Inspiration Lives Here.
Inspiration: Symphony Silicon Valley’s musicians, instruments in hand, bustling in and out of the beautifully renovated 1927 California Theatre. Crowds lined up to see Opera San Jose’s latest production of Rigoletto. The Subzero art festival, during which the streets are jammed with a mix from Millennials to families to empty nesters - all curious about the art work of creative entrepreneurs and eclectic music performances. Youth mixing new music and producing new multimedia projects at MACLA’s PeaPod Academy. Art loading into the galleries. Anonymous and whimsical artistic expressions of yarn bombed bike racks and light poles. Sidewalk cafes with people dining to see and be seen – and yes, be inspired. This is the daily life of San Jose’s SoFA district.
Downtown San Jose is the urban, social and cultural center of Silicon Valley. Within the downtown lies the SoFA district (South First Street Area), a burgeoning cultural district spanning a three block radius. The San Jose Stage Company, City Lights Theatre, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose Quilts and Textiles Museum, MACLA, Anno Domini, Cinequest, Symphony Silicon Valley, Opera San Jose, Works Gallery, C2SV and ZERO1: The Art and Technology Network are among the art organizations based in SoFA.
The SoFA district is a neighborhood transformed through 20 years of significant investments. The former San Jose Redevelopment Agency led neighborhood rehabilitation with strategic improvements. ArtPlace America has increased SoFA’s vibrancy through catalytic project support including: Parque de los Pobladores, a neglected park transformed to an outdoor event space; ZERO1 Garage; and MACLA’s new facility project. The NEA’s Our Town investment in SoFA, including the anticipated shade sculpture by artist designer Teddy Cruz, has enabled infrastructure that allows artists to activate the neighborhood. 1st ACT Silicon Valley invested in the built environment, facilitating new murals and an outdoor café seating environment.
This investment leverages the investments by the artists, event organizers, nonprofit organizations and businesses that step up to make SoFA come alive. SoFA has moved from episodic activation like the First Friday Art Walk to regular activation where art is part of the everyday life in the district. Cultural organizations program participatory art experiences such as music and art classes.
As a result of the district’s evolving success, restaurants and creative businesses such as music clubs, architecture firms, and the alternative press call SoFA home. New residential development has enabled urban density and a sense of urban street life. Many of the businesses that now call SoFA home are also participatory in nature; they include rock climbing, martial arts, yoga, fitness, and ceramic studios. A neighborhood that once struggled to attract tenants is near capacity.
SoFA is not supported through a dedicated funding mechanism. A Property Business Improvement District supports the downtown as a whole, funding street maintenance and urban greenery by the downtown association. The City of San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs coordinates events for the district and has strategies to keep special event permit and City service costs minimal.
SoFA is in a state of constant evolution. A diverse coalition of stakeholders care about this area. Convened by the San Jose Downtown Association, a dedicated SoFA Committee meets monthly to discuss issues related to development, events, marketing, safety, parking, and design amenities. They steward change and a conversation about how to work cooperatively and manage multiple uses. There is more work to do to realize the vision for SoFA, and that the businesses that have invested in its success are sustainable.
Americans for the Arts’ National Cultural District Exchange is a one-stop resource center that districts like SoFA can use to foster growth and sustainability. It enables knowledge around a set of best practices, models to learn from, and a tool kit for building a thriving district. It provides a shared language for placemakers to talk about their work, and strategies for being at the table when discussing civic, social, and economic issues within their cities and towns.
SoFA’s success is San Jose’s success. SoFA celebrates creativity and a sense of place. It attracts those looking to live and work in a vibrant, urban environment and connect with others. Educated talent is looking for artistic and engaging urban amenities, and this demographic is what cities are competing for because business follows talent. In addition to complimenting San Jose’s economic development strategies around talent and business attraction, SoFA generates economic impact through job creation and audience spending. Audience spending generates fiscal revenues to the City in the form of sales tax, parking revenue, and Transient Occupancy Tax. Thus, SoFA is an important ingredient in downtown San Jose’s economic future. Its success lies at the nexus of community, economic and cultural development.
When I think of SoFA and those that make it, I think of how it authentically exemplifies the spirit and nature of San Jose and Silicon Valley - entrepreneurial, resourceful, participatory, and inspiring.