A Walk Around Downtown San Jose and the Importance of Public Spaces

Building a sense of community through urban street art

Mural Corner by artist Marcos LaFarga

Public spaces are the heartbeat of urban environments. They enable conversation, bring communities together, and can even spur action. Though they’re planned, successful public spaces often take on lives of their own. Most importantly, they provide opportunities for people from all walks of life to congregate and develop relationships with their communities and cities.

I recently took a walk with Jason Su, manager at the San Jose Downtown Association’s Street Life Project, to learn about the city’s commitment to celebrating its communities through urban street art.

The Street Life Project collaborates with artists, non-profits, and governments to create public spaces that improve pedestrian experience and enhance community identity. It’s a part of Downtown San Jose Street Life Plan, a 10 year public space roadmap. While each city should consider its own unique demographics, cultures, and characteristics, the plan outlines adaptable guidelines for implementing street life projects.

“We have done the legwork of making a process, we were more than willing to have it replicated and have the idea spread beyond us.”
Jason Su, San Jose Downtown Association’s Street Life Manager

Downtown San Jose is being transformed by beautiful murals, art crosswalks, and public spaces that reflect each neighborhood’s sense of culture and history. Here are a few projects that caught my eye.

#1: Murals, murals everywhere

If you’ve never been, let me tell you — downtown San Jose has a lot of parking lots. Older buildings got torn down faster than new ones went up, so the city has its share of bare lot walls. In collaboration with the Street Life Project, a non-profit called Exhibition District is committed to completing 40,000 square feet of murals in downtown San Jose. They’re rapidly flipping the bare walls of ‘Tan Jose’ to reflect the city’s expressiveness — or in founder Erin Salazar’s terms, turning San Jose’s deficits into its assets.

Highway mural by famed muralist Sainer pays homage to Little Italy nearby. Commissioned by Empire 7 Studios
Intricate mural entitled ‘Life Abundant in the Face of Death Imminent’ by local tattoo artist Jim Miner. Commissioned by Exhibition District
People simply adore the ‘Panda Cafe and Bakery’ mural by Phuong-Mai Bui-Quang. Maintenance staff often find lipstick kisses on the pandas’ cheeks. Commissioned by San Jose Downtown Association

Erin and Jason are both enjoying the opportunity to define San Jose’s visual identity.

“I think San Jose, in a way, has a lot to catch up to — in terms of having great urban design or great street design. But it also means when other artists and community activists do something, the impact is felt greater. It’s nice to see how it manifests, how people react to it and start using terms like ‘street life’ to talk about how they want to see their city.”

#2: Urban Dog Park

After two years of planning and executing projects, Jason’s favorite is a pop up dog park built between two commercial buildings. The Street Life Project worked with the property owners to turn an under-utilized lot into Hart’s Dog Park. Fit with turf, planters, park benches, string lights and a mural, the initiative is a huge hit because it works into the urban routine.

Hart’s Dog Park, an oasis in the commercial business area.

#3: Local Color

Local Color is an artist space created by the team at Exhibition District aimed at “Reactivating out-of-use buildings in San Jose into art-hubs for artist, makers, and our community.” Most recently, they’ve converted an old Ross Dress for Less building slated for redevelopment into a transitory downtown artist warehouse.

The building will almost definitely be replaced with a new housing development, but in the meantime, Erin, Jason, and others modified it into a community art and event space.

Projector, makeshift seating and speakers for events at Local Color.
A vintage clothing store in the arts space.
An indoor mural on the walls of the old Ross building.

#4: Art Crosswalks

San Jose’s Art Crosswalks were among the first projects from the Street Life Project. The crosswalks are beautifully painted intersections that emphasize the history of each neighborhood. The Paseo de Antonio crosswalks emphasize the importance of the Guadalupe River as a transportation hub and San Pedro crosswalks reflect the original architecture of the city.

Paseo de Antonio Art Crosswalk (photo from the San Jose Downtown Association) and the San Pedro Art Crosswalk

Urban design is a collaborative process

I was most impressed by the close collaboration between private and public organizations in getting these projects built. Jason has led 14 projects in the past two years, most in collaboration with other organizations. He helped get funding for Exhibition District’s first mural, “and just recently they were able to do their first wall without us. We consider that a success.”

Organizations such as San Jose Made, a collective of makers who do pop-up retail in storefronts and craft fairs, and Okada Design, a public space design firm focused on pop-up maker-spaces, are collaborators in this realm. The newly formed Public Space Authority is aiming to find financially sustainable ways to acquire public spaces, put up food trucks, hold events and supplement that income via grants to ensure continous programming.

Mobile pop-up maker-space by Okada Design at the San Jose Public Library. (Photo from the SJPL)

The importance of public spaces

Walking around San Jose last week gave me life. I’m even more convinced that investment in public spaces and art is a necessity. In today’s day and age it’s especially easy for people to get stuck in their own bubbles. Public spaces encourage discourse and the exchange of ideas.

Public spaces played a key role in enabling the marches and movements from the past week. Oppressive regimes even actively reduce public spaces to avoid such congregation. Funding public art and public spaces can be the difference between apathy and action.

It’s up to us to get involved, fund public art, and support non-profits like Exhibition District. If you’re in the Bay Area, you can even join SPUR, a civic planning organization to contribute your ideas to local projects.

Maybe if we turn more warehouses into collaborative workspaces, and empty walls into art, we’ll understand more about the history of our spaces, and the diverse perspectives in our communities.

Mural by Anno Domini