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All That

City Hall
Photograph courtesy of Bill Wulf

Biter: This Old City Hall

By Jeff Kearns

LAST WEEK, PBS broadcast its non-Ozzy version of a reality program. Being PBS, they had to inject a little history lesson into the ratings grab, and so instead of Fear Factor what the more erudite audiences got was Pioneer House, in which three families gave up all modern amenities and went back in time to live like our pioneer ancestors. In one week, the families went from playing Nintendo to sleeping on the floor and wearing filthy clothes, and eating chickens they'd butchered with their own hands.

One of the families was, in real life, a well-to-do upper-class klatch from California. Just how well-to-do wasn't revealed until the very end of the series, when the unshaven and tick-ridden bunch moved back into their remodeled suburban mansion, replete with sweeping staircases, numerous hot tubs and windows that were two stories tall. "I never realized how much space we had," the mother admitted. "Our little pioneer cabin never seemed crowded, and this is at least 100 times as big." As she spoke, the camera tracked her husband, walking across the kitchen. It took him at least two whole minutes.

Watching this, it's hard not to think of San Jose City Hall. After a decade of planning, councilmembers have to decide -- again -- next week if they really want to build their downtown mansion. The originally- slated- for- $178-million, now- tabulating- $343- million City Hall's final price tag will almost certainly top $500 million. That means the cost of turning visionary architect Richard Meier's plans -- which alone ran $20 million -- into reality is high enough to warrant looking at alternatives. So says Councilman Chuck Reed, the project's chief foe.

There's no doubt that the City Hall has to return to downtown. It's also clear that the city would be selling itself short by considering anything but a truly great building. After two decades of unsuccessful redevelopment policy, downtown is still a patchwork of parking lots, abandoned stores and peculiar public art. Bringing City Hall back wouldn't cure that, but it would help -- especially if the building was something inspiring. Meier's design, incorporating cues that echo Berlin's remodeled Reichstag, is.

But elected leaders don't like to spend money on themselves, typically, and the price tag keeps floating out of reach, so it's time to look for some other solution. One that saves money and recalls the city's history ... hmm. As usual, we can look to PBS for the answer, and here it is: Instead of Meier's modern monument, San Jose should go back in time, and rebuild the 19th-century City Hall.

Built in 1887 and designed by local architect Theodore Lenzen, the original City Hall stood in the middle of City Hall Plaza (about where the fountains are in what's now Cesar Chavez Plaza). It wasn't held in very high regard, thanks to its mix of Victorian styles and Lenzen's status as a self-taught architect, and it was so badly damaged in the 1906 quake that the elevator shafts were bent. The drunk tank was in the basement, and its occupants disrupted council meetings by banging cups and plates on the bars.

Still, it was beautiful, especially compared to its successor. And cheaper, too. The bill came to $139,482. According to the 1851-1890 Consumer Price Index by Ethel D. Hoover, that's about $2,774,297 in 2002 dollars. It may sound ridiculously low, but it couldn't be that hard to build a three-story building with a clock tower and a jail.

Before you start arguing the physical difficulties of retro architecture, let's stop and recognize that the city goes backward all the time. If it's so easy for City Hall to decide that, say, Town and Country Village was a big ugly mistake and to cart it away in dumpsters, it should be equally easy for them to recognize that we mistakenly junked some cool stuff of yesteryear, and rather than sitting around crying in our beers over it, we should just bring it back. Like faux fur, one of those little gangster car remakes like the PT Cruiser, or Dick Clark, just pull it up, puff it up and celebrate the fact that, hell, we can do this. Sometimes the pioneers were right.


Other Superheroes Slighted by 'Spiderman' Publicity

GOTHAM -- In a press conference yesterday, superheroes complained about the rash of publicity showered upon Spiderman in recent weeks.

"Billboards, product tie-ins, Kirsten Dunst -- I don't want to sound petty, but what about the rest of us?" the superhero known as Aquaman stated. Seated next to him was Wonderwoman, who said that she even had difficulty finding a warehouse rental in which to keep her invisible airplane these days.

Asked what their thoughts were on the notorious publicity-hound Superman, the superheroes declined to comment.

"We're not here to talk about that muscle-bound freak," one of the Wonder Twins said, before the other Wonder Twin shushed her.

Flash Gordon took the microphone and said, "The issue is, we're all special, and we all deserve recognition -- even the least-known among us."

"Superheroes are all super equally," he concluded.

A peaceful protest was later conducted at the Gotham City Hall.

Mailbox Makeover


Pottery Barn catalogs aren't the only hazards lurking in today's mailboxes. This week, the federal government issued a pamphlet to residents of Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Colorado detailing how mailboxes might be made safe against pipe bombs. Some of the suggested modifications are ...



Terrorists can't blow up what they can't find. This handy Persian Gulf-surplus box is designed to blend in with your choice of rural backgrounds. Netting extra.


Rattlesnake Special Delivery

It worked for Synanon, and it can work for you! No self-respecting domestic terrorist will tread on your mailbox when Mr. Rattles is on duty. A modest diet of rats and mice will keep you pipe bomb free until hibernation season.


Timothy Mcveigh

If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. With a simple stencil and a can of spray paint, you can establish an identity that no Posse Comitatus member would fail to honor.

I Saw You: Gym Gigolo

Illustration by Jumma Jahdid

I saw you, with your gray hair cut in a modified mullet, your tanning-booth-colored legs emerging from the sweats you had pushed up to your calves, your equally orange-y arms exposed by the ripped off sleeves of your T-shirt, strutting around Bally Total Fitness on Hamilton, stopping to ogle and speak to only the youngest, buffest, most silicone-enhanced women, your either locker-room or hard-of-hearing voice booming to all corners of the club as you regaled your fans with winks and sexual innuendoes, bestowing the occasional hug or pinch, leaving a trail of giggles in your wake. Who needs TV when you are there?

Send us your anonymous rants, love notes, or diatribes about your co-workers, bosses, enemies, secret crushes, or any badly behaving citizen who gets your dander up. Send to: I Saw You, Metro, 550 South First, San Jose, 95113, or .

Send a letter to the editor about this story .

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From the May 9-15, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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