Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
He's history: Judge Paul Bernal, San Jose's official historian, says local appreciation of history even affects the economy.
History in the Making
With the passing of another of San Jose's historian icons, someone's got to save the South Bay's institutional memory
By Gary Singh
IN OCTOBER, a few hundred folks gathered at History San Jose for a memorial to Leonard McKay, the legendary local historian. South Bay politicos past and present turned out to praise him. Members of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, the "Clampers," a men's drinking club that doubles as a historical preservation society, brought their own beer truck in celebration. They dressed up in their legendary red and black garb. The Budweiser flowed.
McKay was instrumental in the creation of Clyde Arbuckle's History of San Jose, the definitive 500-page-plus encyclopedic magnum opus documentation of this city, beginning in 1777. The tome took 15 years to write and it came out in 1986. McKay wrote the introduction, edited the manuscript and published the book. It represents the culmination of an entire life's research by Arbuckle, the dean of San Jose History, who passed away in 1998.
Though it often goes unappreciated, San Jose does indeed have a rich history, much of it so oddball that it deserves acknowledgement for that reason alone. The question is: Who'll watch out for the South Bay's history next? If anything, we need more historians. There are just too many things to document: agriculture, architecture, transistors, prunes, eBay. This is a place that needs to learn from its historians. Someone has to follow in their footsteps. Somebody has to care.
The honorable Judge Paul Bernal was designated the official city historian nine years ago, after Arbuckle's passing, and he was a contemporary of both the previously mentioned icons. He acknowledges they're nearly impossible to replace.
"I knew Leonard McKay for decades and I knew Clyde Arbuckle for decades and they were both monumental in the area of local history," he said. "There's probably nobody who knew more than Clyde Arbuckle and Leonard McKay."
Ironically, McKay wrote nearly the same thing about his own predecessor in the introduction of Arbuckle's book: "Anyone who has ever met Clyde Arbuckle has been impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of San Jose, Santa Clara, and the West. Thus, this book has been eagerly awaited and a bit of Clyde's vast historic information has been preserved."
McKay also ran a San Jose memorabilia shop on St. John Street, and Arbuckle, who had a photographic memory and could explain the origin of just about every single street in San Jose, visited the place right up until he passed away.
When attempting to get a handle on San Jose history, Arbuckle's book is the best place to start, and even today it an overwhelming piece of work to sift through.
For example, want to know the story behind the historical placard on the pole at 435 S. Second St.? Check out the beginning of Chapter 22, titled "Medicine," about San Jose's first practicing MD, Benjamin Cory, who arrived in 1847. Cory was known as the singing doctor for his habit of singing hymns as he made his rounds along the county roads. It is said that in his time, half of all babies were baptized Benjamin. Since San Jose eventually became the first capital of California, Cory was elected on Nov. 13,
1849, to the First California Legislature and was a member of the assembly until adjournment on April 22, 1850. The placard in question is outside the former location of his house on Second, right across from what's now a Vietnamese supermarket.
The Next Generation
With Arbuckle and McKay no longer around, one has to wonder about the next phase of San Jose historians. Bernal admits the official-historian position didn't exactly come with a job description.
"With Clyde Arbuckle it was a life term, because nobody ever gave it to anybody else," explains Bernal. "It's never really been defined what happens when you're the official historian. I will continue to serve until there comes a time when my services are no longer needed."
Bernal says his interest in history dates back to the fourth grade when he first took the subject: "I started to do historical research at an early age. I did quite a bit of research at the public library in the California Room. I went to History San Jose and before long people were asking me questions and I was doing research for them. And then went to college and was a history major at Loyola Marymount."
Bernal was also one of the co-founders of the Preservation Action Council on Oct. 17, 1989, and he was chairman of the County's Historical Heritage Commission for a decade.
So what does he think is the future of San Jose history?
"Because most land is now occupied in our valley, I think the trends are going to be adaptive reuse of older buildings as well as private-public efforts rather than simply private vs. public projects," says Bernal.
Also, he says, now that we live in the information age, the Internet will help to preserve history.
"Use of technology will play an important role in telling our history," predicts Bernal. "History San Jose has launched an impressive electronic museum site. The past will be our future on the Internet. The availability of resources for historic research on the Internet has grown exponentially in the last 10 years and will continue to blossom. Soon, almost all data will be retrievable on your computer without even leaving your home. School children have the whole world available because of the Internet."
This isn't just a matter of civic pride or intellectual curiosity. According to Bernal, the National Trust studied historic preservation and found that cities who promote their histories have visitors stay three times longer than cities that do not. And those visitors spend three times more money in those local economies.
Shake Some Preservation Action
The official historian isn't the only one working to save local history. The Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC*SJ) is a group devoted to saving old buildings in San Jose.
Old buildings—the weirder the better—are what give neighborhoods their character. Too many in San Jose have thoughtlessly been destroyed, and PAC*SJ tries to educate about how a city like San Jose can grow while still protecting its architectural legacy.
For example, what's now the Improv comedy club used to be the Jose Theater, a vaudeville house dating back to 1904. PAC*SJ weren't the only ones involved with saving it, but they helped. It was a dilapidated, run-down dump showing 25-cent B-flicks in 1990, and the plan was to level the place. They helped change the city's opinion and turn it into a thriving new club, preserving the connection to San Jose's past in the process.
And then there's Mark's Hot Dogs. A classic roadside joint that looks like a giant orange, it was one of the last places of its kind left and it's a designated City Historic Landmark. It had been on Alum Rock Avenue for 56 years. Again, quirky oddities like Mark's Hot Dogs are what make a city unique.
Look at Sunnyvale, for example, which pretty much deleted its own history.
"The cities of Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, which are great places for many reasons, lost their histories in their downtown cores," Bernal said. "These are classic examples of cities that once turned their backs on their history and now it is universally agreed that they both made a mistake. It is a lot easier to preserve your past than to recreate it."
The Past Is Now
In the end, it is history that gives citizens a sense of place, and especially in San Jose, much more work needs to be done and many more people need to be educated about its importance. Why not an elaborate history of the Chicano experience in San Jose? The Vietnamese experience in San Jose? The punk rock experience in San Jose?
"The challenge of any city is to find the opportunities history presents, be creative in funding because there is always compromise and limited resources, and create partnerships that will lead to successful projects," Bernal says. "Topics that will always be of interest to our citizens are the founding of this area, our agricultural past and the history of technology in our valley. From these topics, so much can be learned about culture, science, justice, diversity, invention, adaptability, demographics and civilization."
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