[Best of Silicon Valley 1999]

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Editors' Choice


Metro writers on the valley's people, places and ideas

Joe and Ben Francia
The Last Best Place: Brothers Joe and Ben Francia take a break from tending their cornfield just off Lawrence Expressway in Sunnyvale to explain why they won't sell their prime urban property.

Best Suburban Farm

The Corn Palace
Lilly Lane and White Oak St., Sunnyvale

When developers tell Joe Francia he's a millionaire, he can't help but laugh. The 78-year-old farmer scoffs at the idea of selling his 20 acres in Sunnyvale just off the Lawrence Expressway. He's been farming in this valley for 62 years, and land to him is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Land is for growing food. And from the looks of the freshly picked vegetables stacked up high on the tables at his roadside stand, The Corn Palace, he and his 80-year-old brother, Ben, are damn good at what they do. Walking across the field, Francia points out the different plantings of corn that can come in as late as January, the hot peppers, tomatoes, and the morning's irrigation. He barely notices the single-story suburban homes that frame the end of each head-high row of corn. After all, they only showed up in the latter half of his farming career. While he laughs that all his fellow farmers are down in the Santa Clara Cemetery, Francia says he has no plans of giving up any time soon.
Jim Rendon

Best Public Documents Written In Longhand

San Jose City Clerk
801 N. First St., SJ

Inside 60 leather-bound volumes in a locked glass cabinet at the city clerk's office, 100 years of San Jose municipal history is written--literally. In the early volumes, starting in 1855, the minutes of city council meetings are carefully written out in pen and ink--no smudging, no cross-outs and, of course, no goopy white-out. And if handwriting has changed in the last 150 years, so have government salaries. In 1879 the three-month salary of the mayor was $150, the chief of police, $125, and the treasurer/tax collector, $100. Quaint, but the frontier town had its ugly side. That year a group of "Chinese Taxpayers" from San Jose's sizable Chinatown petitioned the council to allow firecrackers during the Chinese New Year celebration. The vote went three ayes and three noes so the mayor stepped in to break the tie. He voted no and the motion was lost.
Michael Learmonth

Best News For The Honor System

J&H Farm's Self-Serve Fruit Stand
1/4 mile past Old Santa Cruz Highway exit on Summit Road

One day this summer two women stood at the big table in the open shed next to the orchard at J&H Farm, admiring baskets of perfectly blushed peaches and dark ruby plums. "Do you have change for a $10?" one woman asked the other. "I want to get three baskets." There was no shopkeeper to give change, because J&H operates on the honor system. In the open shed, filled with odds and ends and machine parts and an old soda case, no one stands guard over the fruit table but the buyer's conscience and a box with a removable slat on top for the money bearing a handwritten sign that says "$3 a basket." Not that stealing this fruit wouldn't be understandable; so sweet, juicy and fragrantly delicious are these peaches, plums and apples that we recommend bibs for commuters who can't resist the fragrance of fresh fruit till they get to work. And the whiff of faith in humankind smells pretty good, too.
Traci Hukill

Best Off-Line Databases

California Room, Martin Luther King Main Library
180 W. San Carlos St., SJ

The library hasn't replaced books with computer screens yet. At least not completely. So far three of San Jose's best sources of historical information remain decidedly analog. "These are extremely popular and I believe they will remain so after the millennium," predicts librarian Bob Johnson. The City Directory lists all San Jose businesses and residents starting in 1870. In 1915 it started including street numbers--great for anyone researching the history of an old house. The Great Register of Voters lists all voters (unfortunately, just men) from 1890, including age, origin, occupation, hair and eye color, height, even scars and tattoos. Sanborn Maps list all the structures in town including when and where improvements were made. One recent discovery gleaned from these documents was how the California Supreme Court met for two sessions in San Jose in 1854, perhaps to salve the emotional wounds left when the state capital was yanked from San Jose the previous year--to be awarded to Benicia.
Michael Learmonth

Best Place To Get Married On Monday

Rengstorff House
3070 N. Shoreline Blvd., MV

Rengstorff House in Shoreline at Mountain View is an eclectic choice for a wedding. Henry Rengstorff, an early Mountain View settler, originally owned this Victorian, which relocated to Shoreline Park 10 years ago dressed beautifully in period furnishings. Adjacent to a sailboat-studded lake, the mansion nestles among gardens surrounded by a white picket fence. It's available for weddings year-round on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and accommodates 50 to 60 guests inside and up to 120 outside. Factor in the weather, depending on the season, and you may need a canopy in your planning. Also, you provide your own caterer. Music is OK (although there's a decibel limitation) and adequate parking is also available.
Ellen Murray

Best Place To See Live Pickles


Garlic, schmarlick.

Looks like Gilroy has a new bumper crop: pickles. Unfortunately, this year's harvest is attached to men, or so said the Aug. 25 Merc.

"Police said men in the city have exposed themselves and committed lewd acts in public in what may be unprecedented numbers."

The city is averaging one weenie-wagger every 10 days for the past three months. Three suspects were, er, handcuffed and hauled off to jail in one week. With all these pickles popping up around town, one wonders if the Chamber of Commerce will embrace the pickle like it does garlic. Imagine: The Great Gilroy Pickle Festival! Come one, come all! Eating too much garlic makes a man crazy, but this is re-dick-u-lous.
Justin Berton

Best Place To Ponder How The Indians Survived Without A Pentium

Chitactac Adams County Park
5.5 miles west of Monterey Highway on Watsonville Road in Morgan Hill

Before the Spanish started poking around the San Francisco Bay in the mid 1700s, this valley had a thriving population of Native Americans. One of the best places to get a feel for life here long before Leland Stanford was a glimmer in anyone's eye is the Chitactac Adams County Park. Just a few miles off Monterey Highway in Morgan Hill, the park marks the site of a once-thriving Ohlone village. Petroglyphs in the form of concentric circles are carved into the giant boulders along Uvas Creek, and just down the path, smoothed-out depressions mark the spots where Ohlone villagers ground grains and nuts. Though the attraction is small and a little theme park-ish, it is possible while standing alongside the sunlight-dappled creek to imagine the joy of life without a cell phone and a Frappuccino, at least until another park visitor's beeper goes off.
Jim Rendon

Mission Gardens Garden of Heart's Delight: The palm trees, wisteria tunnel and roses of Mission Gardens at Santa Clara University have soothed many
a fretful student's worries.

Best Garden Walkway

Mission Gardens at Santa Clara University

Located in what amounts to the side yard of the Mission Santa Clara, the Mission Gardens shouldn't be missed. The Mission, dating back to 1777, was the first outpost of Spanish civilization in the Santa Clara Valley. Today, the gardens are meticulously maintained and feature a variety of flowers and a stunning rose garden, not to mention several towering palms. But the most impressive element is the arbor that becomes a light blue tunnel when the wisteria blooms each spring. It's a thoroughly engaging experience--the beautiful fragrance rivals the amazing scenery.
Mick Normington

Best Seat On Caltrain

The best seat on Caltrain is upstairs in the very back. It's the only double seat upstairs, so it's rare that another passenger will walk up the stairs and all the way to the back to sit next to you, no matter how crowded the train gets. If you sit downstairs in one of the big four-person seats, you may have it to yourself for a while, but it's guaranteed someone will eventually sit next to you (someone with body odor or--even worse--a cell phone). The upstairs seat also has a convenient railing to prop your feet up. And because you are in the back of the car, you don't have to worry about passengers jostling you as they negotiate the narrow aisles. A note of caution about the sun: you want to get the seat on the west side of the train in the morning and the east side in the evening. This is especially true in the summer, when the sun can be hot and blinding if you pick the wrong side. And remember that the air conditioning is very uneven on Caltrain; it's always a good idea to bring a sweater no matter how hot it gets outside. Finally, don't follow this advice if you are in the car with a bathroom. Your seat will be directly across from the john, ensuring that you'll hear the door opening and closing and experience some lovely odors when the door opens.
Mick Normington

Best Place To See Red (Tomatoes)

Spina Farms

Every year, the distance from the place where food is grown to the place where it's purchased seems to get greater and greater, and who knows what happens in between? Don't have to worry at the Spina Farms roadside produce stand off Monterey Road just south of Coyote (take a right on Baily and the first left). The corn and tomatoes come right from the fields next door to the stand itself.

With the tomatoes especially, the difference is easily seen. No bruises from long rides with strange truckdrivers, and the red color looks ... well ... the way a red tomato is supposed to look. There's also a great collection of fresh produce from other farms: citrus fruit, vegetables, grapes and melons, and strings and strings of garlic hanging from the ceiling. As if that weren't enough, Spina also has one of the best collections of old farm stuff tacked onto its walls, from ploughshares to horse collars to well-worn hats.
Jesse Taylor

Best Place To Be Caught In Front Of God And Everyone Else With Your Pants Down

The Automated Privies in Downtown San Jose

Self-cleaning public toilets are not for everyone. Folks with nightmares involving unexpected nudity in front of laughing friends might want to answer nature's call at a low-tech plastic port-a-potty, as might those for whom Metamucil is a household staple or those traumatized by the omniscient computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But for everyone else, SCPTs are, um, the bomb. The approximately 12-foot-by-7-foot kiosk-like "restrooms" are the height to which all outhouses and commodes aspire. Cheap enough at a quarter, they offer detailed instructions in three languages, Braille and pictures; an automatic sink; interior lighting; parcel pegs and a large mirror. The toilet and floor are washed, disinfected and air-dried after each use by machinery that rises from sliding plates in the metal floor and sounds like a car wash. Unfortunately, these privies are timed. No one has yet come forth to say whether the doors flew open upon them after the preset 20 minutes, or whether the machinery popped up and began cleaning the user as well as the used. Perhaps that's part of the intrigue.
Shari Kaplan

Best Alternative Healing Experience

Susan Worden

Even a half-hour before appointment time, it is hard to not be excited about what Susan will have to say about your life. You can run, but you can't hide from this clairvoyant: she is a woman of multiple talents with a voice and manner as soothing as ambient rain. Her ability to read and move your personal energy makes her a modern-day medicine woman, and she can do all of this in her Campbell office, or over the phone from her home. She just needs your name and permission, and away she goes to take a peek into the spirit world, answer your questions and shift things around for you to move toward your specific goal, no matter how big or small. Susan and her sister both possess psychic skills and can answer questions from "Does he like me" to "What can I do to take over Silicon Valley?"
Liza Fournier

Best Variation On A Theme

The Architecture of Stanford University

Despite a wide variety of architectural styles, Stanford has never lost its identity. The campus is still defined by terra-cotta roofs, sandstone arcades and courtyards shaded by palms. But the $110 million Science and Engineering Quad and the $38.5 million Gates Computer Science Building are by no means anonymous structures. Their ability to distinctively stand on their own and fit into the existing Stanford firmament merits special recognition. Stanford architect David Neuman has managed to meld innovation with tradition, which is no easy task.
Mick Normington

Best Mercury News Mug Shot

Bud Geracie

Yes, Bud Geracie is trying to have sex with you. There he is, gazing at you every few days, all but purring, "Come here and read my column, you naughty little thing, you."

Not that we're complaining (gush, pheww). Considering the barrel of bowzers at the Merc, we'd gladly let Bud the Stud buy us drinks any night of the week.

Joe Martinez? Too regal. Relax. Ann Killion? Don't worry, Ann, you're not in trouble. Sue Hutchinson? Short hair has done you wrong, girl.

And then there's our dashing Buddy G. Maybe it's because he's also the wittiest columnist at the Merc. Hell, his little "In the Wake of the Week" column all but crawls into bed on Saturday morning and starts tracing the contours of your body.


Bud G., you are Naugh T.
Justin Berton

Best Turn-Of-The-Century Form Of Mechanical Transport

The Trolleys in Downtown San Jose

Restored by a group of train-lovers led by ex-Supervisor Rod Diridon in the past decade, San Jose now boasts a stable full of historic trolley cars. There are six functioning trolley cars--which were built as early as 1903--taking downtown commuters back and forth between City Hall and the convention center. Most of the restored trolleys used to serve local travelers, as did the 96-year-old Santa Cruz/Santa Clara trolley, which traversed Alameda Avenue between 1905 and 1930. There are, however, a couple of imports from Melbourne, Australia, and Milan, Italy. Trolley rides are a nice, practical way to experience a little history. The historic cars run from early April through early October. For more information see either the California Trolley & Railroad Corp.'s website or call the Valley Transportation Authority at 408.321.2300.
Will Harper

Best Substitute For A Sporting Event

San Jose International Airport
1661 Airport Blvd., SJ

The roar of the crowd--or the planes--the sweet taste of victory and the gut-wrenching agony of defeat. As every savvy Silicon Valley traveler knows, visiting San Jose International is an all-day affair, and one that will cost a small fortune, too. SUVs prowl the parking lots, hunting for the proverbial vacant spot, waiting to attack anyone or anything that gets in their way. The FAA recommends arriving at least one hour prior to departure, but two or three hours is a safer bet. Don't forget to tack on an extra 75 cents per half-hour, either. Inside the airport itself, it's a constant battle not to be trampled or tackled by some frazzled flier, under the wrongful impression that he is in fact an NFL linebacker. Forget about sitting back and people-watching to pass the time: it's standing room only in this stadium. And the beer prices are enough to make any good 49er fan faint. Plan on spending at least $20 just to get a buzz going before boarding time.
Jessica Lyons

Best Place To Say Forever

Vasona Park
Los Gatos

There's a eucalyptus tree in Vasona Park with "T + J" roughly carved into its bark. The mark joins years' and years' worth of weathered carvings decorating the park's trees. "R loves E," "Mary + Rick," "A + V," and "Andy -N- Tina" are only a few. Some are deep enough to make the dark scratches visible from the trails, but some have begun to fade with age. T + J followed in the tradition of countless couples before them five years ago on a sunny March afternoon. For better or for worse, T + J became a permanent part of the tree. T's interest in disfiguring trees stopped shortly after that trip to the park, but he didn't give up his interest in J. Now there's a gold band on her finger, but even a ring doesn't last as long as words on a tree. T and J won't live forever, but T + J just might.
Jessica Lyons

Best Place To Head For The Hills

Take Willow Springs Road heading west from Monterey Highway just north of Morgan Hill

A friend of mine used to say that his backyard in Brooklyn looked like Central Park--when he got on his knees and squinted. And you might as well be on your knees with that pinched-face expression if you're looking for wilderness in Silicon Valley. But just north and west of Morgan Hill, the short steep hills that poke up out of the valley's bed like a table full of birthday hats open to a world that at least feels wild. The bed of sprawling development on the valley floor is banished from view. On either side, fields dotted with open-armed shade trees rise to the blue sky. The occasional house is not the typical stucco palace, but a more humble and haphazard home that looks like it just might house someone without a modem. Not too far down the road is the Chesbro Reservoir, and beyond it the steep mountains rise again. And if you squint just right at the side of the hill, you can glimpse your own little homestead perched on the overgrown hillside.
Jim Rendon

Best Ironical Statue

John Muir at Villa Montalvo

When it came to the proposed damming of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, there was no love lost between three-term San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan and über-environmentalist John Muir.

"I am sure [John Muir] would sacrifice his own family for the sake of beauty," Phelan said. "He considers human life very cheap." Muir retorted in more direct fashion, writing of "James Phelan, Satan and company," and predicting that "... the wealthy wicked, the Phelans ... and their hirelings, will not thrive forever."

For Muir, it was the final battle of his life; he died in 1914, a year after Congress approved construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam. As for Phelan, he was around for the dam's completion in 1923, but it wasn't necessarily his favorite construction project; that honor belonged to Villa Montalvo, the beautiful Italianate mansion he built in the Saratoga hills in 1912.

It's at Montalvo that Muir seems to have gained his final revenge. At one time or another, some Montalvo artist had the idea of honoring great Californians by placing bronze busts in the garden behind the Villa. The path next to the present-day Garden Theater is bracketed by two poets, Joaquin Miller and Edwin Markham. At the top of the stone steps, in a shady alcove at the entrance to Phelan's favorite nature trail, sits John Muir, once again, as always, standing sentinel over the wilderness.
Michael J. Vaughn

San Carlos Avenue Pleasantville: The commercial strip on San Carlos between Woz Way and Valley Fair could have been lifted out of the '50s, except for the Pink Poodle lurking just around the corner.

Best Street That Time Forgot

San Carlos Avenue

West of Woz Way and east of Valley Fair exists the commercial strip that time forgot and redevelopment didn't screw up. There are no palm trees here. No post-tasteful, pastel-colored, faux Spanish-style strip malls on this avenue. Only the fanciful, modular, functional architecture of a more innocent time (with the notable exception of the Midtown shopping center, but then the Midtown shopping center is a notable exception to most things). Nearly every block along this strip seems to boast its own antique shop or thrift store. Other '50s-invoking sights include Fiesta Lanes Bowling Alley, numerous tattoo parlors, Mel Cotton's Sporting Goods and Western Appliances, which is near Babyland, which is next to the Pink Poodle strip club on Bascom. West San Carlos is one of the city's most underappreciated cultural treasures--fun, quirky, unpretentious and uniquely San Jose.
Will Harper

Best Museum-Quality Piece Of Soil

Orchard Heritage Park
550 E. Remington Dr., Sunnyvale

Way back when Santa Clara Valley was known for crops instead of chips, the ever-blooming orchard town of Sunnyvale was one of the postcard settings that inspired the region's nickname "Valley of Heart's Delight." When the orchards were paved over to make way for the homes and business parks of Silicon Valley, Sunnyvale's fruit orchards were one of the first victims of development. These days, trying to find an orchard in Sunnyvale is about as easy as navigating Highway 85 at rush hour. But for those of us who want to glimpse the idyllic days of farm life, there is the Orchard Heritage Park and Interpretive Exhibit. Set in a 10-acre apricot orchard near downtown Sunnyvale, the soon-to-be-completed open-air pavilion will serve as a living museum where visitors can see the ongoing care and harvest of an orchard.
Sarah Gaffney

Best Place To Have A Tree-Induced Psychedelic Experience This Side Of Palm Springs

Almaden Boulevard in Downtown San Jose

Washingtonia Filifera. The name alone is enough to make one's head spin. If that's not enough, try walking among these stocky sentinels at night and look up for a truly dizzying time. Generally known by their common name, California fan palms, these massive trees march along Almaden Boulevard's long median strip by ones and twos and are most commonly viewed from the San Carlos Street intersection.

The most impressive display of frilly fronds and tall trunks, however, is down the southern length of the boulevard past Balbach. Here the trees line up in threes (someone sure had a Herculean green thumb!). Not to be obscured by nightfall, the trees even get their own nightlights in the form of bright bulbs in the landscape illuminating them from the ground up. Although it may not be the brightest idea to traipse downtown at night, it's definitely a site to see these glowing palms springing from their sandy median like an urban desert. Just don't run among them after too much carousing in the First Street nightclub scene--the experience might be a little too intense.
Shari Kaplan

Best Place To Get Rid Of Your Scratch (If You Don't Get It, Don't Worry)

Berryessa Flea Market
1590 Berryessa Rd., SJ

Flea markets are good for two types of shopping: getting that specific item at a bargain rate, and walking around with nothing special in mind until you find something that fits your eye. The big, bustling Berryessa Flea Market provides more than your fill of both. If flea markets are the closest thing in America to a Middle Eastern bazaar, then the Berryessa is the mecca. How's this for size? Nearly 2,500 vendors with products from the very new to the very antique to the very fixer-up, even pets for sale, a produce row as long as some of the races at the world track championship, 25 restaurant stands for when you get hungry, a kids' playground to get rid of the little ones while you shop. That enough? Expect some hard bargaining on some of the items. That's half the fun.
Jesse Taylor

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 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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