Exploring Alviso in San Jose

This bustling Gold Rush-era port now boasts a wildlife sanctuary and a throwback vibe to the past.


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Photo by Kristan Lawson

 

Within sight of Silicon Valley but as distant from it in spirit as apps are from Appaloosas, an authentic slice of the Wild West perches at the very verge of San Francisco Bay. Protected from massive overdevelopment by its placement in the National Register of Historic Places, protected from major flooding by levees, it’s doubly shielded from two types of oblivion.

Unless you’re a historian and/or employed by TiVo, which is the only tech-industry company headquartered here, chances are you’ve never heard of Alviso. Fully incorporated in its Gold Rush-era heyday, now an unincorporated neighborhood of San Jose, this sleepy sloughside secret sports the Bay Area’s lowest elevation: Living eight feet below sea level in a coastal community is one way to invite apocalypse.

Native Americans harvested sea salt here; then Alviso—named for a Spanish rancher—boomed as San Jose’s mid-19th-century port. Steamboats chugged from its bustling wharves, packed with San Francisco-bound passengers and the valley’s pre-semiconductor cargo: cowhides, lumber, mercury ore, and huge quantities of fruit, fish sauce, and flour processed at Alviso’s own mill.

A San Jose-San Francisco rail line, completed in 1864, doomed the steamboat trade. Dog tracks and dance halls still electrified Alviso, which boasted the nation’s third largest cannery and earned the name the “New Chicago,” until the Great Depression and major floods in 1890 and 1983 dealt near-fatal blows.

Alviso now offers mile upon mellow mile of walking, boating, and cycling. The gentle Lower Guadalupe River Trail links Alviso to downtown San Jose; marshy 21-acre Alviso Marina County Park, gateway to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, abounds in waterfowl and hazy city vistas shimmering across a slate-gray, bruise-blue bay.

Alviso’s eerily silent, starkly empty streets sport Victorian homes, warehouses, and other vintage buildings alongside empty lots whose former occupants succumbed to floods. Stalwart survivors include the gingerbread-porched South Bay Yacht Club and friendly midcentury Taco de Oro.

But Alviso’s seductions lie mainly outdoors—where what gets you is the improbability. How can this time tunnel even exist?

Strolling Hope Street alongside docked boats and diving egrets, imagine fancy-hatted ladies and former prospectors exiting stagecoaches right here, under this same milky sky. Into the silence thrusts a soft roar: airplanes heading west out of nearby San Jose Airport. What is this thing? And from when? Flying machines. From the future. Look away.

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