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SoFA Away

The mixed results of well-intentioned 'revitalization'


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EUPHORIC folks of all ages flocked to the grand opening of the California Theatre on Friday, Sept. 17. One sign read, "$70 million and worth every penny." A monumental restoration project, the theater will host Opera San José, as well as ballet, the symphony, classic films and more. Mayor Ron Gonzalez cut the ribbon while trumpets belted out a literal fanfare behind him. "The theater connects us with the brilliance of San Jose's past," he said. "It will add a new dimension to the SoFA district."

Although some of the paint was still wet, one couldn't deny the opulence of the entire building. Historian Leonard McKay said he used to work in the theater during college and never realized how beautiful the place was. Everyone waltzed around and gazed in wonderment at the stylish combo of Greco-Roman, Craftsman and Art Deco structural design. The theater absolutely maintains its 1927 elegance and one cannot underestimate the glowing magnificence of the entire restoration project. It really is a winner on all accounts.

Speaking of the SoFA district, another historical event at the polar opposite end of the social spectrum commenced later that night at the Blank Club. Biter couldn't pass up the weekend-long "Lust for Life: a Reunion of the San Jose Punk Scene From 1980 to 1989." After all, that particular scene is precisely what led to the establishment of the SoFA district in the first place. During the '80s, South First Street was a porno strip, and at that time, bands primarily played in basements, college buildings, rented spaces, backyards or the few clubs that did surface like the Laundryworks.

The subsequent emergence of a thriving alternative music scene throughout the late '80s to mid-'90s is what originally brought South First Street out of the gutter. Every night there was somewhere to go to see live music. F/X, Marsugi's, Ajax and the Cactus Club constituted a homegrown scene that would have undoubtedly blossomed into something rivaling Austin or San Francisco. With typical cowtown lack of vision, San Jose allowed it all to die out in favor of upscale clubs and restaurants.

Now, things happen and city landscapes change. That's understandable. But speaking philosophically, Biter feels like launching a campaign to officially retire the moniker "SoFA district," as that area today doesn't even remotely resemble what its originators intended it to be.

When it comes to downtown San Jose history, this is important. You can almost go as far as to say if it weren't for the '80s punk rock scene, South First wouldn't have risen from the porno district until much later, if at all. The current claptrap about "revitalizing" the SoFA district is absolute nonsense. If the city had allowed SoFA to stay vitalized when it was vitalized, there would be no reason now to revitalize it. Biter can do nothing but put our face down in our hands and shake our head at such lunacy.

Over at the Blank Club, folks who flew in from across the country celebrated S.J. '80s punk rock Friday and Saturday. Los Olvidados and the Faction—with Adam Bomb on guitar—tore it up onstage. A barbecue Saturday at Hellyer Park saw folks flipping through fliers and photographs two decades old. In fact, the whole affair was pretty similar to the San Jose Earthquakes' 30-year reunion last month. Gavin from the Faction even wore a retro-'70s Quakes T-shirt onstage.

We can now easily predict what will happen 10 years down the road. San Jose will replace the Blank Club with an upscale boutique hotel and then claim it needs to revitalize the Greyhound Station neighborhood. Some things just never change.

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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