The Greatness of a City

It seems that many people enjoy discussing the relative merits of San Jose as a city of significance. While I personally dislike the word, “great” and never used it in my time as Mayor, I’ll play along for a while.

In the Spring of 1989, San Francisico Mayor Art Agnos and I led a trade mission - alright a junket but with a purpose -  to China. It was a heady time and we arrived in Bejing during a brief respite, while the democracy movement was in the balance and the forces of autocracy had yet to determine which course to take. It was a very historic moment.

There were many members of the press accompanying us and they were focused on just one thing – no, not the seminal uprising of a wonderful and doomed movement, and not the shifting passions of over one billion human beings. They were all fascinated by the fact that, just that week, San Jose had passed San Francisco in population!

Now, I tried to deflect their questions, saying that the size of a city does not matter - nor does the height of her buildings or the rhetoric of her Mayor; being a “good” city with sound neighborhoods and good jobs was what mattered. All was to no avail.  My comments were cut more quickly than a Chris Rock quip on Fox News.

The press moved on and quickly got many inane comments, including one from John Burton to the effect that San Jose could not carry SF’s jock – a real class act, that one.  The dumb story was the easy one.  They wallowed in the challenge to “greatness.”  Nowhere did it appear that our city was barely thirty years old, but San Francisco had been the cultural and financial center of the West for 150 years. It was useless to reason.

And what of the word?

Now, “great’ can mean “large” or “remarkable” or even “distinguished;” and “greatness” can merely be in the eye of the beholder. Yet, if you consider the fact that something of remarkable significance happened in San Jose when the first immigrant followed that age-old dream, then you are closing in on the answer. Magnificent things happened when that small entrepreneur opened a corner grocery or got a first patent, and it continues to happen each and every day in San Jose. Perhaps we can soon use such a mighty word.

San Jose is all about promise, hope and following dreams, no matter what the naysayers and cynics contend. The future is with dreamers, not those faint of heart.


  1. Measuring the success of a city is similar to assessing the greatest of a person – not by how much one gets, but by how much one gives.  Despite lean economic times, we have a city budget that sets aside funds for the elderly, working poor and people who do not have a public voice.  Our local media does a competent job in being the watchdog for the citizens.  And we have a city council that cleans its own house and weeds out corruption.  Those are the reasons that our family is proud of our roots in San Jose.

  2. Tom – your comments about San Jose’s people and it’s future are right> We need to define ourselves and our common vision of our future.  Yes, it is easy to be critical of San Jose but we have a lot to be proud of, and envy of our neighbor San Francisco will not help us clearly define our future vision and recognize past or desired future achievements.

    What is greatness – importance, prominence, significance – recognition by others?  Well San Jose has achieved some of these definitions but our greatest challenges are ahead of us. My grandfather had a saying “ if it was easy, it would have been done a time long ago “ 

    Scott Herold’s column in Sunday’s Mercury News “Drop Frisco as role model for San Jose “ has some very good points and continues the Inside San Jose public discussion about what is greatness in our very diverse city, what is the consensus of all residents on the vision of San Jose’s future, what goals do we want for our self, our children and others who will be coming here in the future and how do we want to address these significant challenges as we define our future.

    The majority of the diverse residents of San Jose were not born here but chose to live here for numerous personal reasons.

    San Jose’s greatness is in its people, past and future who have and will make great personal, civic, business and cultural achievements. Yes, it is easy to be critical of San Jose but we have a lot to be proud of, but envy of our neighbor San Francisco will not help us clearly define our future vision and past or desired future achievements.

    Our ability to get along with people of different geographic and ethnic backgrounds, religions and beliefs is one of our strengths, especially when we look at the situations in other countries and regions where people are fighting each other rather than working together to improve everyone’s lives.

    We have additional challenges to solve now and in the future, and our residents are some of the most educated, hard working, best-read and achievement-orientated people on earth. People come from almost every county and region of the world to live here and work with other motivated bright people.

    It is my opinion that San Jose’s motto “ The Capital of Silicon Valley “ needs to be updated. The new city motto should to reflect what our residents, neighborhood and community organizations, business community and elected official’s see as our vision of the future and to reflect the significant achievements of our past.

    Recognizing our agricultural past and the residents desire for a safe, clean, raise a family and enjoy preserving open space, park recreation and the environment as we build a denser truly livable urban city that many throughout the world desire to live, work and enjoy family and friends in is a worthwhile definition of greatness.

    The candidates for Mayor should state their vision of San Jose’s future, our past achievements and how we as a diverse people and a city can be recognized as one of the best places to live, work and enjoyed life with our friends and families

    Let’s the discussion continue and as part of the discussion let’s define a new motto for San Jose that reflects our past and common vision of our future. 

    See for list of other city mottos. I am a San Francisco native who started my small business there but chose to live in San Jose. Each city is different and like the differences in our people we should celebrate and recognize our differences since these are one part that makes the United States, San Jose and San Francisco all great.

  3. Scarlett says it well.
    Many people seem to have a fixation on big buildings, big projects, sports teams, etc., as a measure of a city’s “Greatness.” What’s often missing from the discussions is what’s most obvious…the reasons we chose to live in San Jose as opposed to any of the other so-called “Great” cities. This is a wonderful place to raise a family, the population is highly educated, and anyone who claims we lack culture is simply too dense to find it.
    To put it another way: ANY of us could move 55 miles north to San Francisco…but we don’t. We’re not stupid, we prefer to be here. That, in itself, suggests a measure of greatness. 
    Tom… thanks for prompting this municipal introspection!

  4. One of my dreams is that the city has to get voter approval on any project over 200 million before it can proceed.

    My other dream is that the city’s focus is on neighborhoods, schools, and functional infrastructure – let SF pay for and build the Taj Mahals.

  5. Ah, a tale of two cities!

    Being intimate with both I love San Francisco and I am proud of San Jose.

    San Jose as a City is generally more professional, it’s politics more reasonable, it’s neighborhoods more peaceful and it’s wealth is newer and greater than the older, stuffier City.

    San Francisco has better restaraunts, entertainment, sports teams, views and bridges.  It’s neighborhoods are more culturely diverse, more defined and more interesting to visit—though not to live.  It’s politics are bizarre, parochial and personality driven.

    Overall, I find it humorous that each City is envious of the other.  San Francisco is envied for it’s history, location, buildings, and culture.

    San Jose is envied for it’s livable qualities, it’s wealth, it’s size, it’s business image (Silicon Valley), and most recently because it is now the main media market in the Bay Area.

    But both Cities share one thing in common.  Like two brothers born a year apart, they love to tweak the other whenever they get the chance.

  6. Hey Richard, I think there are a few people who are envious of Oakland’s baseball team!

    We have a quality of life in SJ that no other large city in the state—maybe even the country—can match.  I’ve become spoiled by the suburban lifestyle and could never, ever consider living in SF.  But that doesn’t mean I’m all about soccer and shopping malls—I have no use for either.  That’s why I still want SJ to offer a more complete urban experience downtown so I don’t need to drive 50 miles to get the benefits of that.  I’m very diversity-friendly and urban-oriented (raised off The Alameda) and need a change once in a while from the homogenous suburban Los Gatos border landscape that I call home.  We have our own problem with “pushers” in suburbia—they’re just pushing strollers, not drugs, and single progressive types like me need a city “fix” now & then.  It’s so depressing to head downtown on a weeknight and find a ghost town of empty sidewalks—after all the taxpayer money that has been dumped there.  I appreciate that when I need grocries, I have four supermarkets that are nearly equidistant from my home, and that I can easily park at any one of them.  It sure beats shlepping a bag or two uphill after being ripped off by the corner store in SF.  I guess I just want it all—the quality of life of the suburbs and the excitement that an urban core should be expected to provide.  We’ve got the suburban thing nailed, but the other has a long way to go before it can be described as “remarkable” or “exciting” and without that, the image others have about SJ will continue to be that of a giant bedroom community for that smaller town to the north—even though we citizens of SJ know better.

  7. Simple Ramblings of a Preoccupied Mind!

    “Greatness” is such a relative term.  But what does it really mean; that is, does it apply to San Jose?  Indeed, I believe it does.  Or, at least, at one time it did.  My hope is that will again someday.

    Being a San Jose Native my entire life (except for a brief respite when I spend 3 long years in Phillly attending law school), I offer a local perspective. 

    I agree that “greatness” has very little to do with the height of a city’s buildings or the number of foreign tourist who visit each year.  For me, the “greatness” of a city is more accurately reflected in its people.  Specifically, are we content?

    At times, for example, I yearn for the security and simpleness of yesteryear.  I remember as a teenager growing up near the Rose Garden, my brothers, friends, and I would hang out at somebody’s house until 9 or 10 in the evening and not have to worry about being safe.  I remember that my parents did not think twice of leaving the back door open or that they even knew what a sexual predator was.  To me, this was what made San Jose “great.”

    Shifting to the present, in my humble opinion, San Jose lacks focus—vision.  We need to find a way to define ourselves and then stick to the plan like peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth. We San Joseans are a proud breed and, indeed, have every right to feel this way.  BUT, we must all work towards making our fair city great again. 

    I look forward to a time when my daughter can play in front of our house drawing her stick figures with colored chalk without fear because, in the end, that is the only thing that counts.

  8. As long as SJ is not comfortable in its own skin, the argument will continue over is it a great city, a big city, or just 165 square miles of identity crisis. A truly “big” city doesn’t have to keep telling people they are a big city. A truly “big” city doesn’t have to claim itself the capital of a non-existent geographic location. A truly “big” city would not try to shed its agricultural past like some embarrassment, etc.
    As others have said, SJ has much to offer and much it should be proud of, but it is what it is. Until we embrace what we have and try to make it better, not necessarily bigger, we will continue to look silly. Until we demand more from our public officials, the nonsense will continue (new City Hall, SJC, traffic congestion, etc.) Pouring billions into one project or another will not magically solve all the problems—look at the downtown as an example. Until the community at large senses a pride about their city and takes an active role to make it better, greatness will likely elude us. Until we can speak about San Francisco with goodwill and not negatively when comparing it to SJ, greatness will continue to elude us. We have to grow up mentally before we can grow up to be a “big” city in ways other than just poplulation.

  9. Are we envious of their baseball team or is their baseball team covetous of our City?

    Hard to tell.

    But they do have something we lack, Oakland has a great view of San Francisco.

  10. They say that those who tear down others usually have some self confidence issues of their own which sounds like the case for both cities sometimes. How about this: both SF and SJ can be considered great cities and not either or. Like someone else mentioned, they both have good, different qualities. It is like having two children – they are totally different but do you like one better than the other?

    Though I firmly believe that SJ could be a lot better, I chuckled at the comment that the council “cleans house and weeds out corruption.” I won’t touch that one.  Let’s not worry about our marketing but put some improvements into action!

  11. San Jose should be a sister city of Brussels.  When I visited there I asked several locals about the sights I should see.  Every one of them paused and struggled a bit and then suggested somewhere that was 30-60 minutes outside of Brussels.  smile

    The thing I really, really liked about Brussels was the old and beautiful square that was pedestrian only.

    It would be truly sweet if the downtown domocile of the dog doo sculpture (aka Plaza de Cesar Chavez) could be blown up, the roads around it closed, and a real plaza put in it’s place so we could have an open space destination and get out of and away from the cars.

    Then put someone in charge of scheduling cool events for the newly minted ‘real’ Plaza.  Events like the very cool Art Cars for example.

    …And bring back the extra cool shark sculptures that used to be scattered all over downtown – those were truly excellent.

    …Public gardens are excellent too. 

    (Last I checked, shark sculptures and public gardens cost less than 2-4 billion dollars)

    Take the savings from nuking a worthless lightrail extension and you could easily make a difference downtown.

  12. I find our preoccupation with this subject to be somewhat lacking in self esteem and dignity.  We should get beyond it…San Jose is San Jose… San Francisco is San Francisco, enough said (although I am still a fan of 3 dot journalism a la Herb Caen…God rest his SF soul).

  13. Actually San Jose should be sister city with Baghdad.  With all our police harrassing visitors and the angry meter reader handing out parking tickets.

    Our “faction” riddled powers that be that run the city council seem to fight over the potential of downtown like there’s a billion $ in oil reserves beneath our soil.  Labor wants its big share of each project and developers won’t participate without big $$; all the while visitor revenue and small business are all but snuffed out.

  14. Captain Fallon was always an optimist who believed in San Jose – as do most of us living here. We can surmount most difficulties. Fallon’s had enough bad press, pick another pen name. TMcE

  15. I went to try to see a movie at the Camera 12 downtown onSat night and could not get a parking spot So that tells me a few things, there are people. But what happens when people start being discouraged by lack of parking?  I think that all parking downtown (METERS TOO) should be free.  Sometimes, I wonder if we are in Russia the way the meter maids so coldly give out tickets!  We need to make it as easy to come downtown as it is to go to a suburban mall, or people will always choose easy!!

  16. OK then how about a deluge of bad press for Quezalcoatl so we can scoop him up off of the spot where Captain Fallon was supposed to go in the first place?  Maybe we can get the Fallon sculptor to fashion a few “road apples” behind the horse to satisfy those who will protest that the pile of dog doo is finally being removed by its responsible party—the city council.  Or maybe we can get Christo to permanently wrap it in plastic grocery bag material.

    Seriously, this piece of (expletive)—literally—has to be relocated to a place where it can’t be viewed from a distance.  It would probably look just fine somewhere inside the forbidding walls of the Mexican Heritage complex where people approaching it on foot would easily be able to see that it’s supposed to be a snake.

    For those who drive by this thing now, only one thing comes to mind and that’s not only an embarrassment to the city but also to the culture of the Mexican Americans who live here.  Move this thing to the Mexican Heritage complex—YESTERDAY!

  17. San Jose can only be a good or great city if it has a great downtown. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t have a heart or soul. Right now, San Jose is a crummy city because the downtown is dead: no life to it. The same goes for any cities thinking they’re good.

  18. Hey Frank,

    I think a variation on “Trowell II” would do nicely.  Maybe we can get likenesses of all council members who voted for this pile of you-know-what plopped down in such a prominent location commissioned to stand next to the scooper.  Every one of those spineless council members who voted for this pile instead of the Fallon statue should be cited for not picking up after their pet—retroactive to the date that it showed up in the Fairmont’s front yard.

  19. I walked through the door and the fan overhead was turning, and the radio playing the local game.  I could see the back of his head.  I hadn’t seen Carlos since a chance encounter in the Admiral’s Club lounge at JFK six years ago.  Now, fast forward I’m in the upstairs part of his villa outside of Caracas.  As I approach, he’s making deliberate gestures with his head back and forth nattering on about some deal gone sour.  I came in from behind and gave him a flick to the back of ear.  He jolted upward dropping the phone.  As he stood I grabbed him under the shoulder and pivoted him around and he screeched.

    Even in the soft light, he had the same gray pallor and that unmistakable, womanish pear-shaped figure.  “McEnery!”, he answered . .  .

  20. OK Ed, but do the opponents of the statue have to rub our noses in it re: respecting their opinions by placing this dog dropping in the plaza to appease them?  If I were an opponent and saw what the city had commissioned to honor my cultural heritage, I’d be hopping mad and insulted.  Just goes to show that the low standards of the people who oppose the Fallon statue.  Apparently a victory over the “oppressor” even if it’s a pile of crap, is better than having a well-executed statue like that of Fallon displayed in high-profile location. 
    Where is Cathy C. Napoli in this blog?  I’d like to know how she feels about her accomplishment of preventing the Fallon statue from being placed where it belongs, and instead plopping a big pile there that supposedly honors the Mexican culture.

  21. Before this thread dies out here’s a thought that I suspect has festered in a lot of people’s minds for a very long time: It is time the Fallon statue took it’s rightful place in the Plaza.

    The fact that some find the statue controversial should not be an issue. Art, by it’s nature, often provokes controversy. We already have one controversial piece of artwork in the Plaza. Maybe controversy is good if it gets people to think about issues as well as aesthetics.

    The Fallon statue commemorates a significant event in a Great City’s history. It should be prominently displayed in the city’s most prominent park. And if it provokes debate and an interest in California history, all the better!

  22. Ed could not be more right on the money.

    “Rubbing our noses in it” – that’s the best line yet!  How about “Every dog doo must have it’s day”?

    Given that the Fallon statue has a disclaimer plaque next to it, it seems only fitting that the dog doo have it’s plaque too.

    Here’s my suggestion for the plaque.

    “Although at first glance this appears to be a pile of dog cr*p, dog cr*p figures were very important symbols in Aztec culture.”

    A summary of the political/race baiting baggage that goes with the dog cr*p should also be so that the viewer gets the full effect.

  23. Mr.Fallon
      Interesting. Read my comments thoroughly about San Jose and you will find nothing but optimism – this place is remarkable. The mistakes of our political leaders need to be discussed, mine and the current crop.  I am not afraid to do that: are you?  TMcE

  24. One more thing, it’s only fair that the artist (Frank Taylor) gets a *giant* plaque with his picture on it next to the giant pile of dog cr*p.

    Give full credit to the man – he might stop laughing and even pay the city to have it removed.

  25. tommcenery

    Sorry for using Fallon as a pen name.  He was an interesting leader from our city’s past. 

    If your such an optimist for San Jose; why this blog.  I don’t read much that seems optimisitic from you or your fellow “writers”. 

    Much of what you write is confusing and at best a very un-optimistic view of San Jose.

    So please explain the positive contribution or intention of your blogs.

    T. Fallon

  26. Kevin-
      Well, I suppose one persons historical fact is another person’s slap in the face. 
      Without debating the cultural significance of the Bear Flag Rebellion in the year 2005 I would suggest that civility and respect are a two-way street. In a diverse community such as San Jose there can certainly be room for more than one view of history…and public art!
        Also, don’t forget that some people are offended by the presence of Quezalcoatl in the Plaza (I’m not one of them). The supporters of “Quezie” don’t seem bothered by this, and it doesn’t seem too much to ask of them to extend the same tolerance to others. 
        Bottom line, San Jose should give Captain Fallon his rightful place in the Plaza.

  27. Ed,
    I agree with you that art CAN be both controversial and admirable at the same time.
    But, let’s be pragmatic about your suggestion.  The City Council certainly cannot elect to place a piece of art that is viewed by some in the community as a “slap in the face” in our most prominent location.
    Even if you believe that the opponents of the statue are mistaken, you should respect their opinions nonetheless.  That’s how democracy, and civility for that matter, work.

  28. Wasn’t the orignal statue supposed to be an obelisk or something more “grand” than the current Quezalcoatl one? I agree that we should honor Mexican/Aztec/Latino culture and history but couldn’t we get a better looking statue for it? I think that is the point that people are raising.
    As for the Fallon Statue, it is a gorgeous statue and too much has been made about its political correctness. Tom’s daughter did a documentary on it that is showing at the film festival this week. I am looking forward to seeing the controversy!

  29. I think we have zeroed on one item that everyone would like to see “eliminated” from the downtown landscape—Quetzie.  It’s a source of embarassment for this town and moving it to a more appropriate location—and I have stated elsewhere that it would be more appreciated at the Mexican Heritage complex where it would be viewed at close range and there would be less chance of it being mistaken for a giant fecal mass—would go a long way in making people feel less apologetic about our downtown and the stupid decisions made by councils past.
    Tom, you’re the last person who can publicly push for this, I know, but can’t you facilitate something behind the scenes to remove this thing from it’s high-profile location?  Driving north on Market Street, a supposed gateway into downtown, this pile is visible in the distance and gives a really lousy first impression of this town.
    Again, Cathy C. Napoli who championed the exile of the Fallon statue can’t be found in any of the comments on this blog.  Given her incessant political aspirations she must be aware that it exists. I think it speaks volumes that she’s not getting into the discussion around this civic embarrassment.

  30. Well Kevin, if you limit activities in the Plaza to those that “all San Joseans can be proud of and can relate to” I guess we’ll have to cancel Christmas In The Park to keep the non-Christians happy. Next to go would be Jazz in the Plaza, because the Rock & Roll crowd might object, etc.
    I think the cool thing about public art is that it gets people talking, and thinking…as witnessed here. Heck, I don’t mind “Quezie” if it makes some people happy. However I’ve often wondered what Tom thinks, deep down inside, about the facade of his namesake McEnery Covention Ceter! wink

  31. Ed, the convention center facade is just another example of people in charge who don’t know enough about art or an artist approving something they haven’t even seen and trusting the artist to deliver something visually pleasing.

    I don’t think in the town to the north that we’re not supposed to be comparing ourselves to that you have civic leaders operating like this.

    But as stated elsewhere in this blog, art is supposed to stimulate a reaction and/or generate controversy so we do have our share in SJ of art that does exactly that—it’s just that most of it stimulates a negative response.

    We all should be thankful that we had Packard money and influence behind the California theater project.  Just goes to show you the benefits of including the private sector when it comes to the arty projects around here.  What a botched job that restoration would have been without Mr. Packard involved.

  32. I don’t suggest we limit the activities at the Plaza.  Just the statue at it’s most prominent location.  The word “event” snuck into my post because a statue conmemorating a significant historical event, that is culturally neutral, would be appropriate.

  33. Ed,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly that civility and respect should go both ways.  In fact, they should go all ways, since we have many cultures represented in our wonderful metropolis.
    For the record, I am not a big fan of the Quezalcoatl statue being placed in our most prominent location—and not just because it resembles a pile of dung.
    ANY monument that is solely representative of a portion of the population of SJ should not grace our Plaza. 
    We should not divide ourselves by cultural boundaries.
    The site should be reserved for an individual, event, resource, or native species that all San Joseans can be proud of and can relate to.

  34. >> “… a statue conmemorating a significant historical event, that is culturally neutral, would be appropriate.”

    And with the Mecha types and ACLU types and all the other types you would be lucky to get a statue of the sun rising in the east.

  35. Wow, you’re really picking apart my words.  My overall suggestion was that we ought to consider all residents of the city when choosing what is essentially the Plaza’s hood ornament.  I’d rather see nothing there than either of the two items mentioned in this thread.  Are there any other suggestions? Maybe a bronze fruit tree being axed down by Steve Wozniak?

  36. Forget these statues.  Our bozo council and mayor would just overpay for boring polically correct BS.

    Lets come up with a plan to fill storefronts.  One at the time.  Maybe we can have more than a bunch of low end bars in Downtown.

  37. Fallon can go in the plaza.  Think about it—Pres McKinley has a statue in St. James Park and he had a way larger sphere of influence and I’m sure everything he did was not culturally neutral.  Does anyone even notice him there?  It’s just a statue of a guy as far as most people are concerned.  With Fallon it would be a statue of a guy on a horse.  I think cities all over the world have those so what’s the controversy?  Not until people literate enough or interested enough to read a plaque about Fallon took offense to what he did would there be anything controversial perceived about the statue itself.  Most people would just walk or drive by and appreciate it as a nice piece of sculpture. 
    With Quetzie it’s the exact opposite.  I’m sure just about everybody who passes by on foot or in a car is interested in the significance of the offensive pile that got plopped in the plaza.  For all the wrong reasons.

  38. OK, here’s a compromise. Get the Redevelopment Agency to fund some out-of-town company to open a statue factory in a downtown storefront to build statues for the Plaza and other public places. Tax all the local artists to pay for it… 
    (Oops…did I say “Redevelopment Agency?” Pardon me while I light the fuse and run like hell…)

  39. Scott Herhold’s article is right. We don’t need ot be like San Francisco in order to be good.

    We have our own traditions and our own ways. We have a beautiful and diverse city, with much to recommend it. As a former resident of San Francisco, I find San Jose more sunny, more friendly and more fun. We have great and beautiful downtown resources in the form of the California Theatre and the Comedy Improv, San Pedro and St. James’ Squares. We have beautiful parks, first-class libraries and more historic buildings than you can shake a stick at. We should be proud of these things, instead of trying to bankrupt ourselves in an effort to become what we are not. Our downtown policy focuses too much on getting the kind of attractions into downtown that will appeal to a few prosperous folk from the hills, and too little on appealing to the many people who actually live nearer in.

    I don’t have a problem with having a Quetzalcoatl on Cesar Chavez Plaza. This was a Mexican city before it was ever an American one. I do object to this Quetzalcoatl, and I’d rather we got another one. Anyone running for mayor could get a substantial chunk of votes by promising to replace this Quetzalcoatl with a better Quetzalcoatl.