St. James Park sits in downtown San Jose, just north and a few blocks west of San Jose City Hall. For more than a century, this majestic piece of land has left visitors with a positive first impression.
It once was a hub in the community wheel that included department stores, movie theatres, retail outlets and a lively society that was downtown San Jose. Over time, as San Jose residents moved out to the suburbs, the downtown population thinned and retail and businesses followed residents out of the city center.
The criss-crossing walkways, designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, invited people to stroll through the park. One can envision a Sunday afternoon when people greeted one another as they walked about St. James Park. But that Sunday was a long time ago and this community jewel has become an abandoned space.
Occasional gatherings and concerts over the last few decades notwithstanding, St. James Park has become a neglected space given over to the homeless, vagrants and less desirable elements of our community. For reasons too numerous to mention, even if we could agree on them, the park has become a sad example of society not making its parks and open spaces a priority.
Recently, a rather odd convergence occurred, producing the first sign of genuine hope for St. James Park in decades. VTA proposed sticking some extra tracks in the park. Wow! The news of this proposal had an amazing, and unpredictable, impact. Several groups that loved the park suddenly packed the community meetings and pushed back.
Individuals from a variety of social strata and viewpoints agreed on one thing—St. James Park should not be changed. The opposition to VTA’s plan actually created a positive dialogue. We began to speak with each other and now we have a coalition that is doing the hard work to bring this park back to prominence.
For fear of leaving out some of the energetic and committed parties, I won’t name them. Instead, I’ll try to offer a vision of the future.
Working together, nearby residents, business owners, community activists, gardeners, artists and families will develop a collective vision. We hope to bring in park professionals who have been involved in similar projects, as well as city staff to guide the process.
We won’t resurrect St. James Park in a year. But by involving the community most concerned with its future, most likely to take ownership, and most able to implement and keep the changes, we will once again have a magnificent, living park in downtown San Jose.
James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected] or 408.893.PARK.