Six months ago I started my new position with the San Jose Downtown Association as their new Street Life Project Manager. It has been an interesting and eventful journey thus far – working on many fun and fast-moving projects, and seeing what it is like on the other side of the planning counter. Downtown San Jose, and the city as a whole, is undergoing major public and private investment, and the scale of development seen now is unprecedented. It is a great time to be an urbanist in San Jose, the slate is blank, but the paint is ready.
Part of my role is to provide updates on the Downtown Street Life Plan, which is where many of my projects stem from. In these sessions, there is inevitably a question regarding the street life and placemaking work of San Francisco. Even beyond, I constantly get asked to compare the two, or to test projects in San Jose that have shown results in San Francisco. In these situations, I find myself providing a pep talk to the questioning individual and to the room at large. Truth be told, it is a bit demoralizing when you bring up in an audience the merits of another city over your own.
In college, I participated in the Student Parent Orientation Program (SPOP) at UC Irvine. Part of the program, in addition to class registration, adjusting to college life, and making new friends, is the capacity-building of the student who is entering a new stage of their lives, with new opportunities and responsibilities to deal with. We as volunteer staffers would give them these pep talks to ensure them that they have all the resources and personal capacity to succeed in this new environment. When the question gets asked that compares San Francisco to San Jose, I automatically fall back into this role, but not because I feel the need to cheer everyone up, but because what is limiting San Jose to meet its potential is that the city doesn’t think they deserve or is incapable of it.
To note, I love San Francisco. My time working on the streetscapes team was a whirlwind of activity, and I knew I was doing good work. The city is electric, to say the least, and working there was a lot of fun. Saying that, San Jose and San Francisco are not apples to apples. Things are just as intense, politically charged, and eventful as it is in San Francisco, but in different ways. The perspective of how urbanists and the community in San Jose view their own city needs to change, because when you second-guess yourself as a city, you will never break that barrier to excellence.
I hope San Jose stops thinking it is second-fiddle to San Francisco. I hope San Jose stops caring about how they appear in comparison to San Francisco. It’s basic business practice that if you cannot compete with another in one way, find your own niche and create that demand. It’s also bad morale to be working towards a mission whose sole purpose is to catch up to another city. You have great weather, an organic arts community, the oldest institutions of the State of California, tech companies, a downtown with strong local support, fabulous dining and entertainment options, rich cultural diversity, and many other attributes. Additionally, you are a world city and you shares more urban ailments as other cities in America, so urban intervention solutions coming from San Jose will have a greater impact on the city landscape of more cities in the United States.
There is so much San Jose has to offer, but the first step is admitting that it has something to offer, and to do so in a context that stands on its own. You are the 10th largest city in the most powerful nation on earth. Own it.