Could street performers reignite downtown San Jose?
Local musicians said there's no spontaneous performance culture in downtown San Jose. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    There’s something magical about walking through a city center while being serenaded to the riffs of a live guitar, then turning down an alley where the smooth sounds of a saxophone bounce off brick walls to fill the air. Spontaneous street performances have the ability to breathe life into a city.

    But downtown San Jose has never truly experienced that, and has struggled in recent years to cultivate a culture where musicians play tunes along sidewalks and street corners at will. One-off local musicians, or buskers, have at times performed in public for donations in downtown, but never steadily and rarely by their own accord.

    Local musicians said this lack of spontaneous performance culture is a symptom of a dead downtown, rather than a root cause. Musicians want to perform on streets that are walkable and full of foot traffic, but that doesn’t exist much in San Jose. So performers often opt to take their talents elsewhere to cities like Mountain View and Los Gatos, or even as far as Burlingame.

    “It’s a great feeling when I catch someone’s attention, they kind of soften and just pause to appreciate your craft,” San Jose guitarist Ryan Trujillo said. “But I’ve never done it in San Jose.”

    The aftermath of the pandemic has largely emptied downtown streets, but the problems facing the area aren’t new. Downtown for years has felt the lingering effects of empty storefronts and blight, and has long borne a significant brunt of the region’s homelessness crisis, further affecting the city’s ability to bounce back.

    San Jose Downtown Manager Nate Donato-Weinstein, who’s main role in City Hall is to revitalize downtown, said places like San Pedro Square, SoFA and the Qmunity District on Post Street are centralized hubs where people organically gather, but it doesn’t extend throughout downtown in a consistent way. Hallmark events like San Jose Jazz Summer Fest or Christmas in the Park also bring thousands of people to Cesar Chavez Plaza, but only fleetingly.

    “Live music, whether it’s busking or venues, really make a city awesome and unique,” Donato-Weinstein told San José Spotlight. “The benefits are personal and economic.”

    Can the city help? 

    Promoting and supporting live music has been known to help revitalize lackluster city centers across the world. San Jose already has a strong foundation to do that locally, with more than 30 established venues that host weekly live music events, Donato-Weinstein said.

    Trujillo is a product of these types of San Jose bars and other city-led events, where he’s made a name for himself as a musician. But when he’s feeling the urge to busk to his favorite song, “Colors of the Wind,” he and his girlfriend, who plays the violin, drive up north to Burlingame where they perform.

    “It’s the combination of wealth and different businesses like coffee shops, restaurants, shops, all within proximity that makes people go out and spend time just walking around,” Trujillo told San José Spotlight. “That’s rare (in San Jose).”

    Donato-Weinstein wants to bring in even more venues and events, in the hopes that creative spirit will spread throughout the surrounding downtown streets. The Levitt Pavilion, an ongoing controversial project since 2016, could be transformational for blighted St. James Park. More than 50 free concerts could be held, he said.

    Last weekend, the city cohosted the SoFA street fair where several local musicians performed. On June 21, San Jose will host Make Music Day with dozens of free live shows across downtown.

    In his March budget message, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan directed city workers to explore ways to bring in more events to the downtown core over the next year. The office of economic development is proposing to remove permit and fee waivers so hosting events is more accessible, he said. The idea will come before the City Council in the next few weeks.

    Brendan Rawson, executive director of San Jose Jazz, said more venues and events are great, but he believes San Jose should provide more funding and grants to support such events. As the city enters budget discussions, he hopes the council will consider allocating a higher percentage of the transient occupancy tax—the city’s primary source of funding for arts programming and grants—to art and music programs.

    Wealthy developers have also shown an enthusiasm for livening downtown, but their lofty plans have come under scrutiny for not always working with the city. Critics said developers could invest in already established programs, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Real estate mogul and developer Gary Dillabough recently shared his new ideas for redesigning a centralized entertainment district that would bring in big talent, and therefore more residents and visitors to downtown. But city officials said it’s unlikely they would enact any policy or zoning changes to help bring Dillabough’s ideas to life.

    Dillabough is also behind a new construction project that will demolish the San Jose Jazz Break Room, which hosts local musicians for as little as $5 and projects performances outside for free.

    “There is a real need for a cohesive arts and entertainment strategy with all stakeholders,” Rawson said, noting there isn’t much collaboration happening between downtown players and city leaders. “The downtown is really hurting, but there is a real opportunity here to lean into (collaborating) as a strategy and mechanism to building a more vibrant downtown.”

    This year, San Jose has 120 events planned over 300 days, which is almost back at pre-pandemic levels. But there’s always room for more events, Donato-Weinstein said.

    “Right now we are trying create this (live music) environment, it’s not always organic,” Donato-Weinstein said. “But if we ever have an environment where buskers feel like they have a market or an audience to be playing for, then we will know we have made it as a city.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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