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April 26-May 2, 2006

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Downtown When It Rocks

By Gary Singh

ALL RIGHT, enough complaining. Many folks throughout the valley have no reason to visit downtown San Jose and they never will. And they are dead on the money when they state their reasons for feeling that way. But there are many good things, and allow me to enlighten you with some of the events that went down just last week. Since the 1906 earthquake is on everyone's minds these days, Jim Salata of Garden City Construction led a walking tour of historical downtown buildings that were damaged in that disaster. The History San Jose folks also installed a series of large historic photos throughout the neighborhood to coordinate with their new cell phone tour, in which you can walk up to each photo, call a number and listen to an explanation about the photo. This is all on the streets of downtown San Jose.

Many folks showed up at City Hall for the walking tour—so many that they had to break it up into two separate groups, with Salata leading the first one and historian Leonard McKay guiding the second pack. As always, I was one of the youngest people in attendance. I try and explain to the younger minions that local history rocks, but no one under 40 ever seems to care. Anyway, for the walking tour, Salata led the group straight over to the Odd Fellows building, which now houses Hank Coca's Downtown Furniture, and then to several others, including the one that houses Gordon Biersch. The tour concluded at the San Jose Museum of Art to celebrate a new project to restore the tower to the old part of the building. The private reception at the museum drew an entire ensemble cast including the mayor, a few city councilmembers and folks decked out in Victorian attire. The wine flowed.

As the mayor took the podium to speak, I escaped around the corner to Gordon Biersch, where that brewery was holding its tapping party for their annual Mai Bock, a celebratory springtime brew that packs a punch. The lager flowed while regulars and their guests imbibed into the evening. Be careful, though. Mai Bock is a devil in disguise. It sneaks up on you. In any event, you should support local beer. That's the point.

And the very next day, City Hall celebrated even more things local. The second Taste of Downtown event took place at noontime. A wide variety of restaurants exist downtown, whether they're voguish or more hole-in-the-wall, and about 10 offered a sample of their menus from booths inside the rotunda. Many other big municipalities, like New York, San Francisco and Montreal, have similar citywide dine-out promotions and this is just downtown San Jose's miniversion of it all. Call it local flavor if you must. The only thing missing was a booth representing Charlie's Liquors, that infamous dump that used to sit right at Fourth and Santa Clara where the City Hall is now. It was the only liquor store in the neighborhood that stayed open until 2am. Since you couldn't shop at the pigsty without surrendering to the bums, the crackheads and the homeless who inhabited the parking lot, just about every neighbor was relieved when the city finally flattened the place. Right across the street, one used to find Lenny's Cocktails, which also should have had its own booth. Next door to Lenny's was the Quality Cafe, to which all the drunks would stagger out of the bar for a two-dollar breakfast. Now that's a taste of downtown.

Maybe this would make San Jose a destination place. Take visitors on a dive bar tour of the valley. Take 'em to Alex's 49er Inn, where folks take taxis to the bar at 10am. Bring out-of-towners to check out The Bear's on Alma or the Branham Lounge. Bring a Gray Line tour bus to the Last Call in Los Gatos—which is pretty much the place to go after you've been cut off at every other bar in Los Gatos.

There do indeed exist rockin' activities all throughout the valley, not just in downtown San Jose. And local flavor includes dive bars and rundown liquor stores, not just the Tech Museum, the Mystery House or Santana Row. Bottoms up.

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