Features & Columns

Willow Street in Willow Glen

The urban-blight exploration junkie takes a walk in time to Goosetown by way of Willow Street
willow street SPEAK NO EVIL: The mighty Babe's Muffler man on The Alameda once had a twin at Willow and Vine. Photo courtesy Josh Marcotte of LostSanJose.com.

On May 28, 1864, the San Jose City Council asked the county surveyor to measure out several new streets, including Willow. The local rag reported their commands: "He is instructed to survey a street commencing on the west line of the Monterey road on the line between the lands of Sullivan and Buck on the north, and Goodyear on the south, continuing the same on said line westerly and to extend the same on a direct line west. Said street shall be named Willow Street."

With that historical clincher in mind, the urban-blight exploration junkie fell off the wagon and recently surveyed that same stretch of road as it exists today. Ghosts of pizza joints, neighborhood bars and muffler man statues from ancient times added to an already gorgeous travelogue. As with many acts of exploration, the pillars of self, time and space underwent a profound transfiguration.

First of all, nothing on that stretch of road qualifies as "blight," so that made the junkie feel better right away. Hope emerged right off the bat, and it didn't take long to walk down Willow from First Street to the Highway 87 overpass. As with any interesting part of San Jose, it has to be experienced on foot to appreciate the historical curiosities that emerge from behind every storefront.

Decades ago, for example, this neighborhood was highly Italian in character. I was barely alive, but a quick inspection of the city directories illuminates just how thriving this working-class neighborhood actually was. It was part of what was then famously called Goosetown, and many shopkeepers lived upstairs from or near their businesses.

The whole stretch of road bubbled with activity. There were barbershops, pizza joints, retail and mini-industries of food, repair shops and service professions. Sam's Log Cabin, for example, occupied 245 Willow St. for more decades than anyone can remember.

The legendary Ricardo's Pizza occupied 218 Willow, pretty much right across the street from Sam's Log Cabin. Operated by Richard Quisenberry and featuring classic decor of red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths, wooden chairs and Italian accoutrements, Ricardo's was likewise a popular neighborhood hangout. Extra seating existed upstairs above the kitchen, and a small stage sat near the opposite wall. Circa 1970/1, a then-unknown group, the Doobie Brothers, were the house band at Ricardo's, gigging on a regular basis.

Warren Arlo Walter was the doorman at Ricardo's and still has a few of the beer signs. "The famous horn player, Chet Baker, also played often at Ricardo's on Tuesday jazz night," Walter recalled. "Chet had some substance abuse issues in those days and Richard actually kept the horn—a flugelhorn I believe it was—so it would not get pawned."

It gets better. During that same era, Babe's Muffler sat right at the southeast corner of Willow and Vine, complete with a gigantic statue similar to the one still remaining on The Alameda. That's right—Babe commanded the corner of Willow and Vine 43 years ago, just like Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. At one time, there were even three Babe statues in San Jose. I eagerly await the second coming of Babe at that corner. Someday. It will happen.

Just waltzing up and down that stretch of Willow, from the residential area to the industrial environs near the intrusive freeway, ghosts just kept emerging. At 93 Willow, for example, another legendary bar called Stella's occupied a basement as recently as the late '80s. That one I do recall seeing myself. Twenty years prior, though, it was a restaurant called Spanish Village.

Again, in those days, many of the local folks in the service industries lived just down the street, above their businesses or somewhere nearby—a true community in every respect, before decades of bumbling San Jose planners and suburban sprawl converted everyone to Walmartians.

In any event, Badalamente's Sausage is probably the last remaining Italian joint on that part of Willow left from the older generations. Even the unsightly Highway 87 could not drive it away. It will live on. The rest of this survey will continue at a later date, Babes or not.