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[whitespace] Ghirardelli Sign
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Old Signs in Nouveau City

By Eric A. Carlson

"In Lynchburg, we don't believe in kickin' a pullin' mule."

--Jack Daniel's (whiskey) spokesman

THE FINAL APPROACH into Norman Ygdrasil Mineta San Jose International Airport is straight up the gut of Santa Clara Valley proper. Diablo Range foothills to starboard, Santa Cruz Mountains to port. In the winter months, the whole enchilada is as green and perfect as Oz. Even Silicon Valley can be faintly discerned: a series of one-car garages in Mountain View inhabited by visionary tinkerers plotting out snake-oil potions to foist upon innocent San Joseans.

San Jose, the big city with a small town mind-set, is constantly being shaken by the nape of its neck to conform to some folks' idea of what a major city should be. Much of San Jose's history has been pilfered in the process. Some by name changes to accommodate political cronies or to secure financial rewards from major corporations--city monuments used as billboards. And further tampering occurs with the occasional historical structure being scraped into the ground, along with odd local business that doesn't fit the image chosen by the chosen ones. I went looking for omens in downtown San Jose; I do that almost every weekend.

Remnants still exist in San Jose of bygone innocent years when prostitutes roamed the avenues--loitering on the corner of Original Joe's--and retail stores flourished where one could actually buy pants and stuff like that. I walked to the Agenda Restaurant Bar & Lounge to admire the exquisite signs painted decades ago on the brick walls: San Jose Plumbing and Sheet Metal next to Ghirardelli's Ground Chocolate. The owner of the building, Jacek Rosicki, knows the value of such things and employs the signs as "natural" decoration for his outside patio. I asked Jacek if he planned on keeping the brick signs, and he replied, "Of course!" He seemed taken aback at the concept that someone wouldn't cherish such a resource.

I found more omens in the San Jose Museum of Gloomy Art, which featured an exhibit of Nathan Oliveira's paintings. A San Jose daily newspaper described the paintings as "haunting." Well, I am here to tell you they are downright gloomy--and muddy. Suffocating, I ran from the museum into the San Jose sunshine. They need to serve booze in that museum--free isn't enough. The Triton Museum in Santa Clara seems to deliver more palatable fare, paintingwise, over time. And the Triton has the advantage of having a very ridiculous Benny Bufano sculpture across the street.

Race Street is not exactly an omen, but it is a sign that has properly not changed since its conception--circa 1860. Race Street connects The Alameda to Park Avenue and points south. The origin of the name is from a racetrack that existed west of the street from around 1860 to around 1900. Patricia Loomis, in her historical opus. Signposts, provides the following vignette: "Ex-President U.S. Grant sat in the grandstand and watched a horse race at the old track in 1879, and old-time race fans remember world records set by such greats as Palo Alto, Sunol, Electioneer and Alfarata." In the 1890s, bike races took place there.

I was recently informed that some septuagenarians living in the unincorporated Burbank district are disseminating apocrypha to the effect that Race Street was so named because of wild youths racing up and down the street in hot rods. This is, of course, balderdash--and why local history needs to be emphasized in the school system. Sierra Avenue, Yosemite Way and Mariposa Drive now wend where the old Agricultural Park Racetrack once stood.

A friend recently opined that "San Jose has torn down so many buildings, they might as well give the place a different name." Well, Hewlett-Packard San Jose has a nice ring, and the mayor and the City Council could make a few bucks to spend on city halls.

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From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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