Feature photo by neighborhoods.org / Photo above by Mark McLaughlin

“. . . I realize that for the first time, I don’t hate San Jose.”

SANTANA ROW IS THE NEW ATTRACTION IN SAN JOSE, and my friend Bernardo and I are walking down its smooth, pink sidewalk. Tiny white lights twinkle charmingly in tiny trees, shop windows gleam, and the beautiful people of San Jose mill about, cell phones at the ready.

Even if it were daytime, we couldn’t see the mountains, because the tall, smooth buildings block the view.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

San Jose’s real downtown, three miles away, has been in steady decline since a wildly misguided “redevelopment” effort in the 1950s. Now, Santana Row has simply replaced it. Bernardo and I find this upsetting, and predict that the lingering downtown businesses will be gone within five years.

Bernardo can comment on the dying downtown once, and leave it alone, but I can’t stop opining: look at this place, I tell him, it’s so false, pretending to be a “Main Street.”

Main Street my butt, Main Street of Gucci and Starbucks. It’s nice to have public space, but only people who can afford this crap will come here, so, what, public space is an upper-middle-class privilege now?

Bernardo nods and mm-hmms at my ranting, and leads me into a shoe store. We check out price tags: shocking! A clothing store: if we added up the value of every article of clothing we’re wearing between us, we could afford a tank top.

As we head for the door, I see Bernardo slip something into his pocket, and look at him in surprise. He giggles. “Your face, chica!” he cries, and steers me outside by the elbow.

In the light of a streetlamp, he opens his fingers to reveal a pinched-off inch of succulent from the planter in the store window. I feel a grin spread across my face, and then burst into laughter.

Bernardo laughs, too, and we stand there bursting with joy over this filched scrap of life.

We agree to dedicate the rest of the evening to liberating genetic material from the Row. By the time we leave, Bernardo’s pockets are filled with specimens of half a dozen species.

Photo by Marcin Wichary

A few weeks later, in Bernardo’s miracle of a backyard garden, I see our cuttings, green and shiny, rooted in tiny pots along the porch railing. In the side yard, Bernardo’s botanical tribute to the country of his birth: nopales, maguey, corn, beans, squash. A huge avocado tree and all the plants he’s begged, borrowed, or stolen somewhere in this Valley.

As Bernardo leads me around his yard, I realize that for the first time, I don’t hate San Jose. For the first time, I believe that this was once a valley of fruit trees, and before that, a plain of oaks, groomed by fire.

I feel myself claim this place as my hometown: the freeways and shopping malls and suburbs, and in that sea of development, the archipelago of gardens, planters, trees, fields. The mountains that define the valley, just as they always have.