Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: This Old Haunt

Remembering the ghosts of San Jose's Cambrian Park Plaza before it's gone
IN REVERIE: The old carousel at Cambrian Park Plaza will be preserved, but not much else. Photo by Gary Singh

Last week, on a quiet prowl through the half-empty Cambrian Park Plaza, the desolation was inspiring.

Amid semi-unhealthy air quality, the doomed plaza made me think of a recent quote by novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza: "Ghosts are misunderstood. So haunted they seek to haunt. But beneath their antics and their anger, their desire is simple, childlike. Look at me, they seem to say, I'm not ready to be invisible yet."

One must summon the ghosts and wrestle with them before setting them free. And writing was a way of doing that.

I spent the first 20 years of my life haunting the Cambrian neighborhood, but I only seem to revisit the Plaza every five years or so. This time around, the ghostly antics began as soon as I set foot on the property. Developers are planning to transform the whole plaza into, well, something else, but the ghosts of long-dead businesses did not want to be erased yet. So I stood there and watched the carousel spin, just to get my own memories spinning. Underneath dystopian skies, caused by smoke and ash, the carousel moved without a sound. It was eerie.

Thankfully, developers are saving the carousel as part of whatever suburban Chase-Bank-ified architectural monstrosity they intended to construct. So that is one good thing; a thumbs-up for sure.

With the carousel spiraling away, though, it was impossible for me not to then veer off and gaze down the backwater stretch of Woodard Road, where ghosts of Cambrian Surplus and the Main Bar—an old biker haunt—rose to the surface immediately. This was a separate little hidden stripmall, aptly named "Cambrian Center," with its own sign, a masterpiece of mid-century kitsch. And likewise, the sign still remains.

This neighborhood in the '80s was already a dystopian wasteland straight out of Repo Man. Highway 85 didn't exist yet. You couldn't get here quickly. Meth-heads, racist bikers, dysfunctional families, ex-cons and bored teenagers seemed to occupy a sizable portion of the landscape made up of suburban housing tracts.

As a teenager, there was absolutely nothing else to do except drive around, play arcade games at pizza parlors, ride skateboards or go find someone to buy beer. Maybe all of the above.

Some of us eventually realized that life was more about driving to San Francisco or Oakland to see arena concerts, since San Jose had no culture to brag about. Then we'd drive back home to congregate and destroy the Carl's Jr. at 1am, as it was open 24 hours. To this day, that Carl's Jr. still exists, right across from Cambrian Park Plaza. It might never disappear. The smell certainly won't.

One of the darkest depictions of Cambrian Park ever written was an epic, 7,000-word piece of old-school crime-writing Will Harper penned for Metro about 20 years ago. The story of the notorious Ronda Drive murders is far outside the scope of this column, but Harper nailed it. You'd think that the unwashed dope fiends, high school dropouts, crooked cowboy cops and sawed-off shotguns in the story were all caricatures, but they weren't. It was totally real.

All of that spun around in the carousels of my mind before I even got across the parking lot. Once inside the old, folksy plaza of my youth, where nothing remained from those days except Williams Cutlery and perhaps a few other storefronts, my memories couldn't ignore Cambrian Bowl. Several years ago, like all the rest, it sadly succumbed to the City's decades-long war on bowling alleys.

Thankfully, not everything was dead. Heartbeat Cafe, another heroic indie business soldiering on through the Covid-19 era, served me an amazing espresso, surrounded by European gypsy music, vintage coffee grinders, Middle Eastern samovars, gift cards, outré furniture, mirrors and other accoutrements. Yessiree! I had found culture. A veritable gem in the wasteland, that place.

But out behind the plaza lurked even more ghostliness. Except for one dude working at the Goodwill truck, which looked like the loneliest job on earth, there was no one around. Acres of sun-cracked pavement seemed to go on forever.

In the end, Cambrian Park Plaza does indeed have a future. But I will haunt this place, childlike, forever.