I have seen a recent Mercury News article about Los Gatos’ quasquicentennial 125th anniversary celebration by Bruce Newman. I think it is a splendid little piece of journalism: concise, informative and relevant. There aren’t a lot of wasted words, key points are well taken. However, as with most examinations of the recent Los Gatos history, a major but subdued element of the preservation of the Los Gatos culture is missing, the artists and craftsmen of the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
Beginning in that era, some of the town fathers had come up a plan to bulldoze down the old dilapidated buildings in the old downtown of Los Gatos, and build “modern” apartment buildings on that newly barren land and move the new downtown over to east Los Gatos where all the empty car dealerships now are, on Los Gatos Boulevard.
Obviously, great expense and much effort was spent on that intended move but, just as obviously and for whatever reasons one might cite, the effort failed. Moving against that current, developer Max Walden and his architect, Frank Laulainen, purchased and rebuilt an abandoned school on University Avenue and called it Old Town, a new specialty shopping and cultural center.
Old Town opened in 1966. Shops in its basement were left without floors so that new and budding artists could afford shops where they could create and sell their work, rent being based on a certain percentage of their monthly sales. These rents were not intended to be big money makers.
Those who ran Old Town payed artists substantial incentives to move these artists’ established operations into the Old Town environs. I personally know of one specialty sculptor who was payed over $20,000 to move from downtown San Jose to work and sell in Old Town, and in the late 1960s, that was a lot of mula.
The words “real estate developer” and “artist” are almost never found in the same sentence. Walden broke that mold. As word of this artist-loving developer spread, artists and craftsmen from all over the state made the pilgrimage to the little mountain town that was home to Old Town. The Old Town shops and store fronts soon filled up. It was a success, a big one.
The artistic concessions spilled over from Old Town and the artists began renting the shops nearby on Main Street and Santa Cruz Avenue. Truly, Los Gatos was becoming an artistic hub, but, to be fair, Los Gatos had a bit of an artistic reputation even before Old Town.
In Santa Clara Valley, Los Gatos was known to be a somewhat eccentric little town as it seemed that every other store that was actually still operating was an antique shop and as you strolled down the residential streets, there would be a home-based antique endeavor or mini art gallery, at least one or two on every block.
After World War II, the super developers, such as San Jose City Manager A. P. “Dutch” Hamann, turned endless acres of farm land into endless acres of tract housing. Now the sons and daughters of the agricultural communities had nowhere to farm. They either had to get other careers or move on to towns that still had enough arable land to make a living.
One generation (20 years) after World War II, the middle class housing units in Los Gatos were often dilapidated, worn out cottages with no “next generation” to repair or reside in the old “shacks.” But, ... wait a minute, where are all these new, young artists going to live? Holy Toledo, the shacks in Los Gatos were a dime a dozen. The artists bought them up left and right. But, they were shacks ... no prob! The young artists had energy, talent and vigor. Plus, they were having a new brood of baby artists that needed decent places to live. All `round the Almond Grove district, there would be four or five houses per block, jacked up five or six feet in the air as these young adults poured foundations under the mud-soiled cottages that were now becoming houses.
Adjoining these home improvements, the old generation homeowners smiled with glee at the rising value of their properties while the older generation renters scowled as these young whipper-snappers were raising rents as they raised property values. Both observations were true. In any case, this was great ammunition for the preservationist politicians of the town.
The increased property values of these districts being renovated could not be so easily bulldozed into oblivion. Unconsciously and without acknowledgment, the artists had provided a great force in the salvation of the old downtown of Los Gatos by upgrading and improving so many of the residences all over town but especially on the skirts of the old downtown.
Once the cottage/houses were set back down on their new foundations, the new home owners went further and restored and enhanced their new homes, setting themselves up for a future quandary.
While they were purchasing and improving their new homes, these artist/craftsmen were also changing the face of the threatened old down town. Old Town was the initial face lift, the next major one was Mountain Charley’s Saloon and Restaurant right on Santa Cruz Avenue. The new two-story building at Broadway and Santa Cruz avenues had a large, glamorous1930s style room installed in it, Number One Broadway.
The old Park Lounge was transformed by the Pet Rock guru, Gary Dahl, into a San Francisco style “fern bar,” Carry Nations. The Opera House was rebuilt as was the Beckwith Building and dozens of others, all utilizing the talents, skills and like-minded sense of community these up-and-coming young people had, many eventually becoming world class experts in their fields.
These were glorious times for Los Gatos.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake broke much of Los Gatos into pieces. It didn’t break the town’s spirit, but the town did need a lot of repair, more than the resident craftsmen and contractors could handle by themselves. Outside influences were brought in.
Five years later, after the town was generally restored from the quake, the 1994 Brazilian Olympic soccer team brought the whole world to town. Humanity got to see how well we fixed the town up. I wasn’t living in town at that time, taking a sabbatical from our insular, little town. I thought I needed to check out the cold, cruel, real world.
Many longtime “townees” (residents) feel that it was after this exposure that the town went from “artsy and a mix of funky and classy” to being a town that was “cliquey and haughty.” I don’t know if the Brazilians caused the change but that change in demeanor is apparent to me, to some extent, since the end of my sabbatical. Los Gatos has always had a money element, but in the old days you didn’t feel like an outsider if you weren’t part of it. In the old days, it wasn’t so necessary to show off your richness. Talent and skill were highly respected as well.
The specific concern we have with this new segment of the Los Gatos community is that they are totally oblivious to the local residents of town who are the very people who salvaged, renovated and enhanced all the structures and features of this town that attracted the new element here in the first place.
We are still here. We are still working and creating and doing artsy stuff, and we are probably lots better at it now than we were then. However, the newbies go far afield, to other towns and states, when some new public art is being considered. Our artists provide art projects to other towns, cities and national governments. We are not amateurs. And, we are right here. At least, give us a chance. We have a lot of heart for this town and the people who run the town. By ignoring it, we are wasting this heart.
For years, we have heard stories about how this bar at Mountain Charley's was imported from someplace far off, or how the glass work in Number One Broadway came from some old church beyond the ocean, etc., etc. Nope, most of these things were built by people right here, who live right next door to you, right now, today.
We are here.
We are still doing it.
The purpose of the Los Gatos Art Bridge is to make the newer residents and town staff aware of the established fine art professionals, and craft professionals, who put much of this town together and who are still here to even further enhance it.
When the Art Bridge idea was first hatched, we held a gathering to discuss and clarify the idea. This was in September of 2010 at C.B. Hannegan's. Click on the following link to view (and hear) a web-based invitation for this event, Art Bridge I:
http://www.badgerguild.com/Los_Gatos_Art_Bridge_I.html (This is a large file, give it a few seconds to fully load.)
After this event, a series of emails were written about some of the people involved in this effort to save the old Los Gatos downtown. After about a year of these monthly emails, they were collected, published and sold as a book, “Small Mountain Rambles.”
Last Sunday, we had a successful book signing at C.B. Hannegan’s and we have more books to sell (Contact email@example.com for more information).
Within the next 60 days we are planning to hold another gathering of our artists and artisans, calling it Art Bridge II. Look for upcoming information regarding this.
The idea has matured and we will be taking stock, assessing resources and setting new goals. This older generation will be bridging over to the newer generation and making themselves known and familiar to newer residents and to the newer government (see bog post “Old Problems with the New Library — http://lgartbridge.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/the-old-problem-with-the-new-library/ ).