It took me days to realize what was so weird about downtown San Jose. At first, second, and third glance, it’s a pretty good downtown, with wide avenues, a few solid old buildings, glittering skyscrapers, plenty of housing, and cheerful banners urging the populace to dream and thrive. It’s not breathtaking, like Rome or Bangkok, but as the hub of Silicon Valley, it is one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. San Jose glows with the glossy sheen of new money. It’s not hard to see why it’s rated the fifth happiest city in America.
“Well, it certainly didn’t earn that rating through the food,” I grumbled the first night, when Rich and I couldn’t find anything downtown but cookie-cutter food chains and ended up with gloppy pasta and wine that tasted considerably cheaper than its price tag.
We had better luck the next morning at Peanuts, an unpretentious café near San Jose State University. Our fellow customers included four uniformed firefighters, a sex worker, three nerdy guys, and two youngsters who clearly had just crawled out of bed after a night of energetic frolicking. It was the kind of place where you help yourself to the coffee, and after my third cup I struck up a conversation with Joseph, who’d taken over Peanuts when his uncle retired.
“Happy? Yes, San Jose is a happy city,” Joseph said. “Most people who come in are happy-go-lucky. It’s very diverse. Everyone hangs out with everyone else.”
That refrain was repeated in countless conversations over the next few days. San Jose is rated the most diverse city in America and my own unscientific, statistically insignificant, random observations agreed. Nearly 400,000 people from around the world have been drawn there by tech companies such as Zoom, Adobe, eBay, PayPal, and Google — which is building a new downtown campus with 7.3 million square feet of office space, 4,000 housing units, and 15 acres of parkland.
Are diversity and jobs enough to make this town soar high on the happiness charts? The cost of living is more than double the national average, and the $1 million median home price is twice California’s average, four times America’s. True, San Jose enjoys superlative weather, but if we’ve learned anything from the Nordic countries’ high rankings on the happiness index, weather doesn’t count for much.
Then it hit me: maybe San Jose wasn’t happier than other cities — maybe it just thought it was. Long ago I’d worked at the information desk in UC Berkeley’s student union and asked hundreds of people where they were from and if they liked it. The only ones who waxed enthusiastic about their home town? Bostonians. Now, Boston’s a great town; I know, because I moved there for ten years. But Boston isn’t the only decent place to live in the USA; it just happens to have a culture that constantly reinforces the idea it’s the greatest. Seville has the same collective narrative, as do many New Yorkers. Apparently San Jose has that attitude, too. And as we all know, attitude counts.
Rich and I were discussing all this at a cantina with plenty of attitude: Iguanas, home to the famous Burritozilla — a five pound, eighteen-inch “hunger killer” burrito. Eating a whole one earns you a free t-shirt — and lifetime’s bragging rights.
“Does anyone really order that?” I asked the Louis, the cook.
He grinned. “Yep. One woman ate it in a minute thirty-two seconds. Her name is Molly. Look her up on YouTube.”
Wow, that woman can eat!
I’m no Molly, but I did my best to consume my share of San Jose’s Caribbean, Greek, Portuguese, French, Mexican, and Vietnamese fare. At the popular Nha Trang, our friend Joe showed off his fluent Vietnamese ordering an insane number of dishes — which we heroically managed to finish.
All this time, I kept trying to figure out what was bugging me about San Jose’s downtown. When it finally came to me, I was shocked and aghast. “Hey, there’s no retail around here. We haven’t seen a single clothing store, bookshop, sporting goods place, or food market anywhere downtown. Does everyone do all their shopping online? Even groceries? Is retail really dead? Say it ain’t so!”
We decided to find out.
First we hit Little Saigon’s Grand Century Mall, where a marble statue of 13th century Vietnamese naval hero Tran Hung Dao presides over shops selling art, trinkets, and cosmetics. As we approached a small grocery store at the back, my nose began to wrinkle. “What’s that hideous smell? Decaying chicken? Rotting garbage?”
“No, durian.” Rich had told me about Asia’s beloved yet stinky fruit, but now I realize that’s like talking about the scent of skunk; you can’t really appreciate it until you smell it for yourself. Yowzer! They say it tastes like almond custard, but I don’t care; I have added “avoiding durian” to my lifetime goals list.
Next we visited the Barryessa Flea Market, said to be a vast treasure trove with a farmer’s market and a carousel. Sadly, on the weekday we visited, it was a ghost town, with a few dispirited vendors listlessly eyeing the handful of customers drifting down the aisles.
“They just put in a BART station,” Rich explained. “The family that’s owned this property since the 1960s sold the land to real estate developers. The flea market is shrinking from sixty acres to five.”
“I feel like I’m presiding over a funeral on the Titanic. Where else can we try?”
We considered Santana Row, said to have all the high-end shops we’d find in other cities, but instead, we went to check out Nihonmachi (Japantown). And here’s where I really fell in love with San Jose. For a start, there was actual retail — not much, and mostly closed because of Covid, but still, you could actually go into some buildings and purchase things, just like you used to do in the old days before Amazon ruled the earth. There was an atmosphere of cheerful bustle and plenty of colorful street art.
One poster read: “Stop Asian hate. Protect the elderly.” I noticed an older woman with a shopping bag pushing a walker down the street, chatting companionably with a young man in a vest marked “Safety Patrol.” He was part of a volunteer group protecting vulnerable residents while they go about their errands. Seeing this in action was heartwarming. Knowing why it was needed? Heartbreaking indeed.
A century ago, San Jose was nicknamed “the valley of heart’s delight” for its bountiful crops and the entrepreneurial attitude that gave the world its first radio station, first computer hard drive, and first Grateful Dead performance. Today people still arrive there from all corners of the earth seeking their heart’s delight: the chance to create technology that will reshape the future. “Two million people live in Silicon Valley,” said journalist Ben Smith, “and one million of them believe they've discovered the next big thing.” Perhaps that’s what makes San Jose so happy — it’s a place that encourages you to dream big, even if it’s only about your chances of someday consuming an entire burritozilla.
Wondering how 182 US cities were chosen and rated for happiness? See the methodology here.
About to write and ask me why I didn't visit San Jose's most famous landmark, the Winchester Mystery House? We went a few years ago on Our Magical Mystery Tour of California's Roadside Attractions.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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