Martha’s Gardens: The Half-Gentrified Gem

Take a look at how low-income housing is working in San Jose’s “Martha’s Garden,” a half-industrial, half-bungalow neighborhood on the verge of gentrification, put on hold by city and developer economic concerns.

Old Canning Factory in Martha's Gardens
Old Canning Factory in Martha’s Gardens

The plan for Martha’s Gardens neighborhood in San Jose, California is a relatively bold development considering the makeup of the city in which it sits. For the past several decades, the neighborhood has been a half-bungalow, half-industrial mix with an art metal foundry (the San Jose State University) and few artists holed up in a nearby former fruit-canning factory called “The Citadel”. Until recently, the “Martha’s Garden” neighborhood had no real identity, and was curiously devoid of a garden.

Today Martha’s Gardens is home to the Art Ark apartment complex, Bestor Art Park, Art Ark Gallery, and a block of mixed-density apartment dwellings, half of which are street-facing, engaging the neighborhood streets. The Art Ark complex itself, hosts monthly gallery openings year round with a mix of artists from the surrounding community and often group shows featuring various SJSU art programs. The apartment complex also hosts weekly movie nights during the summer months.

The Art Ark development seems unlike our standard vision of the average low-income development, it’s clean, well maintained, loved by its residents, and often a vibrant beacon of creativity for the neighborhood.

A woman browses art at the "Coyote Creek" show opening in the Ar
A woman browses art at the “Coyote Creek” show opening in the Art Ark Gallery.

The neighboring Bestor Art Park, although curiously devoid of art for the moment (a statue commissioned by the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs is due to be installed in the coming months), boasts a small basketball half-court, playground, and an extremely green and active community garden.

The whole development brings to mind how amazing a housing development can be when its mission is clear and focused. Some developers may set their priority too greatly on making a profit, while others have no focus, save for creating housing for ‘lower income residents.’ The latter of these two can create a  mix of incoming renters far too dispersed to create any real sense of community. Like it or not, the only common thread in many of these projects is that all of the inhabitants are low-earners.

At Art Ark however, the focus is on ‘artists,’ and it works well for the apartment residents and neighborhood, just as focusing on ‘teachers’ works for another local housing complex, or how ‘technology’ could work for a yet-to-be-built development. There are many ways in which developers, cities, and builders can begin to build more cohesive communities, some of them rely on finding a single common ground for tennants, others put emphasis on mixing disciplines in a strategic way with general common goal in mind (art and technology in pursuit of inventions for a better world, for instance).

The people in these “focused” low income developments are regularly found to be ecstatic fans of their homes and communities, so much so that the wait to secure an apartment in developments such as this can be many months long.

And that’s here in San Jose’s “Martha’s Garden,” a yet only a half-gentrified gem. One can imagine the wait list if the neighborhood transition were to  be completed. Maybe for the artists and creatives living here though, a half-gentrified neighborhood is preferable to a completed one.

If an organized and cohesive community is something so loved and sought after by people, why is it so difficult to find in many major cities?

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