Features & Columns

Walking/Cycling Tours of San Jose

San Jose offers historical surprises to sightseers willing to slow down and ditch their cars
THE WAY WE WERE: This circa-1880 shot shows San Jose's old Chinatown. Courtesy of Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, San Jose State University

The anti-man-about-town is starting to perceive a growing interest in the physical landscape of San Jose. That is, more and more historians, artists and urban planners are trying to make sense of this nonsensical place.

Walking tours and cycling tours are now emerging from between the cracks of the sidewalks, like glorious weeds finally seeing the light of day, amid the routines of everyday San Jose consciousness.

With that, we begin with the Chinese. Currently at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, one finds "City Beneath the City," essentially an installation by artist Rene Yung showcasing artifacts excavated from the site of the forgotten 19th-century Market Street Chinatown in downtown San Jose. The Chinatown was located right where the Fairmont now sits.

On Aug. 30, there will be a two-hour participatory extension of the installation via a historical walking tour. SJICA curator Susan O'Malley, along with Yung and historian Connie Yu, will lead observer/participants down the street, from the San Jose ICA to the former Chinatown site, armed with ancient Sanborn maps. Tracing the past to the present, the trio of Yung, Yu and O'Malley will merge the landscape with the stories of those who set up shop over 100 years ago.

"In a place like Silicon Valley, our past isn't very obvious," O'Malley said. "We think there is a lot of interest in the stories of people that were here before us."

Yung specializes in ways of bringing the artist experience out of the gallery and into everyday space, while Yu is already a well-versed local historian and documenter of the Chinese experience in Santa Clara Valley. O'Malley says the two of them are perfect candidates to lead this tour.

"People want to feel a sense of place, a connection to a landscape," O'Malley said. "For us, being a contemporary art space, we're interested in how artists interpret our environment. So it seemed like a natural way of extending this exhibition into the real world. Sometimes our experience in an exhibition space is a little solitary, and this is a way for us to connect with one another and experience it as a group, as opposed to as an isolated individual."

On another front, SPUR San Jose, a new pilot offshoot of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, is currently examining the local San Jose landscape from a variety of perspectives. Come Aug. 26, SPUR will stage a free bicycle tour that begins in downtown.

"Take a Spin Through San Jose" will start at Philz Coffee, then traverse the new bike lanes on Third Street and through the Hensley Historic District, Japantown and the Northside before continuing to SJSU, Diridon Station, the Rosegarden, Shasta-Hanchett and more. The tour is free for anyone with a bicycle.

Since the average San Jose resident is surgically attached to a car, he or she rarely contemplates the possibility of moving through time and space without one, so folks might not realize just how simple it can be to explore their own city via bicycle. SPUR San Jose director Leah Toeniskoetter says the objective for the tour is exactly that.

"The goal is to let people know a couple of different neighborhoods and the best route to get from downtown to these neighborhoods," she said. "And to let them know, through riding, how long it takes. It's not that long of a ride at all."

Since it launched earlier this year, SPUR has staged numerous events offering a fresh perspective on urbanism, usually attracting a wide variety of interested parties. The bicycle tour is yet another endeavor that should do the same.

"We have a number of different policy goals that we work on, but one, for sure, is transportation and providing options for people outside of the car," Toeniskoetter explained. "San Jose is going to continue to grow, with more and more people coming in, so if all of those people are going on the road, we're going to have a lot of congestion. So part of our goal is to show people that there are other ways to get around besides a car, and to show people that you can do it."

City Beneath the City Historical Walking Tour, Aug. 30, 5–7pm, $30 per person, includes family-style dinner at P.F. Chang's. Advance reservation is required: 408.283.8155.

Take a Spin Through San Jose, Aug. 26, 10–11:30am, free. 118 Paseo de San Antonio. 408.510.5688.