The area's prominence as a port diminished once the San Francisco-San Jose railroad was completed, however, it remained a busy center of industry (particularly canning) and was fairly notorious in the 1920s and 30s for being a "haven of vice", with its dance halls and casinos.
Following the 1968 annexing of Alviso by San Jose, booming Bay Area industrial opportunism and population growth led to some degree of both environmental upset (i.e., treated freshwater flowing into the salt marshlands) and social tension between the City of San Jose and Alviso. Residents, historical preservationists, and environmentalists have since faced the task of preserving the town's unique character while keeping it safe and habitable for both humans and native wildlife -- and this task has not always been an easy or unchallenged one.
Nowadays, the headquarters for on-demand-television pioneer TiVo and a number of boxy new $700K homes perch uneasily at the edges of town, in somewhat jarring contrast with the older family residences nestled along the short streets of Alviso proper. Only one of the area's original Victorian mansions remains (the Tilden-Laine house, pictured below), but nevertheless, the neighborhood has managed to retain something that, I'm told, is reminiscent of "old California".
Prior to just a few weeks ago, I'd not known any of that about Alviso. There was nothing obvious about it that compelled me to even bother finding out more about the town, let alone actually go there. What did eventually provide that impetus was finding out that Alviso contains a number of historical landmarks (such as the Henry Wade Warehouse), and that it might therefore be a great place to wander around with a camera. So, about 3 weeks ago a photographer friend drove up for the day and we trekked out to have a look, cameras in hand.
The first thing that surprised me was just how close Alviso was. Bus drivers on some of the lines I used to ride referred to it as "a dump" (not a term that made me want to go there), and talked about it as if it were off in the middle of nowhere. Somehow it always sounded remote -- and yet, I've apparently lived within a mere few miles of it for years.
The second thing that surprised me was how quiet it was. My friend and I pulled up into a small, gravelly parking lot near the marsh, and once he turned off the engine, I was struck almost immediately by the lack of ambient suburban hum to which I've become accustomed. Alviso is close enough to the San Jose airport such that one definitely hears the rumbling whoosh of a plane tracking overhead now and then, but in the intervals between flyovers, one doesn't hear much aside from wind in tall marshgrass and the crunch of one's own footsteps.
Certainly some of this serenity was probably due to it being midday on a Friday, as opposed to an evening or weekend (when I'd expect to hear more in the way of human bustle), but it was still quiet to an unusual degree for any area in this general vicinity.
The third thing that surprised me was Alviso's beauty. I've always liked looking at old buildings, and had been prepared (and excited) for the opportunity to see a few of those, but I did not anticipate the rest of what I found by any means. Alviso has old buildings, yes (including several lovely, crumbling, floodwashed, partly-burned, splintery ones), but as I walked around the area, I found myself noticing far more than just old buildings.
Alviso has many layers and many levels, most of which aren't obvious at first. Alviso's beauty is one of juxtaposition and overlap: an ornate Victorian house alongside a crumbling broken-down building, a carefully-tended circlet of roses in between the two structures, a hollowed-out brick-and-concrete warehouse with lush grass growing all over its interior floorspace, and the sharp silhouettes of the birds which have appropriated some of the abandoned structures as perches are just a few of the sights that stopped me in my tracks as I explored.
I also hadn't been aware previously of Alviso's wetlands, and their protected status as a wildlife reserve. For a number of years the salt wetlands (and their resident egrets, mallards, brine flies, etc.) were severely threatened by the expansion of San Jose's water treatment facilities into the area, and by asbestos and other contaminants. Conditions have improved somewhat, but salt marsh restoration is ongoing, and the ecosystem is still on the fragile side.
Walking along the trail areas of the Alviso salt marsh and mud flats (some areas are closed off to the public due to restoration regulations, but there is still plenty of ground to explore on foot regardless), I noted a preponderance of bright turquoise, orange-tan, gray-green, and maroon hues.
Alviso marsh colors
In glancing at the maroon flora growing in dense clusters along the water's edge, I noticed exquisite, minuscule daisylike blooms. When I crouched down with my camera to get a "macro" shot of these flowers, I found myself awestruck: the reddish "foliage" was actually comprised of tiny, scintillating, liquid-filled membranous bubbles!
Closeup of marsh plants
Near one of the hollowed-out buildings, I crouched down again and watched a hoverfly for a while. Many animals make their home in Alviso.
A tiny hoverfly rests on a flower in the Alviso marshlands
The old Laine grocery store looks so full of stories that one wishes one could lift up the flaps of flaking, petallike ash-gray wood and listen.
...and if one peeks inside the circuit box on the side of the building, one will find the ragged rust-blurred curls of the label on an ancient electrical fuse:
A fuse in the electrical box outside Laine's Grocery Store, 2008
It is impossible to tell from looking at Alviso today what will become of it fifty, a hundred, a thousand years from now. Certainly things will continue to change, and this is not necessarily bad: after all, the restoration of the salt marshes and the recognition of at least two endangered species (the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse) in the area have come about as humans have acknowledged the negative consequences of our own prior actions. We can and do learn.
We will likely continue attaching power lines to things...
Electrical lines attached to the Henry Wade Warehouse
...and adding structures to suit our preferred activities, such as bicycle racks...
A spiral bicycle rack casts shadows near the entrance to the wetlands park
...and I certainly don't have a problem with that sort of thing. However, I do see places like Alviso as being in tremendous need of, well, respect -- there's so much history there, and it would be a terrible shame if it were all just bulldozed and turned into generic suburban sprawl.
I doubt the residents will let that happen if they have anything to say about it, but still...I wanted to write about Alviso here in part because of how different the initial impression of it I was given (i.e., that it was "empty" and "a dump") turned out to be from the reality. The reality of Alviso is that it is anything but empty, and that it will richly reward anyone with the patience to stand in the midst of the tall marshgrass, listening to (or even simply feeling) the wind whispering by.
2. History of the Alviso Neighborhood
3. More photos of Alviso in my Flickr album
4. "Elusive Alviso" (more information and essays about the town)