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Rise of the Bohemians

The city wants to create an arts district south of downtown, but will artists come?

By William Dean Hinton

BARELY A YEAR AGO, instructors who operate the foundry on South Fifth Street, half a block north of Keyes Avenue, were worried they might have to shut down their two furnaces and relocate to an unknown location. The foundry, the largest west of the Rockies, has been run by San Jose State University for 25 years when then-President Gail Fullerton, whose husband was an artist, allocated money to open the corrugated metal building, where 75 students currently attend metalworking classes.

The smell of charred metal hangs in the air near the foundry, its yard is filled with rusting metal objects and at any moment the sounds of industrial-strength clanging might disrupt an otherwise peaceful morning. Last year, a large apartment complex opened one block to the north, bringing hundreds of new Spartan Keyes residents encroaching on the metalworking facility. "I was afraid the noise and the smells and the mess we make here would be offensive to an urban population," says Linda Walsh, one of three SJSU instructors at the foundry.

In fact, the opposite was happening. The modest neighborhood surrounding the shop had plans for artists who visit the area, some of whom graduated from San Jose State but live nearby or rent studio space at a warehouse down the street. "When I went to neighborhood meetings," Walsh continues, "I found people were more worried about their kids—how to keep them occupied and how to keep gang violence down."

The neighborhood, in conjunction with City Councilmember Cindy Chavez, had decided the best way to revitalize the community was to import more artists. In essence, Spartan Keyes residents—whose homes are bounded by I-280 to the north, Spartan Stadium to the south, Senter Road on the east and Second Street to the west—wanted to turn themselves into an arts district, the kind of place where artisans live, work and showcase their art for potential buyers.

San Jose has never had anything resembling an arts district, jumping from farm town to high-tech mecca in little more than a generation, becoming what one writer labeled "dreary suburbia" in the process. For a thriving metropolis of nearly 2 million people, the region has only two commercial art galleries. Yet other cities with no history of art or culture—Orlando, Ft. Worth, North Hollywood—have created arts districts almost out of nothing as a way to boost economic development. Why not here?

"I actually like the idea of more artists in the area," says John Tupper, a photographer and mixed-media artist who grew up in the valley. Tupper rents a spacious, rustic studio at the artist-friendly warehouse known as the Citadel, a block north of the foundry. "Historically San Jose has always been the nonart city. If I wanted art, I'd go to [San Francisco]. Museums and small galleries have trouble keeping afloat here. This city is not synonymous with arts and culture. Any effort to change that is welcome."

Arts districts are currently the darling of civic officials across the county eager to tap into the luxurious cultural-tourism trade. "Cities have begun viewing downtowns as something more than just office space," says Robert J. Stokes, a University of Texas at Arlington School of Urban and Public Affairs professor, who was a consultant who helped design Philadelphia's arts district. "Otherwise, who cares? Why go downtown when you could go anywhere and get the same thing?"

Part of the new-found enthusiasm for the arts was generated by Richard Florida's 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which ranked cities like San Francisco, Boston and Houston among the best places to live because of their large counterculture populations. Florida argues that the same civic climate giving rise to bohemians fosters a strong entrepreneurial class as well.

Though Florida has his critics—who point out that if cities like San Francisco are so great, why are places like Riverside, Calif., seeing their populations explode by comparison—his identification of creative types as valuable to the marketplace cannot be overlooked, drawing countless numbers from what has become an international cultural-tourism trade.

"People want to go to real places," says David Hughes, who is working toward creating a second arts district in Kansas City. "They don't want tricked up faux places. They want real places, with a real history and historical structures."

The Spartan Keyes area of San Jose is nothing if not real. It once belonged to a rancher named James Frazier Reed, who named streets—Reed, Margaret, Virginia, Keyes, Martha—after family members. Southern Pacific put a rail line down Fourth Street, and after the turn of the century, warehouses sprang up around it, eventually turning the area into the largest fruit-processing center in the world.

Many of these red-brick warehouses are still standing, some across the street from grand old Victorian homes. The rail line has been abandoned and several roads leading into warehouse side streets are unpaved and full of potholes. There's a lot of truck traffic through the western part of the neighborhood, where heavy volume from warehouses keeps the streets busy.

At some point, city officials are hoping to convert the warehouses to loft-style artist housing. Four significant housing developments have either broken ground or are in the planning stages, which will increase the number of Spartan Keyes residents, if not the number of artists. If all four are built, they will add 576 apartments to the neighborhood.

One of the developments, 170 townhouses at 250 E. Virginia, was designed by Donald MacDonald, one of the architects behind the proposed San Francisco-Oakland bay bridge. The townhomes, which should break ground within a year, will mimic the architecture of surrounding buildings, Victorian homes on one side, a warehouse on the other. Approximately 20 percent of the homes will be affordable—though, because of federal guidelines, there's no guarantee artists will be first to rent them. "Usually a lottery is held," says MacDonald, who is based in San Francisco.

Another development, which is expected to be built south of the foundry fence line, consists of 148 apartments tentatively called the Art Ark. Martha Putnam, who has built nine affordable-housing complexes in the valley, says the Ark will essentially be two sets of buildings—one a traditional apartment complex that one day might include retail shops and a cafe along Keyes Avenue. The other will be a group of cottages she envisions as writer nooks. Putnam will know in several weeks whether she will receive funding for the project.

Another piece of the puzzle is a two-acre park the city is building on the north and east side of the foundry. Dubbed Bestor Art Park, the green space will have cement pedestals on which art from the foundry will be placed for two- or three-year periods. Residents of Spartan Keyes are expected to choose which sculptures will be displayed.

Tony May's Art and Community class designed 36 brass fish that will be embedded in a sidewalk running through the park, simulating a stream leading to a fountain. May, an SJSU art professor contemplating retirement next year, has lived at the corner of Virginia and Third for 30 years. He is among the artists uncertain what to make of the designation of Spartan Keyes as San Jose's first and only arts district. "Is it happening to the extent it's remarkable? I can't say," May says. "I don't want to overhype it, but I don't want to minimize it either."

Other artists were equally mystified. "I don't know much about the proposed arts district," says William McDonald, a graduating SJSU fine-arts major who helped design the Bestor Park fish. "Are we all supposed to be striving for something like that?"

Councilmember Chavez says it could be a decade before Spartan Keyes begins to make a name for itself, with galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, bookstores and other signs artists have worked their magic. At which point, rents could escalate, the area could gentrify and artists could be looking for new homes.

For that to happen, Spartan Keyes would have to undergo a renaissance unparalleled in South Bay history. Residents of the neighborhood are hoping for more modest accomplishments. "When we think of artists, we typically think of painters," says Aurelia Sanchez, a Spartan Keyes neighborhood activist. "But I'm hoping there will be a mix of people, musicians, actors and dancers. They would have classes at the community center and be able to influence the community. I'm hoping this pays back the community with talent. It doesn't have to cost a lot for the community to benefit."

It will be interesting to watch what happens—not only for the sake of Spartan Keyes, but for San Jose as well. In a way, the struggle for an arts district is the struggle for this region to find a soul. "If San Jose is going to become a culturally aware community, it has to not only import culture, it has to have an indigenous culture," says Robert Milnes, director of SJSU's school of art and design. "You can't just bring it in. Because if you import your culture, that means you can go somewhere else to get it."

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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