By Gary Singh
LAST WEEK, the San Jose City Council unanimously approved an official Cesar E. Chavez walkway, a five-mile route beginning downtown at the park named after the civil rights hero who founded the United Farm Workers of America. The route will continue east all the way down Santa Clara Street, almost to 680, and then south before looping back up and around to the Mexican Heritage Plaza.
Aside from those two plazas, five other landmarks along the route will be designated with simple signs: (1.) The Cesar Chavez Arch of Dignity, Equality and Justice, which sits right outside the Music Building on the SJSU Campus; (2.) The Mayfair Community Center; (3.) Cesar Chavez Elementary School; (4.) Our Lady of Guadalupe Church; and (5.) Chavez' former house on Scharff Avenue.
Now, as you would expect, any time the city of San Jose decides to establish an official walkway commemorating anyone or anything, the urban-blight exploration junkie needs to kill the pain at all costs and emphasize everything the city did not decide to highlight along the prescribed course. There is so much to see and do along Santa Clara Street between downtown and the East Side, it's hard to fathom. Of course, you have to temporarily bail from the four-wheeled cage and go tromp around for a few miles.
For example, one would probably have to be on foot to discover such hidden gems as Dulceria Mi Carnaval Party Supplies at 24th and Santa Clara streets. This corner shack is by far the best place to buy piņatas anywhere in San Jose. Anything that can be made into a piņata, you'll find it inside this place. It's a truly crackpot find.
If you keep going eastward from there, you'll pass by quite possibly the most bizarre variety of distinct old commercial buildings and facades—fixed-up, rundown or anything in-between. You'll discover a plethora of dime stores, cheap restaurants and other low-income mom-and-pop retail holes, comprising what seems like a completely discarded area of San Jose: a golden promenade between 24th Street and Highway 101 that time has simply forgotten.
For example, Valley Saw Inc. at 1269 E. Santa Clara is always a great place to stagger into. It's located in a cordial butterscotch-colored building that must be at least 60 years old. For bird feeders, band-saw blades and household fans, this is the place. There are fenced-off houses, functioning '50s gas stations, even a boarded-up lumber shop—all along the same stretch.
And just before you do arrive at 101, you'll descend upon one of the most precious hidden jewels anywhere in America's 10th-largest city: Kumar's Island Market at 1440 E. Santa Clara St. In one little hole-in-the-wall establishment, you can buy unusual cuts of meat and fish from Australia and Polynesia, as well as XXXXL-size Hawaiian shirts, fenugreek seeds, boxes of sarongs, Guam-logo hoodies, Samoan music CDs, magazines, canned goods, homemade bread and who knows what else. The current owner—my old drinking pal Suren from the Spartan Pub 18 years ago—will talk your ear off if you go in there, so allow some time.
While Kumar's provides an authentic island experience, the strip mall just east of King and Santa Clara offers a true destroyed urban-blight feel. This intersection, in fact, is a perfect place to soak in the yin-yang polar opposites of the social and economic spectrums. You have the Mexican Heritage Plaza, costing tens of millions and including the most state-of-the art theater in the whole city, and right across the street one sees a gorgeously decrepit, faded pink, infirmary-looking blighted strip mall—a splendid half-boarded-up paean to negligent landlords worldwide.
At the western corner of this blighted masterpiece sits a wrecked watering hole in all its devastated glory, aptly called Richard's Bar. Ten years ago, it was called Bob's Lounge. I guess Bob sold it. In any event, to all urban-blight photographers: this entire mall is your Shangri-la. Go for it. The blight junkie signs off for now.