Viva CalleSJ: A Street Festival to Connect San Jose Residents, Neighborhoods
Roberto Flores, outside his shop near downtown San Jose's Calle Willow, says Sunday's open streets event will open relationships for the next generation. (Beth Willon/KQED)
It's an after-school ritual for Abigayle de la Rosa to stop at La Original Paleteria y Neveria (The Original Ice Cream Shop) and get a scoop of Mexican ice cream in her bustling San Jose neighborhood, called Calle Willow.
Since it opened on Willow Street a year ago, the shop has become her version of "31 Flavors." The surrounding area resembles parts of Mexico City, with storefront signs written in Spanish, merchants selling fresh flowers, jewelry, sidewalk tacos and pictures of the Virgencita de Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. The neighborhood is wedged between downtown's glistening office buildings and Willow Glen, one of the most affluent areas in Silicon Valley.
De la Rosa is only 10 years old, but she's fully aware that on Sunday her neighborhood will be one of many on full display when six miles of city streets will be closed to cars but open to people to walk, bicycle, skateboard or travel by any nonmotorized mode of transportation.
It's the inaugural Viva CalleSJ open streets event, a festival stretching from downtown San Jose to Little Saigon to East San Jose that aims to encourage residents to explore parts of the city they know little about.
"I think this bike ride will bring a lot more people here," says De la Rosa. "There's a lot of cool things to see and the ice cream is delicious."
"Viva calle!" is a Spanish phrase that translates to "long live the streets!" Organizers say the event is a test run for future street events. Can sprawling San Jose, where Teslas and hybrid cars are king, get people out of their car -- and comfort zones -- to explore the city?
Ed Solis, recreation superintendent of San Jose's Department of Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services, thinks so. He says a major goal of Viva CalleSJ is to make a giant city known for its distinctive neighborhoods and diverse cultures a little more accessible. He's expecting 30,000 people to turn out in a city that is 180 square miles and has a population of 1 million.
"People are going to be traversing a number of communities, social-economic lines and cultural lines, and our hope is to unify the city through open streets," says Solis.
Elder Palles says he plans to be there. He lives in the nearby town of Milpitas and believes once people get to know the flavor of the downtown neighborhoods they will return. He comes to Calle Willow to pick up his daughter from school most days.
"I feel at home here,"he says. "I live in Milpitas and all you see are the neighbors with closed doors. Look over here, how everyone is walking."
The city of San Jose, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and Knight Foundation are the main sponsors, providing the funding for Viva CalleSJ. So far the cost is $300,000 to pay for everything from police to shutting down the streets.
Viva CalleSJ is similar to open streets events like Sunday Streets in San Francisco and Berkeley and Oakland's Oaklavia. But maybe the closest parallel is to a bigger city well to the south.
A year ago, San Jose officials traveled to Los Angeles to look at how that city launched an open streets event in 2010 it calls CicLAvia. CicLAvia was inspired by events in Bogota, Columbia and Mexico City. L.A. has been ramping up the number of rides each year, attracting between 50,000 and 100,000 riders, and designing different routes.
Romel Pascual, CicLAvia executive director, says there are similarities between the two cities.
"San Jose is a smaller version of Los Angeles," he says. "(W)e are made up of distinct neighborhoods that aren't just defined by different cultures but blended like it is in San Jose."
Pascual says studies show the event has been successful in drawing people from all over Los Angeles and increasing business along the route.
"About 75 percent of all the ZIP codes in Los Angeles were represented along the route," he says. "The amazing thing is the jump in businesses along the routes from 25 to 60 percent. These are mostly service-oriented businesses like restaurants and coffee shops."
Local San Jose residents want that kind of success in neighborhoods such as central San Jose's Little Saigon, where many Vietnamese immigrants settled after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Cecille Nguyen, who was born in San Jose and whose parents were immigrants, has been helping promote Viva CalleSJ.
"Vietnamese people are very much passionate about their food and culinary skills but I think it's a bit neglected sometimes that the Vietnamese are known for their friendliness and willingness to help and serve," she says. "I think that is something that will surprise everyone. No matter what service you're looking for here, you're going to find someone who can help you out."
Carlos Velazquez, outreach manager for the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, stressed the importance of overcoming the isolation of neighborhoods. The Calle Willow neighborhood, for example, while close to downtown and Willow Glen, is separated by roadway bridges.
Valazquez, who's trying to drum up more business sponsors for future events, says when he worked in Chicago he observed how neighborhoods divided by bridges or railroad tracks suffered a disconnect between people.
"I'm really hoping to get people young and old," he says. "This isn't a bike race. We want abuelitas (grandmothers) being led in their wheelchairs by their granddaughters. We want to see people walking and skateboarding. We want everyone to feel comfortable using the streets and see that this is theirs and something they can do."