A couple of weeks ago, I went to the last movie showing at the Century 21 theater in San Jose. The Century 21, which dates from 1964, was a wonderful place to see movies: one of the last widescreen theaters in the area, it was the perfect environment to see popcorn movies. The dome could hold a thousand people, and the acoustics were great. (There were, however bad seats: in a place that large, sitting way off to the side made it difficult to get a clear view of the screen.) The Rocket Scientist and I saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban there, cheering with the huge sold-out first showing crowd as Hermione decked Draco Malfoy.
Appropriately, given that there is a fight going on about the preservation of the domes, the last movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. The outfit that was showing “vintage” movies on weekends (The Retrodome) gave out plastic fedoras and small rubber snakes. There was also a button with a quote from the movie (“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”) which I immediately put on my backpack but which has now disappeared. (It makes me feel older than I can express that a movie I waited three hours to get opening day tickets for in Boston when I was in college is now “vintage.”)
The organization that ran the theaters did not own the land under them. The lease came up this spring, and rather than renew it, the landowners opted to lease the land instead to developer of Santana Row, the faux-village mixed-use development across the street. Intended to evoke the feeling of large cities, with retail on the ground floor and housing up above, Santana Row only resembles a cityscape as kept up by Disney. It’s too neat, too tidy, too upscale, too… Silicon Valley … to be authentic. I go to the theater in the Row often — it’s a nice enough multiplex — because it tends to show more artsy and independent films. Other than that, I avoid it like the plague.
The new lessees have stated their intention to demolish the domes, a local landmark for fifty years. The city is considering landmark designation, and I am sure there is an effort to get federal or state protection as well. The developer has stated that even if they are forced to retain the outer shell of the buildings, they will gut the interiors and use them for something other than theaters. This is crazy: the largest central dome is a great performance venue. Don’t want to use it for movies? Use it for live theater. With a few tweaks, it would be fantastic.
Should the city try and save it? I don’t know. So much of historic preservation is a matter of picking battles. The domes are unique, but are they worth spending the political and other capital needed to keep them intact? I’m not sure.
Preservation is so often a balancing act: nostalgia for the past (which I think is driving a lot of the “Save the Domes” movement) can’t in and of itself be enough to hold onto buildings. Where the interesting buildings were built in the last half of the 20th century, it becomes difficult to assess the actual value of buildings to the future. Holding onto the past because we are demoralized by the insane pace of change under our feet is not in and of itself enough, nor should it be.
Not that I don’t understand the nostalgia. I have lived in this area for a quarter of the century, and watched, often grief-stricken, as agricultural fields have given way to housing and office parks. The fields are remembered in the names of the streets that have been shoved on top of them, but that’s about it. “Pruneyard” and “Cherry Orchard” were not given those names because they sounded cute.
I’m fighting this in my backyard, too. A local shopping center is being redeveloped into a Santana Row-like mixed use center, except much uglier. The fight going on centers around a small cheese and produce market, beloved by pretty much everyone. The market owns its land, but not the land that they have been using for parking. That land is slated to be turned into buildings. Unlike the domes, nostalgia for the past is not driving the fight: a totally unprepossessing building, the Milk Pail is a vital resource for anyone who loves cooking for a ten-mile radius.
A candidate for City Council has a Daily Kos diary in which he sneeringly referred to the “no-growthers” in Mountain View. That would be a lot of the people in my neighborhood: it is our traffic that is being snarled, our schools which are being impacted. Fighting to keep our way of life should not be derided. Funny, but the people unhappy about development seem to live in the neighborhoods east of El Camino. Guess where the bulk of the development is going on?
I do understand the need for some growth, especially for housing. It is bad enough that the tech companies (I’m looking at you Google, but you’re not the only one) have driven the housing market up. Recently, the spiking rents caused a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission to leave and move to Washington, since she and her husband could no longer afford to rent an apartment in Mountain View. The city keeps wanting to add jobs — given the tax structures in California, a city’s corporate base is pretty much its tax base — without adequately addressing the housing problem. I would be less unhappy about the new apartments going up if I thought at least some of them were reasonably priced, but they won’t be. My kids will not be able to afford to live anywhere near here: already the Not-So-Little Drummer boy is saving up to move to some other part of the country. The diversity of ages, races and socioeconomic statuses that I have loved here, that made my town such a special place, is being homogenized out. We’re not Palo Alto, but we’re getting there fast.
Given the destruction of my town’s character, I have a hard time giving more than a passing sigh at the fate of the Century Domes.