The city has forgotten this ‘hidden treasure’ of North San Jose, residents say
The town of Alviso was founded in 1852 and incorporated into the city of San José in 1968. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

Alviso was one of California’s first American cities, and as such, it’s got a rich history, quirky character and an irresistible charm.

But it’s got big problems too, and residents of the quaint, working-class, bayside community say they’ve been forgotten by the city that incorporated them more than 50 years ago.

“It’s a hidden treasure, but the city of San Jose has treated us like a stepchild,” complains longtime property owner Dick Santos.

That’s a metaphor Santos uses often enough that Lan Diep, the San Jose councilman who represents the city’s north side, repeated it unprompted in an interview.

“I know there’s a narrative that they are the forgotten stepchild up in Alviso,” Diep said. “And it’s a valid concern.”

Santos is an outspoken critic of San Jose and his complaints are well-known at City Hall. On most weekdays he says he spends half his time on the phone with one city agency or another, frequently ringing up elected officials as well to harangue them about a lack of services.

In fairness to Diep — who has only been in office since 2017 — many of the problems Santos complains about during those phone calls predate his election. In fact, Santos’ beef with San Jose dates back before the 34-year-old councilman’s birth.

Santos was born in Alviso in 1944, and he was in his twenties when San Jose incorporated the town.

Santos supported it when residents voted by a slim margin to join the city in 1968. But almost 52 years later he feels betrayed.

“If we had declared war on San Jose we would have gotten more services,” he said.

Alviso’s past is rooted in history

Alviso was surveyed in 1849, the year after the end of the Mexican-American War, at the height of the Gold Rush. That was the same year the first passenger steamboat crossed the Bay from San Francisco into the Port of Alviso, which opened in 1840 — when Spanish colonials from Mexico still governed the area.

Regular steamboat service started in 1850 — two years before Alviso got its charter — and it was already on the map. Passenger ships brought laborers from San Francisco to work in the warehouses and canneries along the waterfront.

Alviso was snubbed when the railroad coming through the region bypassed the community. It recovered then, just as it would again countless times in the 150 years since. It bounced back most recently when a massive flood damaged or destroyed nearly every inch of the town’s 47 square-miles in 1983.

A burned out, boarded-up house on Michigan Ave. stands between two occupied homes in Alviso. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

But as Santos sees it, things are as bad now as they’ve ever been.

“Look at that garbage,” he said Monday afternoon, pointing at a pile of debris brimming over the sides of a nearby construction trailer.  Farther down the street, a filthy sofa without its cushions stood propped up against one side of it.

“Those have been here for five months,” added Santos, pounding the steering wheel with one hand for added emphasis.

The old Town Hall down the street built in 1937 by Santos’ father was taken over by the San José Police Department which promised to turn it into a Community Policing Center. Santos says it’s never been staffed and police only stop there to use the bathroom.

Indeed, a heavy matte of cobwebs hung over the handle to the building’s front door Monday afternoon, the window shades were drawn and there were no police vehicles in sight.

Alviso’s future looks brighter

All that blight is a stark contrast to the luxury hotel and gleaming office towers, each filling up night and day with tech workers, at the nearby America Center — just southwest of Alviso’s historic downtown.

Directly south is the Gold Street Technology Center, with office space occupied by Dell and TiVo. There are more tech companies headed that way, including Hewlett-Packard and Google, the latter of which just bought a large parcel behind George Mayne Elementary School.

And that gives Santos hope for the future.

“We are hopeful that Google and others will come in and partner with us, collaborate with the community to help us clean it up because the mayor and City Council won’t,” he said.

Diep admits the area is underserved by the city but says he’s fighting for the neighborhood with all his might.

“It continues to be one of my favorite places in the city and I’m committed to making sure it gets the attention it deserves,” he said.

And it will gain more attention, Diep said, as the area becomes a hotbed for development. He pointed to a major project that broke ground last year on a 36-acre site between N. First Street and the Guadalupe River. Shops@Terra is expected to draw 450,000 visitors per year when it opens in 2020 with Dallas-based high-tech driving range Topgolf as its anchor tenant.

“Topgolf will serve as a destination in this community,” developer Gary Gauba said in a previous statement.

But Alviso residents are worried about losing the small-town charm of the area, and often push back on new development. Shops@Terra and Topgolf were no exception to that, facing multiple lawsuits that caused delays.

A look at the exterior of the proposed Topgolf in Alviso. Photo courtesy of Topgolf.

Topgolf spokeswoman Morgan Schaaf said Thursday the company has already opened a “swing suite” at nearby Levi’s Stadium to give 49ers fans a preview of what to expect when it opens its 72,000 square-foot, three-story facility that will include 120 such suites and a 3,000 square-foot event space. A ceremonial groundbreaking took place last year, but construction did not begin until later that summer.

Topgolf expects to open in Alviso in spring 2020.

A development that size could draw large crowds and bring massive change, including clogging roads and straining limited resources.

Some patrons at Vahl’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge at the corner of Taylor and El Dorado streets said they’re worried about gentrification that could drive longtime residents out of the community.

Vahl’s patron, Paul Perez, wasn’t born in town but he loves Alviso and says his friends at the longtime eatery are like family.

Things are not as bad here as Santos would have outsiders believe, he added.

Perez says Alviso’s natural splendor — the Bay and its surrounding marshes and its fish and wildlife, the “Huckleberry Finn” childhood of hunting, fishing and spending all day on the water — is its best feature to this day.

“You can still do all that stuff around here,” he said. “And people do.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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