A curious cultural taboo has been openly flouted over the last two decades in San Jose, and it seems one local institution could soon double down.
Valley residents who return home by plane land at Mineta San José International Airport, named in honor of the former mayor, congressman and U.S. secretary of transportation, Norm Mineta. Just two miles southeast of the runways, McEnery Convention Center hosts tech, hemp and furry conventions under the fingerprinted awnings of another former mayor, Tom McEnery. His political allies on the council bestowed the distinction just three months after he left office.
And San Jose Repertory Theatre’s 16-year home, until it was shuttered in June, is emblazoned with the names of Susan and Phil Hammer, the former a politically active ex-mayor who was named to alcalde-elect Sam Liccardo’s transition team last week. The auditorium was built during Hammer’s incumbency with $28.5 million in Redevelopment Agency funds and $3.2 million in private funds, raised with Phil Hammer’s help from donors such as the Sobrato family, which announced a $500,000 gift around the time the city awarded a $12.2 million subsidy to the developer’s Villa Torino housing project. Knight-Ridder also contributed funds, and the agency subsequently re-wrote the city’s sign ordinance when the publishing company moved its headquarters downtown. In 2007, Redevelopment paid the $60,000 to affix the Hammers’ names to the blue metal structure.
Since 1994, the city has shown an unusual vigor for gracing some of its major buildings with the monikers of still-living former electeds. It began with perhaps the most frequented pitstop in San Jose, Diridon Station, which serves as a regional hub for Caltrain in the heart of downtown. Named after former county supervisor Rod Diridon Sr., the gesture was made a year before he left office. And it appears a second tribute is now on the horizon.
Members of the Quest Valley Trust have been waiting 20 years to take the wraps off a plan to honor the transportation expert with a statue at the station. Diridon, appointed to the High Speed Rail Authority by former Gov. Schwarzenegger and now semi-retired after 19 years as director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, apparently put the kibosh on the project, calling it too “self grandiose.”
But Quest Valley, a locally based, privately held organization that is dedicated to preserving the history of Santa Clara County, has since authorized another statue, this one representing the contributions of local pioneers in transportation. Dr. Colleen Wilcox, a member of Quest Valley, says that the life-size, three-person statue will feature Diridon, former State Sen. Becky Morgan and old-time railroad engineer Billy Jones.
Still in its prototype form, the statue is currently designed in clay. The three figures are depicted in various stages of motion as they ride a Caltrain. When complete, the sculpture will be bronzed and located either in the front roundabout or the grass mall area of Diridon Station, says Wilcox. An installation date has not been set, as Quest Valley is still fundraising to pay for the cost.
“I can’t imagine the cost of the sculpture will be under $100,000,” Wilcox says.
Before the project can advance, members of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board of Caltrain must approve the sculpture.
“This statue will be setting a precedent,” says Caltrain spokesperson Mark Simon. “At this moment Caltrain doesn’t have a policy regarding public art.”
Simon and his staff are looking at other public agencies, and he’s unsure how long it will take to hammer out that a new policy.
According to April Halberstadt, a member of the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission, the Joint Powers Board is open to the statue despite little success in getting the project on the board agenda.
“There is sort of a guideline about (not) naming landmarks after the living, but we’ve managed to break it,” says Halberstadt, noting the buildings named after McEnery and Mineta.
Ultimately, the San Jose City Council has final approval on naming public buildings and landmarks. Ramiro Torres, the newly appointed chairman of San Jose’s Historical Landmark Commission, says naming city landmarks after the living is a matter of opinion.
“Norman Mineta was secretary of transportation, it makes sense to name the airport after him,” Torres says. “Tom McEnery built the convention center, so I don’t see anything wrong with giving it his name.”
Former chair of the commission Steve Cohen offers a defense of naming local landmarks after the living: “Maybe the reason the three biggest properties in San Jose are named after people who are still alive is because nobody dead had any real significance in San Jose’s history,” he quips.
While the original plan called for a “figurative representation of Mr. Diridon,” Halberstadt says, the goals for sculptor Yori Seeger, who was commissioned by Quest Valley, have since been heightened to a tribute to local founders of rail transportation.
“Public art and fine art had a divorce,” Seeger says. “This project brings the two back together.”
Morgan, depicted in a take-charge stance, is credited for securing the purchase of the rail line that extends from San Jose to San Francisco. In the mid 1980s, the state senator representing northern Santa Clara and southern San Mateo counties aggressively pushed through legislation to buy the line from Southern Pacific for $218 million. Jones represents the historical side of the railroad, having worked as an engineer during the steam era of trains, as well as starting his own “Wildcat Railroad” on a ranch in Los Gatos. Jones died in 1968. Diridon’s figure portrays him riding the back of a train gazing wistfully up the peninsula.
The tribute comes after a tumultuous few years for Diridon. While still working part-time as emeritus executive director of the transportation institute, he has had two surgeries on his lungs to remove tumors and undergone chemotherapy. But for a guy who is all about wheels, it’s hard to slow down.
“I’m returning to form and ready for another hundred thousand miles,” Diridon jokes. His legacy, he hopes, is to have made a dent in the battle against climate change. In a recent trip to Houston, Diridon was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the American Public Transportation Association.
“I’m hardly an art expert, but both Rod and Becky had a larger than life role in local transportation,” says Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “Rod is like a locomotive when he’s focused on an objective. It’s best to be on board rather than in his way,”
Diridon says he’s grateful to see some of his projects come to fruition during his lifetime, as well as the upcoming electrification of the peninsula rail line in 2019. Once that happens, high-speed will not be far behind.