Did success kill Heinlenville?

I’ve been guilty of repeating a particular story about Heinlenville (as perhaps others have) without checking the facts:

We hear it repeated that the fall of Heinlenville was due to John Heinlen becoming bankrupt during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and that this was where the city of San Jose stepped in and took Heinlenville away.

This always seemed suspicious to me, since nearly everyone was bankrupted by the depression! So what are the facts?

First off, John Heinlen died in 1903, and his family took over the management of Heinlenville, which they did well and capably for many years.

In a history of San Jose created by the Anthropological Studies Center of Sonoma State University, we learn that any Chinese American children who grew up in Heinlenville would eventually find employment and housing opportunities elsewhere that would draw them away from this aging ghetto. Any new Chinese immigrants that might have replaced them were gradually shut out by different laws such as the Exclusion Act. This flight of tenants is what brought the Heinlen Company down and forced them to auction off the property. The Japanese and Filipinos and African Americans had also come to this area, but it looks like they lived mostly on the outskirts of Heinlenville.

Cities see plenty of change and movement throughout their history; we are seeing this today in San Jose of course. Words like white flight or gentrification are evidence of our emotional reactions to these changes, but it’s never likely that we can stop change. California, especially, has seen waves of different populations, each bringing permanent change to California, for better or worse: the Spanish missionaries, the 49ers of the Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants, “Okies” during the Dust Bowl, filmmakers invading southern California, hippies, high tech wizards like Charles Litton and Shockley … and the hipsters of today.

Shall we be open to embracing change, in the way that Johann Heinlen was open to accepting Chinese immigrants as tenants… and as friends.



More information about Heinlenville

On Oct 1, representatives of the firm Related California met with members of the Japantown Neighborhood Association to clarify issues surrounding the development of the Heinlenville property.

WDA and Related will have a meeting with the San Jose Planning Commission on Tuesday regarding a zoning change that will permit retail on the property. It seems to be that this was settled previously, but oh well.

So the exact composition of the retail establishments is still up in the air. The developers said that there has been demand to add another restaurant to the mix. The last we heard was that possibly Nijiya would move to a larger facility, and a pharmacy would move in, but this has not been decided yet.


The hot-button topic for the neighborhood association seems to be PARKING. The development now is planned to have 520 units in six stories. The spokesman for Related said that they would build 1.4 parking spaces for each unit. Are we assuming that all of the new tenants will be young and that they will all ride bicycles? I don’t see how we can assume – or require this. This is California, and people drive cars here. Expect each bedroom to have one car going with it – parked somewhere….

Since this property is located six blocks from VTA light rail, the developer has the opportunity to reduce their parking allotment even lower than this. This is due to a new regulation from San Jose city. I’m working to find the specifics on this. Something called “Reduced Parking Density”. The real world effect will be visitor parking in Japantown overflowing into nearby neighborhoods and reducing quality of life for residents.

On the plus side, it turns out that the former ball field near the Akiyama Wellness center, which I believe is owned by the city, is being considered as a city parking lot. This is a good idea – I think – for a number of reasons:

  • Instead of providing parking on the new Heinlenville site and continuing to draw business away from established businesses along Jackson Street, this will encourage visitors to Heinlenville to walk through the older district, both coming and going, and re-discover these shops and restaurants.
  • Visitors to downtown San Jose will be enabled to park in Japantown and take VTA light rail into San Jose, easing downtown traffic and parking issues, as well as introducing more people to Japantown. Everyone wins.