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The Tale of the Town (Our Town)

September 18, 2012

 

       The mission of the Art Bridge is to develop a greater awareness of the heritage of the Town of Los Gatos.

It is not simply an effort to recite the history of Town but to

track and further illuminate the ongoing, living legacy of those

who brought new life and vigor to Town

in later half of the 20th Century.

 

 

 

In the wake of the massive Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, many buildings in Los Gatos, private and public, were cracked and broken and shaken from their foundations. A lot of rebuilding was going to take place.

A generation earlier, in the 1960s, for economic reasons, the Town of Los Gatos was facing another, less dramatic, rebuilding. The agricultural economy, upon which the entire Santa Clara Valley made its living, was being phased out. A research and manufacturing economy was moving in, and it was moving in fast and furious. This industrialization was festering most substantially around the Naval Air Station at Moffet Field in the north end of the county. It was obvious that this area would surely develop into the center for this emerging technology based industry. Just as obvious, the far flung communities, at the foot of the mountains defining Santa Clara Valley, such as Los Gatos and Almaden, would not enjoy the same economic expansion as the north county communities in this new industrial heart called Silicon Valley.

The floor of Almaden Valley was essentially bare farmland, supporting the fragile vegetable row crops that would be rotated from one vegetable variety to another at the end of each growing season. It was very simple and efficient to cover this level, flat geography with tens of thousands of tract housing units for the workers needed up in the north county factories and laboratories.

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On the other hand, Los Gatos didn’t have the advantage of having bare land for the developers. It had an old, crumbling downtown to clear out before the development could take place. The Los Gatos landholders brought in the bulldozers and started clearing out downtown, slowly, building by building and lot by lot. The large and historic Lyndon Hotel was brought down, as well as the Kyle Building at Santa Cruz Avenue across from Bean Avenue. The railroad station and all of its infrastructure running through the center of town was demolished or abandon. Some say that the plan was to move downtown Los Gatos to the orchard neighborhoods out on Los Gatos Boulevard and Blossomhill Road (you can still see the skeletons of the defunct car dealerships around that location, now, before they are torn down for current developments). Also, there was talk and some plans made to cover the Almond Grove neighborhood with multi-story, ticky-tacky apartment building from Santa Cruz Avenue up to Massol. Progress was on the way.

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Luckily, the bulldozers hadn’t gotten to the old school on University Avenue, yet. It was purchased by a small scale developer who had a dream. His name was Max Walden and he was associated with a group of young architects and artists who were occupying a cluster of offices near Main Street and College Avenue. According to his dream, and with the help of his young workplace neighbors, Walden rebuilt the empty school, making it into a regionally successful shopping and cultural center, hosting theater, music and the fine arts as well as dining, specialty shopping and a healthy portion of popular night life venues. Walden actively solicited the talents and skill of artists and artisans from all over the Bay Area, often offering cash incentives for them to move their operations and showrooms into his new Center.

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In the world of art, such appreciation, especially monetary appreciation, is seldom encountered on such a scale. Old Town, and Los Gatos, quickly became a mecca for artists and artisans from near and far. With Old Town filled to overflowing with talent and skill, the downtown building owners surrounding Old Town were gladly renting out old, rundown, often empty, storefronts and shops to those creative types who were on Old Town’s rental waiting list. It was a win/win situation, cheap rents for unused shops to budding young artists with little money. And, all of sudden, the run down, ill fated cottages and small homes in Almond Grove and the surrounding neighborhoods were becoming desirable pieces of real estate instead of withering away as local eyesores. The new, younger residents were actually rebuilding these places, not simply patching them up. What a turn-around, what an unexpected “shot in the arm!” A completely unintentional, wholly unexpected rebuilding had come about, being at the right spot at the right time with the right people.

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The gravity of the success of the artist in Los Gatos just drew more artists to Town. They were young, ambitious and bounding full of energy. Even the youthful elements of the generational landholders in Town got swept up in the ambitious, high energy rebuilding and the new, unexpected possibilities that opened themselves up with all this new excitement and effort. There came to be a common vision and embodiment of local legend and pride. The lore of local mountain men, miners, timber lords and ranch barons who originally built the town could now become an actual heritage, their stories told, their names adorning businesses and their life styles, fashions and fables could be imitated and celebrated by this new generation of avid, lively Los Gatans embarking on their new careers and lives.

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Surprising everyone, this spontaneous, unplanned rebuilding left Los Gatos the gem of Santa Clara Valley. The problem was, everyone wanted a piece of this great, new stuff that the rebuilders had built. Silicon Valley, on its own and in other measures, had built itself up to an even greater extent than what Los Gatos had accomplished. While Silicon Valley’s art and culture were pretty much non-existent compared to our town, its economic bounty had expanded to an unimaginable degree. Many of the young engineers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley had become the masters of fortunes which few could have imagined only a few years earlier. If one of these fortune masters wanted something, they probably could very much afford it. And the gem of the Valley (Los Gatos) became the apple in the eye of the Silicon Valley executive. In good time, Los Gatos became the bedroom community for Silicon Valley.
Then the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake hit. Los Gatos needed more rebuilding than the rebuilders of the Old Town era could supply. While plenty of the artists and artists of the first rebuilding were still here, they couldn’t rebuild the Quake’s vast damage as quickly as everyone needed. Contractors from the outside were brought in. And some of the old timers were older, tired and not so energetic and had no desire to rebuild once again, a generation had past since that first rebuilding, that one was enough. These folks would often sell out to the Silicon Valley executive, an executive who knew nothing of the first rebuilding or the heritage it had spawned but he did have the bucks the old timer could use. Likewise, the outside contractors knew nothing of the first rebuilding or its element of heritage and so much rebuilt as a result of the Quake was rebuilt without the heart and spirit, the skill and the care of the first rebuilding. For the modern contractor it was just another job.

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And after this rebuilding, a lot of new people moved into the town so newly repaired and rebuilt. People not from here, not knowing the heritage.

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So, here we are, in Los Gatos during 2012, getting ready for another town election. And without anyone coming out and plainly saying it, we are on the verge of another rebuilding. It is surely in the air. There are dozens of large undeveloped properties out there. There are lots of empty store fronts and office buildings. The developers and the preservationists are polarizing and there have been a few significant shots across the bows of different interests. Another rebuilding IS in the air, and it will soon be in our laps.

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I am not into politics. But I do know what I like and what I don’t like. I like things that are strong, solid and built for the long haul. I like things that are professional and well thought out, reasonable and calmly rational. I avoid the shoddy junk made for mass consumption, be it my jeans, my TV shows, my hamburgers or my cars. I really don’t need the newest and slickest version of every new idea or ingenious gizmo. Actually, I prefer to let the new stuff age a little so that by the time I do get involved with it, many of its bugs have been shaken out. I don’t trust slick, loud, fast hype and things that come out of nowhere and have no history. I prefer quality over the fast buck. And, above all else, simple honesty/fairness.
Saying this, it should surprise no one that I prefer those things that are tried and true, if we have to make changes, let’s make them on top of the good things we already have, and not simply tear down what already solidly exists just for the sake of efficiency and a saved dollar. Admittedly, when we were rebuilding in the Old Town era, many of the rebuilders were still learning their trades and not everything was as good as it might have been, but lots of things built then were solid, strong, well designed and, indeed, overbuilt by any standards. I see no reason to tear out the soul and heritage of our town simply for the sake of modern efficiency and expedience.

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More to the point, with all the new folks in town, I can’t understand diminishing the heritage of this town, the specialness of this town, simply because of a modern ignorance of what made this town so desirable in the first place. And don’ get the “first place” confused. I can tell you this, driving around this dusty old town when I was in high school in 1964, the dusty old houses and the broken down streets, with the boarded up store fronts along Santa Cruz Avenue didn’t bode well for becoming a tech-exec’s bedroom community. What happened to this town to make it so desirable happened between my high school years and the year that Mountain Charley’s Saloon AND restaurant opened in 1972, and even after that, so much more took place to make Town even more attractive and desirable. What happened in that period took a lot of energy, heart and commitment. And what is discouraging to us rebuilders from that period is that, little by little, one work at a time by another, so much of what made Los Gatos such a unique, desirable and special place has been forgotten and ignored, at risk of being covered up or simply destroyed — at least because of ignorance, or worse, because of non-appreciation and disrespect. I quote a young man I heard speaking on his cell phone some months ago, “If you like your downtown all natural, then come to Los Gatos. If you prefer your downtown on steroids, go to Santana Row.”

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Admittedly, we can’t do much about conscious disrespect and an open lack of appreciation by newcomers to town, but perhaps we can do something about ignorance, a non-awareness as to certain half hidden treasures that exist here and there, some other things so familiar and passé they are never recognized for what they really are, what sort of character and history they might hold. And too, to make the newer residents aware of the people who fashioned and created these special things, many of them are still here, still creating and could yet be a great asset to this next rebuilding. To make people aware of this heritage this history and these creative and dedicated people, and to enhance the history yet to be assembled, this is the purpose of the Los Gatos Art Bridge. Let’s keep the good things going into this next generation’s efforts. We’ve had a great start.

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(Someday, this could be an Art Bridge t-shirt)

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