings, in the art deco style of classic travel posters, ablaze with vibrant hues and each one depicting a selected atrocity of San Jose history. One of them explodes with the yellow and red of the Vietnamese flag, highlighting the Little Saigon fiasco of a few years back. Another depicts the poop statue in Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Still another features dangling legs over an art deco logo of St. James Park, referencing the infamous lynching of 1933. A fourth brutally calls attention to the Japanese internment camps, replete with native scripts and barbed wire. The show, called "Veritable San Jose," opens Friday night at Cukui on Jackson Street. Rast and I didn't get 30 seconds into our conversation before mutually ridiculing San Jose's identity complex, always comparing itself to San Francisco, but in regards to her show, Rast simply uses art deco to explore the dark side of San Jose history.

"I didn't want to do something for controversy's sake," Rast tells me. "That wasn't the point. But, 'What are some of the most interesting stories?' They're the ones that people kind of talk about through hushed tones. Originally what brought this on is I had just seen an old Danish travel poster. And I love art deco travel posters. I absolutely love them. So I thought, 'What if I do some for San Jose?'"