Features & Columns


The urban explorer is once again unable to resist the siren call of a half-empty strip mall
GARDEN OF WEEDS: San Jose's Hacienda Gardens is a veritable anti–Garden of Eden. Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

EXACTLY one year ago, the Urban Blight Exploration Junkie relapsed at the crumbling remains of the Hacienda Gardens Shopping Center on Meridian Avenue between Hillsdale and Foxworthy.

Sure, there existed new components of a once-thriving center—replete with demoralizing San Jose strip mall color schemes of mustard yellow, brick red, olive and beige—but with the majority of those newer units remaining empty, the intended upgrade fell completely flat. The entire property remained a decrepit, postapocalyptic paean to landlord neglect, a result of botched urban planning, real estate greed, political indifference and suburban apathy—in other words, textbook San Jose.

Since Christmas season seems to be when troubled addicts relapse the most, the blight junkie was no exception, so his intrinsic feelings of hopelessness, isolation and unresolved abandonment issues again drove him to go on a bender by searching out the most rundown eyesore of dead retail he could find. That is, he needed to change the way he felt, so he resumed his craving for decrepitude and blight, consuming it all at Hacienda Gardens.

That was a year ago, and we are sad to report that another relapse has occurred. The junkie went on another binge at the ruined shopping center just last week. On the Meridian Avenue side, one of the newer signs proclaims that Panda Express is located therein.

The rest of the sign is hauntingly blank, as if the spaces designated for future tenants were just too premature. Another sign proclaims that BlueRock BBQ and Hometown Buffet are the only two tenants in other parts of the complex. The older buildings, housing the Rite-Aid and Hometown Buffet, are feeble, decrepit and just plain uninviting. Behind the Rite-Aid, parts of the corner at Hillsdale and Yucca are fenced off. A trailer with a flat tire sits in the parking lot.

The sign for the Cardinal Coffee Shop still remains, but the facade of the former restaurant is falling apart and covered with graffiti. Old clothes, soaked from the rain, sit on top of a broken concrete garage receptacle in front of the place. Before the Wells Fargo moved across the lot to a new building, it sat next door, and one can still look through the dirty windows at what's left of the '70s-era d–cor inside. What a waste.

But even on a bender, the blight junkie can acknowledge the good things in life. He has learned to be grateful for what he has. Right across Foxworthy, a new grocery store finally moved into one of the abandoned buildings, providing cheap Listerine, frozen food, $9.99 flannel jackets and much more. The genius who owns the chain couldn't even come up with an interesting name, so it's called Grocery Outlet Bargain MarketĘ. Yes, you're reading that correctly—there's even a registered trademark symbol at the end.

Exploring the physical and cultural wreckage of a once-thriving set of buildings brought back numerous childhood memories for the blight junkie, as relapses often do. Perhaps the most fascinating place he could recall in Hacienda Gardens Shopping Center was Van's Hobby Shop, a jam-packed outpost of interesting stuff.

As a kid, the future blight junkie perused the shelves at Van's all the time, often without even looking for anything in particular. Like most curious people, he just loved to browse and look around, but unfortunately the old bats that ran the place did not want kids to browse. They followed him while he innocently looked around the shop. The bats repeatedly insisted on knowing why he was there, what he was looking for, his purpose, etc.

Apparently, they didn't understand that his journey of browsing and exploration was more important than the final outcome. The bats did not understand that, for him, life was not a problem to be solved; rather, it was a mystery to be experienced.

As the Urban Blight Exploration Junkie recalled this childhood memory, his spirits lifted. He felt more integrated, as if a missing part of him had finally been filled, enabling him to build a more complete identity. The old bats had been misguided. One needn't emphasize the goal, the outcome. Instead, curiosity and imagination were more important.

The experience of browsing in Van's Hobby Shop at Hacienda Gardens Shopping Center taught him that the journey was more precious than the final result. Now the junkie began to feel better about his current predicament. The road to recovery began. He was not going to let the present blighted state of Hacienda Gardens trigger him to relapse ever again.