Monday, April 13, 2020

San Jose needs to rethink tourism strategy

Let's be honest: if someone flies into the Bay Area from out of the country for leisure purposes, they're probably not dying to check out San Jose. They're much more likely to spend their time in San Francisco, or maybe spend the weekend up in Napa. Next stop is probably LA. Each of these areas has a little different to offer, but one thing they all share is that there is an established history that tourists find fascinating. San Jose, on the other hand, makes most of its tourism money from hosting large-scale events, not organic local attractions.

San Jose has a fair amount of history, but very little tourist attention. In fact, I'd wager that the average San Jose doesn't even find local history interesting. They're probably familiar with the Winchester Mystery House, and some may even mention the tower on Mt. Umunhum. Would they take a visiting friend to either of these places? They'd probably take the friend to SF.

Meanwhile, organizations like PAC*SJ have fought to preserve potential historical landmarks around the city. Why aren't we seeing any changes to how these buildings fit into people's mindshare, local or otherwise? I think it's because it's the wrong approach, at least in isolation.

Preservation alone will not promote city history. People need a story

If you've heard locals complain about how boring San Jose is, or how there's a lack of culture, chances are they're referring to a way of life and customs. The same locals would look at some of the historical buildings around St. James Park, for example, and their opinion would remain unchanged. That's because the existence of the landmark can only go so far; there needs to be stories that function as a vehicle into people's minds and hearts before there is any semblance of meaning. 

This is why, although I strongly value history myself (and it's one of my most fulfilling parts of international travel), I find the city's general approach a bit lacking. I'm not specifically calling out any department at the city, just the holistic approach I observe as a local. There are plenty old buildings around, but unless there is meaning behind them, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that they need to be preserved in place. 

History Park - untapped potential

One thing the city has done right is move historical buildings into History Park. These buildings form a small town within the park, and at first sight is fairly interesting to look at. There's a trolley that runs through it, which is pretty cool.

History Park At Kelley Park (Peter Bennett)
The problem is that most folks only visit the park when there's another event hosted there--food festivals, conventions, and galleries. There is very little standalone appeal, but it looks like it's basically San Jose Disneyland. I think this park needs to be leveraged as the the place to go to experience history in the south bay. Every school should be organizing field trips here, if not already. It should be a good way to spend a day with the family. 

Replica light tower at History Park (
Here are some ideas:
  • Don't keep the park free. Charge an entrance fee if that's what it'll take to fund a better experience.
  • Group buildings either by neighborhood or by era, complete with roads and lamp posts to match. This makes the town feel more cohesive rather than a random assortment of buildings.
  • Each interior is treated as a stationary gallery, complete with historical furnishing (for viewing purposes only). This is already happening to an extent, but I think you need a tour to experience them. I might be wrong.
  • There should be some permanent references to historically significant moments related to San Jose. For example, there should at least be mention of Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Olympic moment.
  • Ideally, some national brands and franchises that started locally could lend a hand. I'd love to see how Chuck E Cheeses started, or what inspired Eggo waffles.
  • There should be a major festival every year on April 08 (4.08) complete with performances near the electric tower.
I'd actually prefer to leave Silicon Valley history out of History Park, since that story is still evolving and may be a better fit elsewhere. That's a post for another time.

Iconic neon business signs: better together

I love neon signs. When done right, they are so easily recognizable from a distance. They add color to our streets. Over time, they creation an emotional connection with locals who see the businesses (or at least the designs) as a part of daily life. Unfortunately we're past the glory days of neon signs, but San Jose has a cluster of these from past decades. A lot of the time, the business no longer exists. Nonetheless, there needs to be some purpose designed for these signs after they are properly restored.

San Jose's iconic Dancing Pig sign restored to neon glory
Dancing Pig sign (Mercury News)

In one example, the community pitched in to save and restore the Dancing Pig sign on Montgomery Street. It was a celebratory moment when the campaign succeeded, but what happens next? What's the purpose of preserving the sign in-place if the business no longer exists, and the entire surrounding area is prime for redevelopment? One approach is to use it as a way to protest redevelopment. A much better approach, in my opinion, is to use the sign to bring joy to many more people via a new city-maintained public gallery of neon signs.

Similar to how History Park has accumulated historical buildings, I think there's an opportunity to create a memorable visual experience if San Jose can bring signs like the Dancing Pig, Western Appliance, Orchard Supply Hardware, into a central location where can all be maintained and enjoyed together. Locals can visit the signs to reminisce or for a recognizable local photo opportunity. Tourists can get a glimpse at what downtown/midtown used to feel like. 

Where might we put these? 
  • Again, History Park is a candidate as a go-to spot for revisiting the past of our city. 
  • Another option is to use them to bring character and design to a public gathering space, such as a vibrant alleyway or a plaza. 
  • Even an existing popular destination like the San Pedro Square garage could use them to boost the existent history elements of the venue. In fact the block still has a few active neon signs, so it might be a perfect it.
  • The signs can be distributed to give blander sections of downtown a bit more personality. For example, each downtown parking garage can be adorned with one of the signs. Imagine parking in the "Dancing Pigs parking garage" instead of the 3rd St. parking garage".
  • An upcoming development can incorporate the signs in their ceiling, similar to how The Pierce adopted the Voxel Cloud.

Create new local tourism destinations for the modern age

History is not the only way to attract local and broader tourism. There's a lot that San Jose can do in order to create new destinations. That's not exactly a revolutionary idea, so let's start with what I think is working.

What's working


Over the last five years or so, the city has really stepped up to encourage public facing art. Participation in Pow Wow has added a lot of color throughout the city. Meanwhile, collaborations with local art collectives such as Local Color has turned some downtown eyesores into sources of joy and inspiration. From experience I see plenty of locals lauding the increase in local murals, so this is a great, relatively recent movement that has shown great success.

Guest urban installations

Two very prominent projects made their way to downtown San Jose in the past few years, and they both demonstrated how hungry local crowds were for unifying projects that enhanced place making efforts.

2016 8-4 Musical Swings Opening-4-low-res.jpg
The Swings in San Jose (

The first example is from 2016. The Swings was an interactive art piece by a Canadian art studio that consisted of swings that were each assigned an instrument. As people swung, their swings' "instruments" played, creating a full musical experience as more folks joined in. The gallery was so popular that the month-long installation ended up being extended. Locals also observed that it turned Plaza de Cesar Chavez into a truly family-oriented space. Every kid wanted to be a part of it, and parents could enjoy the results of the piece as their kids played.

Sonic Runway Unveiling Draws Big Crowds to San Jose City Hall ...
Sonic Runway in front of City Hall (San Jose Inside)

Another popular art piece was brought over from Burning Man - the Sonic Runway. The project consisted of a tunnel built out of LED rings that created different patterns depending on the music fed into it. It was a major hit, as folks from all ages, backgrounds, music preferences all came out to experience it. A few events were coordinated adjacent to it, temporarily turning City Hall into the best gathering spot over the span of a couple of months.

Even better, it enabled the community to create their own artwork. One that pops in mind is the corgi photo that reappears now and then on Reddit and Twitter. That's the kind of inspiration that the city needs to focus on, as that's what turns something from just artwork in itself into a phenomenon that locals can feel like they own, even if the project was imported. 

Can you imagine if the project was created locally and it inspired locals? That's how you create the culture that folks so desperately yearn.

What we need

Social media friendly museums

This part is going to be more controversial. I am a fan of our existing downtown museums, from the San Jose Museum of Art to the Tech Museum (which will hopefully be expanded in the near future). We also have a list of local art galleries that provide great experiences, especially during arts-focused events such as South First Fridays. We don't need to change these at all; they tend to be though provoking, quality experiences.

What I'm referring to specifically is the type of museum that can double as a casual date or family outing. Places like Color Factory or Happy Place are not cheap, but they are tightly controlled environments that provide a very obvious escape from the "real world". Most would take this to mean a photo opportunity for Instagram, but it's also something that anyone can really go and enjoy if they need a change in scenery.

Misty bubbles gallery (New Spring)

Today, anyone looking for this category of casual entertainment would need to go to San Francisco, which is another example of leaked local tourism. It's not exactly the city's decision to open these locations, but it should take a hard look at why San Jose is not considered a desirable landing spot for them. 

An iconic San Jose public art piece

This one is sort of in progress, as Urban Confluence has launched an international design competition for a landmark to be located on Arena Green. Since we have nothing material to go on, however, it's important to consider what we'd like to see.

Iconic public art work does not necessarily need to fulfill a specific purpose. In this case, the uniqueness in itself is supposed to be the story. In other words, even with minimal context, it should still be something that folks can appreciate. 
  • Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) in Chicago: result of a design competition
  • Urban Light in Los Angeles: started as a personal project, eventually purchased by Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Charging Bull in New York: Another personal artwork that ended up becoming a symbol of Wall Street

We'll need to see what the design competition yields. Ideally it can draw inspiration from its surroundings or the city in general; it won't hurt to add layers to the project.

Focus on locals first, and be forward-thinking

Becoming a destination will take time. One mistake I'd hate to see the city make is to focus too much on international and out-of-state travelers, rather than spend time analyzing leakage of local tourism. How can San Jose convince south bay residents and other Bay Area locals to visit San Jose over the weekend with purpose? 

Until the city can figure out how to shed the "San Jose is boring" label by locals, there is going to be very little hope for broader appeal. Once this local leakage has been addressed, and locals know where to take visitors on any random weekend, then the tourism appeal will slowly grow from there. 

We don't have the picturesque historical structures other cities have which  provide natural tourist appeal. That doesn't mean tourism appeal is doomed, but we can build up from here. San Jose will need to think about where it wants to be in ten years or twenty years. 

After all, everything historical needs a starting point, and what's been built in the past half century has not worked. It's time to rethink how to build for the future.

-Lawrence Lui


  1. Those were really great ideas Lawrence. Referring to History Park as San Jose's Disneyland is spot on. I can definitely see it one day as a Main Street USA with lots of bustling activity like San Diego's Old Town. Good piece!

  2. Note the places you mentioned, Color Factory and Happy Place, are not museums. Generally, museums are institutions/non-profits that collect and preserve objects for the public to view with an educational mission.