Fairmont Hotel and Cesar Chavez Park in San Jose, California
Fairmont Hotel and Cesar Chavez Park in San Jose, California
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by Lee Foster

Few American cities now experience as extensive a renaissance as California’s San Jose. The process of transformation in the heart of the city is so complete that a current traveler has a feeling of a work in progress. The canvas for this artistry is the urban landscape. An important ingredient in the process is the human animal, a political being, squabbling and visionary, visceral and industrious. About a billion dollars in public and private money has gone into the redevelopment in recent years.

Today San Jose is California’s third largest city, ranking after Los Angeles and San Diego, but ahead of San Francisco. The city is the 11th largest in the country. Backers of San Jose feel MEGATRENDS author John Naisbitt was correct when he asserted that San Jose and environs were one of 10 “cities of opportunity” in the U.S. through the end of the century.

GETTING AROUND VIA LIGHT RAIL

One cornerstone of this transformation is San Jose’s bid to address gridlock automobile traffic, the region’s largest single concern, with a light-rail system. The first segments of the light-rail connected San Jose to the Santa Clara Convention Center. Modern light-rail cars carry commuters during busy hours, but the system is also destined to become a tourist attraction, with refurbished, 1930s trolleys used during off hours and on weekends. The historic cars can now be seen at the city Historical Museum in Kelly Park.

Critics of the light rail system argue that it is a bandaid solution and that what was needed was another BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) underground system. The latter would certainly have been preferable, but the complexities of transportation politics made an underground system impossible in the San Jose context.

TRANSFORMING DOWNTOWN

Rebuilding of the downtown surged ahead at an exhilarating pace. The luxurious Fairmont Hotel, a gracious 541-room structure that informs the downtown, anchors the restoration. In few cities could it be said that a hotel has recreated the city downtown, but San Jose and the Fairmont are an exception. The pink-granite hotel, which opened in October 1987, commands the most prominent location in the city, downtown on the historic city plaza park. The massive, but set-back design of the hotel, topped by triangular motifs echoing other structures in the downtown, creates a distinguished architectural signature for San Jose. This $150 million five-star facility, an investment of the Swig family, brought a major after-hours vitality to the urban center. The Lobby Lounge Bar of the Fairmont became the fashionable and cheerful meeting place of the city, with piano music drifting through the expanse. Four restaurants, leading off the lobby, have transformed the gastronomic scene here. The Pagoda Restaurant (408/998-3937), styled by Chinese-cooking master Kee Joon, is classy Chinese. Les Saisons (408/998-3950) features gourmet French cooking with vintage wines by the glass. Each restaurant has its own bar and a separate entrance to the street. The choice rooms at the Fairmont are the fourth floor lanai suites, complete with their own patios fronting a large outdoor pool, flanked by palm trees.

Fairmont Hotel and Cesar Chavez Park in San Jose, California
Fairmont Hotel and Cesar Chavez Park in San Jose, California

The 425,000-square-foot McEnery Convention Center was completed in 1989. The downtown transformation that focused national travel attention on San Jose is the Tech Museum of Innovation, which promises to become a major travel destination. What better place could be found than in the heart of the Silicon Valley to celebrate America’s electronic-age inventiveness? Located at 145 West San Carlos St., 408/279-7150, the Tech Museum celebrates inventiveness in several technical fields. A parallel entity, the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, is a hands-on adventure for children in the worlds of science, technology, and cultural diversity (180 Woz Way, 408/298-5437).

A visitor sees a great city emerging, rising to share the spotlight with its glamorous sister to the north, San Francisco. The languid Guadalupe River, for example, which now meanders through San Jose, is becoming a landscaped urban stream, whose banks are known as the Guadalupe River Park.

Much of modern downtown San Jose is devoted to tall commercial buildings, with handsome landscaping, coupled with some smart townhouses. As a major urban landscape, these buildings exhibit a satisfying lowrise human scale, required partly by the flight path over the city of planes to San Jose International Airport, which serves about nine million passengers and has an ongoing expansion program.

NURTURING THE ARTS IN SAN JOSE

Amidst the downtown commercial structures, two entities are of interest to the general public.

The Romanesque-style post office building at 110 S. Market St., has become the San Jose Museum of Art (408/294-2787). Though much of earlier downtown San Jose has disappeared before the forces of modernization, this handsome old post office was saved. Constructed in 1892, this was the first federal building in San Jose. It served as a U.S. Post Office from 1892 to 1923. Designed by Willoughby Edbrooke and constructed of locally quarried sandstone, this Romanesque style structure is the last of its kind on the West Coast.

If the building seems constructed of stone similar to that used for Stanford University’s quadrangle buildings, your hunch is correct. The same quarry provided rock for both constructions. The museum features changing shows in most of its galleries and rotating exhibits from its permanent collection in one upstairs gallery. A gift shop features crafts and a judicious selection of books about the region.

As a counterpoint to the Romanesque post office/art museum, walk past a host of banks to 225 Almaden Boulevard, the corner of Almaden Boulevard and San Carlos Street, to see the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. In front you’ll find a characteristic, granite Benny Bufano sculpture, called CALIFORNIA BEAR, reminiscent of his other sleek depictions of animals. The center started shakily in 1972 with a roof cave-in, but recovered to become a focus of creativity in the downtown area.

Performing arts are flourishing in San Jose. The Symphony has its financial problems, as do symphonies everywhere, with the threat of a musician’s strike on opening night a nightmare that became a reality during one season. However, the San Jose Symphony pulled through, without going bankrupt, something could not be said for neighboring Oakland’s symphony.

The San Jose Repertory Theater boasts sellout performance seasons at its 101 Paseo de San Antonio location. Civic Light Opera is also flourishing, with an incredible 25,000 season ticket sales.

DINING OUT IN SAN JOSE

Some interesting restaurants can be enjoyed in downtown San Jose beyond the Fairmont. Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar (185 Park Avenue, 408/971-1700) is the main fish and shellfish restaurant of the city. For California cuisine, try Steve Borkenhagen’s Eulipia Restaurant (374 S. First Street, 408/280-6161). The landmark Italian restaurant is still Original Joe’s (301 S. First St., 408/292-7030). A diner longing for breaded veal and red cabbage should select the premier German restaurant, Hochburg von Germania (261 North Second, 408/295-4484). For fine dining and classic French cuisine, visit Rue de Paris, 19 N. Market St., 408/298-0704.

The major annual festival in downtown San Jose, occurring over the July Fourth celebration, is called the San Jose America Festival. Food, arts and crafts, and live entertainers are featured in this three-day, multicultural event. With San Jose’s rich ethnic mix, several other festivals can be enjoyed, such as Japanese Obon in July, Mexican Cinco de Mayo in May, and Italian American Cultural Festival in October. The new, major ethnic presence in the city is Vietnamese, with its own enclave on East Santa Clara. Call the Convention and Visitor Bureau for festival details.

If you have occasion to visit San Jose in these years, you’ll witness a vital American city undergoing a major renaissance.

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SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: IF YOU GO

For further information, contact the San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau, 333 W. San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA 95110; 408/295-9600; www.sanjose.org. San Jose’s 24-hour For Your Information hotline is 408/295-2265.

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