Harmonic Convergence at St. James Park

St. James Park holds a unique status among San Jose’s parks. It is not the largest, nor does it attract the most visitors. It is not most people’s favorite. Its uniqueness lies in three key areas.

First, it is the only truly urban park in San Jose, by design and by location. St. James Park was created as a central downtown crossroads in an era when having a showcase park in the city’s heart was considered essential to an American city.

Second, St. James Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who invented landscape architecture. Olmsted is best known as the creator of New York City’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and hundreds of similar spaces across the country.

Third, St. James Park has more potential to become something wonderful than any other San Jose park. This is the result of inadvertent neglect over several decades, as San Jose grew away from downtown and downtown’s heart moved. It is this potential that has many of us very excited about the possibilities for a metamorphosis.

There are currently at least three efforts to change the landscape and ambiance of St. James Park. It has become a refuge for homeless people, a location for criminal activity and a space that average citizens avoid.

Several different groups and individuals have looked at the park for what it could be and should be, as opposed to settling for what it has become. A simple tour of the park on a sunny day reveals an urban space with multiple walkways that connect the park to the surrounding community, as well as encourage walking within the park.

Around the various sidewalks are areas of vast green space that invite a variety of recreational activities—running, soccer, Frisbee, tossing a football or baseball, sun bathing, picnicking reading or simply people-watching.

This summer the city manager’s office began a concerted effort within City Hall to change the atmosphere of St. James Park. Plans call for the showing of World Cup matches on a large screen television and movies showing on other days. These large activities require daily effort to get people who otherwise might avoid St. James into the park. Food trucks, games of all sorts, Zumba, aerobics and Tai Chi are all being considered.

Meanwhile the Levitt Pavilion Exploratory Committee is investigating the very real possibility of creating a permanent concert facility that would provide free concerts and a variety of family-friendly offerings. If all goes well, this will happen within three or four years.

Separately, under the guidance of San Jose State professor Ginette Wessell, who teaches in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, students, faculty and neighborhood activists have developed preliminary plans for St. James Park Cafe.

All three of these efforts support each other and it feels like something good is about to happen for St. James Park.

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.

10 Comments

  1. James,

    For years this park has been a favorite for transients and drug dealers and for the longest time was the biggest dump in San Jose. Light rail only brought in more out of town dealers. You can dress up a pig but this city dump will not change. I suggest you go take your afternoon lunch break, sit there for an hour and see for yourself.

  2. We have Cesar Chavez park with a stage three blocks away from St. James Park. We also had a music series at the park that was cancelled in 2011. From a San Jose Inside article:

    Complaints from downtown business owners and residents have increased this summer, and attendees at an Aug. 12 association meeting expressed the view that while everyone enjoys Music in the Park, the concerts now attract an “undesirable element.”

    What makes the San Jose brain trust think the outcome will be any better in St. James Park?

    • SteveO said: “while everyone enjoys Music in the Park, the concerts now attract an “undesirable element.”. St. James Park doesn’t have to attract an undesirable element–they’re already there, and they OWN it.

  3. Shakespeare in the Park used to perform at St. James Park. But the Bard was no match for the hoboes and winos.
    Willie S. has since moved to a civilized part of San Jose.

  4. No matter what sort of revitalization effort occurs at St James Park , James Reber and his “non-profit” San Jose Parks Foundation will make lots and lots of money.

  5. “What makes the San Jose brain trust think the outcome will be any better in St. James Park?” Could it possibly be that there might be…money in it for Members of the Club? And outcomes don’t matter, once the money’s spent. “Changing the atmosphere” at St. James Park will only “change the atmosphere” for the worse somewhere else; when the 30+ people squatting in the old KNTV studio were displaced by the fire there, a tent village (let’s call it the Downtown Jungle) sprung up immediately under Highway 87 along the river at San Fernando. Band-Aids and symptom-fixes are a great way to spend (our) money, but seriously addressing the problems will cost real money and take real political will (and not just in election cycles.)
    Now, let’s get those cottages built across from City Hall…right?

  6. What people don’t realize is that a large number of those people who appear to be transient, actually aren’t. They are from 5th Street. On 5th Street there are a number of board and care facilities, which are essentially warehouses for the mentally ill and others with issues who have been dumped into downtown. If the city would like to take a serious run at cleaning up the park, it only need send the code enforcement officers in and instruct them to enforce the code sections that are already on the books. That would remove half the mess as those places are poorly run and aren’t anywhere near in the condition they should be. That of course brings in the other elements mentioned above. No one wants to eat in a park with a child molester, mentally infirm yellers, guy who urinates all over himself, etc. That of course brings in the transients, and drug dealers..including the one who’s deal when south and was killed on 4th street while fleeing from the park. The light rail and the planned Trolly yard that is going to be placed in the lot are other detractions, including the stupid idea from DOT to reopen 2nd street through the park so it could further become divided. All in all, until all these externalities are fixed, the park will continue to remain a mess. How do I know all this? I’ve lived 3 blocks away since 1990… so I have daily 1st hand knowledge.

    • I agree, Craftsman. According to two of San Jose’s finest, overflowing boarding houses are largely unregulated, with no supervision. Frequently, when officers respond to a crisis, they cannot locate any kind of manager. Police often take their lives into their own hands when responding to a call at one of our too many unregulated and uninspected boarding houses for the mentally ill, drug addicted, and sexual perverted dumped in our neighborhoods. Do not be lulled into a sense of safety. Many carry knives, and my wrist was broken by a mentally ill transient (former boarding house dweller) who tried to steal my purse….. in front of my own house!

  7. Start with what you have to work with. Is this Central Park or Golden Gate park? No! What we have is a couple of square blocks of greenery carved up by streets and tracks. So a band stand and all the other possible activities mentioned are going to be tight on space. The park should be respected as a sanctuary from urban noise and vehicular intrusion. Having LR tracks bisecting this small patch of historic urban green was like putting an industrial zipper across a delicate lace blouse – who does stuff like that?
    Now putting a band stand in what should be an oasis of quiet and peace is the equivalent of a zit on a fair maidens face.

  8. “What people don’t realize is that a large number of those people who appear to be transient, actually aren’t. They are from 5th Street. On 5th Street there are a number of board and care facilities, which are essentially warehouses for the mentally ill…”

    Oh, that makes me feel better–they’re not sane transients, they’re whack jobs let out for the day.

    “including the stupid idea from DOT to reopen 2nd street through the park so it could further become divided.” Earth to Craftsman–Second Street is open to vehicular traffic, and has been for as long as I can remember. You’re not one of those Fifth Street folks are you?