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What makes San Jose different from everywhere else? Some would no doubt argue that San Jose isn't different from other places in California. They would point to the strip malls, the tract homes and see another (large) slice of suburbia. Some might see San Jose as a little bit of Los Angeles in Northern California--though opinions could differ on whether that's good or bad.
The suburban story is real, but it's too simple. San Jose certainly doesn't fit the model of White suburbia, because its population is majority non-Anglo. San Jose is home to over 1/4 million Latinos (mostly, though not exclusively, of Mexican descent) and almost another 1/4 million Asians (coming from many groups--Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese), though the African American population is small. Ethnic restaurants and groceries don't cluster in downtown ghettos, but spread across the city in highway-oriented strip malls. You can eat very well in San Jose, especially if you are willing to drive--to Campbell, to Cupertino, to East San Jose. San Jose also doesn't fit the suburban model in that the city has been busy--for decades--building an attractive downtown core,though that work is still in progress.
Perhaps San Jose is best thought of as the Bay Area's city of 21st Century California, with its good and bad qualities. San Francisco is spectacular and lovely, but much of it was formed before 1930. Oakland is struggling to rebuild a city whose sinews were largely made in the mid-20th Century. But 8/9 of San Jose's population growth has occurred since 1950. It is a city of now. It is largely a city of cars, though ever so slowly a stronger transit infrastructure is being put into place. Maybe BART will arrive one of these decades, if the billions to achieve this can be found. San Jose's primary industry is the ever-reinventing computer business--computer software, computer hardware, computer networks, internet companies. San Jose is still struggling back from the dot com bust of 2001, still has an overhang of "see-through" office space. The city styles itself "the capital of Silicon Valley", though it is not clear if Palo Alto (or even Sunnyvale) recognize the title.
San Jose's lifestyle is evolving. Condos downtown and near downtown invite buyers to experience urban living based on walking to restaurants, shops and perhaps even work. Apartments along the light rail line promise convenience and "transit-oriented" living, even if light rail ridership has been disappointing. The detached house continues to reign supreme--and continues to be built on San Jose's edges. But it is no longer the only choice.
Downtown San Jose is a fascinating urban place. Its history goes back to the 1700s, but more than any other major California downtown, it is principally a product of the last 30 years.It is a grand urban experiment in building a downtown almost from the ground up. Hundreds of millions of city redevelopment agency dollars have brought the downtown a new City Hall, a new library shared with San Jose State University, a state-of-the-art repertory theatre, the Tech Museum of Innovation, an expanded San Jose Art Museum, new and renovated hotels. Is it really used by the people of San Jose? Well the young have clearly taken to it. It is a venue for festivals, from Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, to the annual display of dozens of Christmas dioramas called "Christmas in the Park." The San Jose Museum of Art now attracts visitors that look more like San Jose. Most people's lives -- their schools, their usual stores, even their workplaces -- are elsewhere in San Jose or Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County), but downtown is far from irrelevant.
San Francisco's culture is easily evident to the visitor. San Jose's is different -- quieter, more diffuse, more elusive. You have to seek it out in the right strip mall, or maybe in the bowling alley coffee shop that's a Hawaiian hang out. You have to drive through many non-descript miles to reach a sparkling performance or gallery. Or maybe you'll find it in the honking, buzzing world of Fry's self-service computer stores--vast warehouse sized emporiums of everything electronic. In its ever-changing 175 square mile vastness "only the dead know San Jose."