Features & Columns

Scan This

A new app lets curiosity seekers relive San Jose's sometimes tumultuous past on their smartphones
QUAKE TOWN: The 1906 earthquake brought down the Phelan Building at Post and First streets in downtown San Jose. Courtesy of The California Room, San Jose Public Library.

FOR THOSE who are interested in tracing the roots of San Jose's endless cycles of destruction, loss, abandonment, relocation, botched urban planning, real estate greed and political indifference, the San Jose Public Library has developed a free smartphone-enabled self-guided walking tour to give residents and visitors an interactive way to explore San Jose's history.

Appropriately called Scan Jose, the app-driven tour showcases historic images from the collections of the California Room and the Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, both located at the Martin Luther King, Jr. main library. To get started, simply call up www.scanjose.org on a smartphone or tablet, and away it goes.

This Saturday, library staff will host a special kickoff tour from 11:30am to 12:30pm, free and open to the public, starting in front of the San Jose Museum of Art in downtown San Jose. Bring your iPad.

Users can actually choose from three different tours. "A Walk Around the Plaza" begins at the art museum and takes users to various sites of historical interest in the vicinity of Plaza de Cesar Chavez. At each stop, users call up a historical photo of what the particular spot looked like over 100 years ago, plus a description of what transpired.

For example, the De Saisset House occupied the parcel of land right where the Tech Museum currently sits. One can see four different photos, including the guts of the Civic Auditorium as it was first getting built.

Also, what's now the Fairmont used to be one of San Jose's three Chinatowns. On that page, one sees a sketch of the area, where, in the 1870s, more than 1,000 people were crowded into one square block. In March of 1887, the San Jose City Council ordered the destruction of Chinatown, declaring it a "health hazard." But before the razing of the area could take place, a fire of suspicious origin broke out. My, how times have changed.

Another tour, titled "Old Santa Clara Street," takes one from the De Anza Hotel all the way down Santa Clara to Third Street. Of course, that hotel now sits on part of the land once occupied by College of Notre Dame, established in 1851 on Santa Clara Street. Users call up 1860s-era photos of what the campus looked like. It stretched from the corner of Notre Dame Street, west to about the middle of the Comerica Bank building.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three tours is titled "Tragedies and Calamities," featuring numerous period shots of damage inflicted on downtown by the famous 1906 earthquake"the one San Francisco often hogs all the publicity for.

One sees spectacular shots of the damage at Second and San Fernando streets, plus the corner of First and Post streets, which was then named El Dorado. St. Patrick's Church on Santa Clara Street also suffered major damage, as did San Jose High School. The tour even begins with an original post-earthquake proclamation from 1906, declaring, "All lawlessness will be repressed with a heavy hand."

To experience these tours, all one needs is a smartphone and some curiosity"a character trait sadly lacking in too many people. Similar, more elaborate, app-based tours exist in major cities all over the world, replete with audio accompaniment, video and the whole nine yards. Many, if not most, are produced by former guidebook authors from the print era and they are gaining popularity, especially for tourists.

In any event, Scan Jose's version is a welcome step in the right direction. One can easily envision app tours of the seedier parts of the San Jose experience, perhaps homeless encampments and their stories, or a history of each empty building, complete with historical documentation of landlord neglect and code violations.

How about a tour of all the defunct railroad tracks or an app guide to kitsch signage from the 1960s? I can also imagine an audio tour of historical music riots"from the Palomar Ballroom to the Civic Auditorium to the infamous Black Flag gig in downtown San Jose. We can go on and on.

So if you've got stories, write them down or at least start taking photographs. Documentation is paramount. Many years from now, people will want to know this stuff. As the saying goes, history must be written of, by and for the survivors.

Tour the City