Project Silicon Notes #1: San Jose in the Nearish Future

I’ve got a new Project kicking around, and decided I needed a repository for some of my notes pertaining to it.

I won’t spoil. Some of you might’ve seen me talking in a Certain IRC Channel about it, but I can’t say it’s a particularly large or ambitious project. At best, it’ll see fruition in a year or two. It’s not expected to be anything more than I can show off for its own sake.

But I like to get things right, so…

For now, let’s kick around a few facts, then see where they lead. San Jose has an urban sprawl problem like whoa. San Jose is aware of this. To combat it, they’re planning to build up, not out.

As a kid, whenever we’d drive past towns or undeveloped spots, I had the foresight to wonder “what will this look like when I’m older?” Yeah, even as a kid I was a bit of a futurist. But considering my background, can you blame me?

I was born in Taiwan in 1987. I don’t even know the name of the city my grandparents live in, you know? But I remember the form of it, encapsulated in slices of timespace separated along the temporal axis by lengths of one to three years at a time. Every time, the city changed. I remember roasting ants under a huge, ancient magnifier along a poorly developed street as a toddler, the side of the road still overgrown. Firecrackers going off into a dirt field during New Year’s as I sat, fascinated, between my grandfather’s legs. Even then the city was busy – a barely remembered slice of life in an urban environment many of my peers now would consider quaint and even somewhat destitute.

Fast forward to the present, and the dirt field I hazily remember had long-since been replaced by four-story buildings and greater. Down the street, there’s a fried tofu and pickled vegetables vendor – a little beyond, there’s a supermarket and a McDonald’s. There’s still this ramshackle place a few blocks over – I suspect this might have been the place I played at as a toddler, though now it’s a headquarter for vagrants and tour buses.

Current-day San Jose is, for a city, not that developed. Except for downtown, the buildings generally don’t breach four stories, if that. And even downtown is fairly sparse with towering scrapers. You can see the sky in San Jose in ways that you can’t in San Francisco – but it’s also somewhat lifeless in comparison to the bustle and weirdness of its northern kin. Not to say it doesn’t have a nightlife and music scene – you get a few million people in one place and park a major university in the middle of the city, you’re going to have drunks and strummers and ravers and dealers and pimps. But it’s a shallow facade; a sense that they’re there because it’s nearby, and that if they got something farther north or much farther south, they’d go there instead. And maybe bring a friend or two along.

San Jose right now is a city of somber business and software giants; dusty ethnic shops and a police force with questionable ethics when it comes to the treatment of brown-skinned people with Latin American accents. And a college population that mostly chose to attend because they could afford San Jose, and can’t afford Berkeley.

And underneath that bored stillness, it pulses faintly with the beatings of a still-enthusiastic codemonkey culture, proud of the accomplishments of their forebearers even as they tear at their flaws and moments of weaknesses over Hacker News, and the quirky carnival of FanimeCon, but once a year. There’s still Culture here, if you look carefully. But its streets are nonetheless eerily sparse, and it seems as if everybody you meet is really from Willow Glen or Almaden or Alum Rock or Santa Teresa.

By around 2030, what will it look like? Will the upward build shroud us in an incubator of industrial steel, concrete and glass? The clacking of the VTA rattling through every street? With a denser population, a denser aggregate of relations and networks, what sparks will ignite across this capital of Silicon Valley?


~ by Gonzo Mehum on August 17, 2010.

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