Alviso Today

Pictures and Text by: Gus Colgain

If you have traveled 237 between Milpitas and Sunnyvale, you  have probably passed us without seeing us. Most of you have no inkling of the importance that Alviso played in the history of the San Jose area.

Named after Iglasias Alviso, who came from Mexico in the late  1700’s, it became a city of importance when it was founded in 1838. In 1848,  Peter Burnett, a businessman and landowner in Alviso was the first Anglo governor of California. This was just prior to California becoming an official state.  For one day Alviso was the State Capitol, then it was moved down the road  to San Jose.

Because Alviso was located at the very southern tip of the San Francisco Bay, it was a gateway for people and products flowing north and  south. Ships drawing 12 feet or less of water could berth at the docks and  offload and load cargo and people. In 1849, the steamboat Sacramento began the daylong journey between San Francisco and Alviso. In the 1890’s, the steamer, Alviso, plied the waters. It was, I believe  a cleaner mode of transportation than the stream locomotives that were then  running on the San Francisco & San Jose RR built in 1864, and much more genteel. But then I am a hopeless romantic.

With the building of the railroads, Alviso was no longer as  important to the economy of the region. Trains were a cheaper and faster method  of transporting goods. We faded away into a pastoral anonymity. Ex-governor Burnett had his house torn down and rebuilt in San Jose.

But, as you can see, the Bay has filled in with rushes and cat tails, the docks have long been abandoned, and crumbling walls are all that are left to remind us of what once was a century ago. But some of the grandeur remains. The old yacht reminds us of the hundreds of pleasure boats that once called Alviso their home port. That single crumbling wall was once part of  a cannery that employed hundreds and fed thousands all around the world. Now  a lonely burrowing owl keeps a solitary eye out for passing ghosts, and a jackrabbit freezes as a hawk soars overhead.


But don’t kid yourself, Alviso is not dead nor is it crumbling into Nothingness. We have established families and businesses that have steadfastly  refused to give into the passage of time. We have recently seen an infusion of new homes and businesses and even a Extended Stay hotel. The future is looking up; or is it?

Shortly after the Biq Quake of ’06, Thomas Chew, a Chinese gentleman, built  the Bayside Canning Company (whose facade still exists today) over the ruins  of his fathers canning company and revitalized Alviso. Up until his death in  ’31, it was a thriving operation with hundreds of workers of all races, though mostly oriental, living in tent housing.
Then with the Great Depression, and the death of Mr. Chew, business failed, and once again Alviso faded away from the industrial scene. It did, however, remain a thorn in the side of the good people of San Jose with its drinking, gambling, and bawdyhouses.

Thereafter Alviso became just another small agricultural/fishing village outside of San Jose. Over the years the bay silted in, the channels closed up, the yacht  club became more of a social club than sailing, and the marina has become overgrown  with cat tails and bull rushes.

Empty docks rot away and abandoned hulls sit hidden among weeds. The walls of the cannery crumble and the town sits sleepily unaware of the past.

Mostly Hispanic, (the 1990 census showed Alviso to be 74% Mexican-American), we just kind of meandered our way through the next several decades until by  a difference of a mere 9 votes, Alviso was annexed by the city of San Jose in 1968. However, the promised changes for the better seemed to be forgotten after  the annexation and it was several more decades before real changes were to be  seen.

With land values going through the roof and affordable housing becoming increasingly scarce, Alviso has been “rediscovered”. However, it has become a double-edged  sword. While the eyesore lots along Gold Street were removed and new Research and Development sprang up in their place, we seem to be losing more of our character.  The good that has come of the new developments are a new library and a new Community Center. North First Street is finally being paved after years of neglect.

The Old Bayside Cannery and the fading murals remind of days gone

But you pause to wonder about those days

Hidden gardens for peaceful reflection

And the historical Laine house quietly reminisces.

Houses are being painted and cleaned up, and the town as a whole is being spruced up. There are plans in the works to clean up the marina, create a park and generally make Alviso more of draw for the public and those that love to stroll around the levees. The downside, I suppose, is that we are losing our individuality.

Still, the Marina refuses to give up despite the passage of time.

Fewer craft moor here, but no less hardy sailors.

Masts rise above the wild marsh grasses,

boats ride placidly on the slowly passing slough.

The City of San Jose can’t even manage downtown properly, how are they going  to manage us? We have seen wetlands disappear and wildlife displaced. A gray  fox that hunted around the juncture where Layfette becomes Gold Street has not been seen in a couple of years. The areas that harbored hundreds of fowl have  dried up or have been plowed under. In the spring the croaking of thousands  of frogs is no longer heard. The burrowing owls have been displaced several  times as their habitat is plowed and scraped away. I think sometimes people forget the wildlife doesn’t KNOW it is supposed

Cleaned up, repainted, murals and carvings by local artists, Alviso is coming alive.

The Old and the New order of things, co-existing in uneasy anticipation  of things yet to come.

Whether you want to walk the levees and enjoy the wild life, or eat a meal at one of the establishments that has served our community for upwards of 60  years, you will find a sense of calm and peacefulness in Alviso. One of the more notable aspects of visiting is that people look you in the eye and smile.  Ask a question and you will be given an answer, and probably a garrulous one at that.

Norma’s Boat Dock store has been around for thirty or more years. You can buy  everything from a bread to bait.

Rosita’s has been here since the early 60’s, flooded out twice, and having moved twice, it’s a family affair. Eat there more than twice and you ARE family. The food is always good, and the servings are huge. You don’t walk away hungry and if you do, it’s probably because you didn’t finish all the food on your your plate.

Vahl’s is a story in and of itself. In business since the 40’s, it really has  a world wide reputation for fine food. Amelia has owned and operated it all  that time. In her 90’s she’s still active, and a member of Rotary. Perhaps the  most intriguing part of Vahl’s, is that the waitresses have been there since  it opened. If you are served by a “younger” waitress, then it’s probably  the daughter or granddaughter of one of the original waitresses.

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