San Jose is the (Arts)Place to Be

I often hear it said that San Jose lacks culture. I’d like to say that the speaker is invariably not from around these parts. But more often than not, I hear it from San Joseans. It’s reached the point where I’m not surprised anymore. In fact, I have a speech polished and ready to go for these very occasions. When you’re wearing an Arts Commissioner badge, it never hurts to be prepared. Thankfully, some news arrived at last week’s monthly commission meeting that will add some heft to my argument.

ArtPlace recently recognized downtown San Jose as one of America’s Top ArtPlaces in 2013. ArtPlace is an initiative of national and regional foundations and major banks to accelerate what’s called “creative placemaking.” In other words, they facilitate the integration of artistic design and urban development. America’s Top ArtPlaces is an unranked list of neighborhoods in America’s largest 44 metropolitan areas where the arts are central to bringing people together.

The process of choosing the Top 44 involved a search of 33,000 ZIP codes to find areas that scored highest on a set of six indicators. But it wasn’t as simple as tallying the number of arts organizations or patrons. Indeed, four of the indicators had to do with the “vibrancy” of a neighborhood:

• Number of retail and service businesses
• Percentage of independent businesses
• Neighborhood Walk Score (or how convenient it is to get around on foot)
• Percentage of workers in creative occupations living in the neighborhood
• Number of arts-related non-profits
• Number of arts-related businesses

Downtown San Jose received high marks for its success in combining the arts, artists and creative venues with small businesses, restaurants and “walkability.” And in case you’re wondering, the final scores took family income into account; so affluent neighborhoods didn’t skew the results. In other words, we didn’t bribe anybody to make the cut.

The credit for this honor should be shared by everyone who lives, works and plays in our downtown urban village. But no small bit of praise is due to the work of San Jose’s economic development team, particularly the hard working staff of the Office of Cultural Affairs, who continue to do more with less—setting a good example for other departments. OCA has had a significant impact on the two artistic indicators in the ArtPlace study: the number of arts-related nonprofits and arts-related businesses.

Through grants, trainings, subsidies for cultural facilities and strategic planning, the city of San Jose has nurtured the development of countless nonprofit arts groups of all shapes, sizes and communities. And recently, OCA launched a pilot grants program to build capacity for local businesses that serve the arts community. This innovative use of available funds to stimulate economic development through the arts is a wonderful example of a phrase du jour among politicians, “public-private partnerships.” And it’s another reason we’ve been singled out by ArtSpace. But San Jose’s involvement with ArtPlace doesn’t end with a plaque on a wall at City Hall commemorating this award.

Of the $26.9 million in grants that ArtPlace has awarded to 76 organizations in 46 U.S. communities, $1.6 million has come to the city of San Jose. Absent these grants, the city could not afford to support the Illuminating Downtown Project, the recent makeover of Parque de los Pobladores (a.k.a Gore Park) in the South First Street area, or the new ZERO1 Garage. San Jose’s partnerships with organizations like ZERO1 intrigued ArtSpace. Downtown was specifically recognized for its unique confluence of art, technology and environmental sustainability. This blend is starting to become a trend, one that makes a lot of sense in the Capital of Silicon Valley.

More and more, arts organizations are recognizing that the future of culture is about using technology to engage people where they live, and draw them into a physical (or virtual) space to experience art together. Our increasingly social world has provided the arts community with the tools to tap into the creativity nascent in every human soul. I’m excited to be at the epicenter of this evolution, and I’ll be sure to keep you apprised of all that’s on the horizon.

Peter Allen is a first-term Arts Commissioner and a native of San Jose. His opinions are his own.


  1. Good job! I guess verifies that San Jose, after all, does have a vibrant and exciting downtown.  Plus, One South Market apartment tower will do justice for San Jose’s downtown.  I’m glad it’s finally on the right track!

  2. The week before it put out the “unranked list of neighborhoods in America’s largest 44 metropolitan areas where the arts are central to bringing people together”, ArtPlaces put out a list of the “top twelve ArtPlaces for 2013”.  San Francisco’s Mission District and Oakland’s “Downtown, including Chinatown, Old Oakland and Jack London Square” were in the “top 12” list.  From that, I think you can infer that although the list of 44 is unranked; San Jose is in fact ranked behind San Francisco, Oakland and 10 other cities.

    The reason that I bring this up is that downtown promoters like to cherry pick statistics, awards and what not, to justify the continued investment in downtown.

    I’m not a native of San Jose.  I was born in Santa Clara County and have lived continuously in San Jose for almost 33 years though.  I would much prefer the powers that be take a more regional view and stop trying to compete with San Francisco – and with Oakland.

    Let’s do what we’re good at, namely being Silicon Valley.  Take the Illuminating Downtown Project for example.  Lighting up a freeway underpass is never going to be as cool as lighting up a big suspension bridge.  Just ask Marissa Mayer, Marc Andreessen and the Wall Street Journal.

  3. S Randall

    you are absolutely correct . That is exactly what this City does , it picks and chooses what information to share or bury . it just depends on what they want you to think .  I am born and raised in San Jose , and used to be very proud of that fact.  But the reality is that this city has become a running joke . Excessive amounts of low income housing , No where near enough jobs , wasted funds on the Mayors pet projects , Insanely decimated Public Safety .  Graffitti and gangs are out of control , a Mayor and Council that are incapable of telling the truth or even the whole story . Other than a Sharks Game , There is no reason for anyone to ever come to San Jose . we don not have or could we sustain any kind of tourism . lots of plans but at the expense of Public safety , and that can only end Badly . In No way , shape , or form could we ever compete with real city’s when it comes to , the arts , Food , Venues , museums or any other activities .

    • Dear Disgusted:

      You’re such a sourpuss.

      You’re neglecting to give appropriate recognition to San Jose’s magnificent, world class plastic shopping bag ban.

      Also, we probably have more programs and projects named “Smart” than any other city in western civilization.

      We have Smart Growth, and Smart Meters, and Smart Cars, and Smart Lanes, and Smart Bags, and Smart You Name It.

      I’ll bet that if you dug into it, you could probably even find Smart Zoning, Smart Regulation, Smart Taxation, Smart Corruption, and Smart Graft.

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