In the 1940’s when my grandfather Gustavo Gutierrez arrived in San Jose as a “bracero,” there was only one area of the city that welcomed him to settle down and make a home — East San Jose.
The roots of District 5 are deep with Mexican American families as well as newly arrived immigrants from all over the world, but especially from Latin America. Latino immigrants have been the backbone of this valley for generations and have thrived in the face of racist housing laws and lending practices that seek to confine us to the margins.
Despite our rich culture, history and contributions to America’s 10th largest city, we do not have a Mexican American or Latino cultural district. Where is our Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago or Calle 24 in San Francisco? One reason could be the lack of Special Use Districts, a zoning option which allows for the formation of cultural districts.
We do not have to look far to see how this policy provides a chance for communities and neighborhoods to grow and thrive. San Francisco’s Cultural District Initiative has allowed neighborhoods such as Calle 24, Japantown, and SOMA Pilipina to flourish. These cultural destinations are anchors and regional attractions for people from all over the Bay Area, and beyond.
For a city that prides itself on diversity and innovation, San Jose still has a ways to go. While we currently have a Little Portugal, Little Saigon, Little Italy, Japantown and the La Placita Tropicana on Story and King roads, these San Jose landmarks are more akin to business improvement districts. They are not afforded the same kinds of resources for public art or protections against gentrification and displacement of legacy businesses and life-long residents.
As such, the mayor and City Council should not only reevaluate form-based zoning and its detrimental effects to our community but take swift action to remediate. Our elected officials should ask City Staff to research and recommend a pathway to designate and implement a citywide Special Use District zoning policy, modeled after the Cultural District Initiative in San Francisco, during the 2021-2022 priority-setting process.
Such a policy change would not only be a step toward preserving and protecting the multifaceted and diverse character of our city, but help our diverse communities thrive. A Cultural District Initiative would be especially beneficial for the Alum Rock corridor, which is rich in cultural assets yet particularly vulnerable to gentrification and displacement.
In the words of the wise poet and activist, Amanda Gorman, “being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it…” This is a chance to help right a historical wrong and prevent further gentrification of families like mine, who were put here by design and are now being forced out.
Maricela G. Lechuga is an East San Jose resident, aspiring lawyer and artist.