San Jose’s Missing Soul

A recent electronic-arts festival drew stark attention to what a cluster of high-profile buildings had forgotten: the people who live there.

It wasn’t exactly Greenwich Village on Halloween or Barcelona during one of its insane fiestas, but during its summer electronic-arts festival San Jose had a discernible, if erratic, pulse. Its antiseptic downtown streets were suddenly spattered with art—malfunctioning art, that is. Arriving at the airport I spotted a white metal box with an illuminated button marked “press here.” This was half of British artists Shona Kitchen and Ben Hooker’s DataNature installation, a pair of “ticket machines” meant to print souvenir boarding passes containing live images and data celebrating the “strange secret beauty” of the airport. I pushed the button and waited, noticing how machines in airports make me irritable. Nothing happened.

In downtown San Jose at nighttime I stood and watched four giant illuminated orange disks spinning every six seconds atop the Adobe Systems building, in the oddly mesmerizing dance of a secret code by multimedia artist Ben Rubin, which geeks around the world are currently trying to decipher. A plane flew overhead and the disks went into a kind of free-fall spin before realigning themselves and starting again. Except that one of the disks seemed to be stuck, lagging behind the rest in its return to zero.

In the daytime—after a head-banging session at the very cerebral 13th International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA2006), running concurrently with the festival—I staggered into the sunshine to watch “Karaoke Ice,” a project by the talented triumvirate of Katie Salen, Marina Zurkow, and Metropolis’s own Nancy Nowacek, who had customized an ice-cream truck with pixel-constructed vinyl graph­ics, fake icicles, grandiose hubcaps, and, at the truck’s rear, a stage with a disco ball. A man dressed in a kind of wire-frame-model squirrel suit was offering free ice pops to any-one who wanted to perform karaoke from a daily menu of eight songs rearranged as tinkly ice-cream truck jingles, ranging from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” to the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” All was going swimmingly except that someone had stolen the truck’s next parking spot.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals made of this invasion of misfiring electronic art and oddly dressed academics. The ­festival, which had the magniloquent title “ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge,” is a bold addition to the city’s attempt to enliven its downtown area while building its image as Silicon Valley’s capital. The tenth largest city in the United States, and one of the fastest growing, San Jose still has an image problem. In a recent CEOs for Cities survey that identified which cities young professionals most wanted to live in, San Jose failed to make the top 20, while nearby San Francisco took second place. Its investment in the arts ranks it fifth among the nation’s 50 ­largest cities in per capita local spending; and wandering around downtown, there’s plenty of evidence of Silicon Valley investment in San Jose’s architectural regeneration. Since the 1980s the city’s redevelopment agency has overseen the construction of the Tech Museum of Innovation and Children’s Discovery Museum, by Ricardo Legorreta; the San Jose Repertory Theatre, by Holt Hinshaw; a convention center by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects; and a new city hall by Richard Meier & Partners, to name but a few. But it’s one of those downtowns without a there there. The old Spanish plaza at the center of town has been revived, renamed César Chávez Plaza, and equipped with an impressive array of fountains that attracts gaggles of soggy children during the day, but even this seems to lack the enclosure and sense of orientation you expect of a town square. In three days of exploring on foot, I couldn’t figure out where to buy a newspaper, a cup of coffee, fresh fruit, or a bagel without going to Starbucks.

Artists, being sensitive flowers, are aware of San Jose’s missing soul, and many of the residency projects at “ZeroOne” addressed the issue by using technology to reveal or embroider counter-narratives of the lived city. The karaoke truck’s creators named it Lucci, an itinerant conjurer and “woman of the world who has fallen down an elevator shaft into a pool of mermaids.” The idea of leaping onto Lucci’s magical stage to perform a song that would be recorded and made available on the Internet was just the kind of traversing real, fictional, and virtual worlds that artists hoped could temporarily transform people’s experience of moving through the city. Many projects drew on California’s long-standing love affair with customized vehicles: a pimped-up car that played the sound of the driver’s heartbeat, a bicycle that laughed, skateboards that made music according to how they moved, and a train ride that could be spiced up by riders’ punching a number on their cell phones to hear an erotic narrative of the city.

But in a way these projects only drew attention to what was missing, what the cluster of high-profile downtown buildings had forgotten: the people who actually live there. A friend of mine who grew up in San Jose as it was beginning its L.A.-style sprawl described the downtown area in the 1980s as a place where “nobody went,” apart from the homeless. The downtown redevelopment was welcome since it encouraged foot traffic, but it has left the area hollow because—with its focus on tourism—it failed to provide the affordable housing, stores, schools, and libraries that would ensure a lively 24-hour mixed-income community. This is what the city is beginning to address, thankfully. A schoolhouse designed by Moore Ruble Yudell opened downtown in 2004, ­providing a facility for lower-income kids who had been studying in portable structures since the 1970s. Back in 2001 San Jose was “one of the most unlivable cities in the U.S.,” according to the Nation, with a fifth of its residents falling into the “Very Low Income” bracket. Today the city can boast having built nearly 10,000 affordable housing units in the last seven years.

Cities—to paraphrase two of the “ZeroOne” artists, Mark Pesce and John Tonkin—are not collections of buildings but the living product of their inhabitants: “A city razed to the ground may recover, but a city emptied of people is dead,” wrote the duo, whose project used the Bluetooth feature on cell phones to create a custom database of who’d been where and who’d walked past whom. Even if the records accumulated by Pesce and Tonkin during the festival were of the social lives of visitors like me staying in nice hotels, the idea—as with much electronic art—has more promise than its initial realization. The same could be said of Hooker and Kitchen’s tickets (they were printing when I returned to the airport), which in place of passenger and gate information featured odd details about lost and found items, the people working at the airport, and a still from a Webcam of burrowing owls currently living on the airfield. If cities were rendered as the sum products of their inhabitants’ lives—be they baggage handlers, cell-phone-carrying festivalgoers, or burrowing owls—rather than as arrangements of buildings, how differently would architects and urban planners go about designing them?

In my three-day stay in San Jose the best meal I had was when I stumbled into a Vietnamese shop a few blocks from César Chávez Plaza and ordered a two-dollar sandwich—a fresh crusty baguette stuffed with a combination of herbs, vegetables, tofu, and very hot chili peppers. I was glad that the town’s Vietnamese community had ­somehow survived the urban blight and zealous downtown regeneration. And the most uplifting electronic-art moment was probably when I caught a teenager freestyle rapping to a tinkle-pop percussion in the back of the karaoke truck, to the jaunts and cheers of his schoolmates. Call me lowbrow, but those are the kinds of urban experiences that I think give a city its soul.

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