Tuesday, August 28, 2012

More Dickensian!

Short shameful confession time again.

When I consider a new scene, I'll start out with all the usual, upstanding inspirations. I'll check historical maps and photos, I'll look for city directories, and I'll check similar, nearby places. All correct, all historically accurate, all suitably earnest.

But then I'll grab inspiration from memory and my own past, and dump some of that carefully reconstructed history as I substitute some memory from a childhood road trip. That's a problem because I wasn't around in the 1930's, but I assume that the buildings around 1930's San Jose resembles the industrial areas of Oakland when I was growing up, or looks a bit like the wrong side of the tracks in Modesto or Merced. More likely, I'll think about dusty Central Valley towns with long, barn like buildings and empty space around them. Some of the Packing Houses of Central California photos give me inspiration.

But those scenes aren't always realistic. Althought many of the dried fruit packing plants in Sunnyvale or San Jose match that "barn by the tracks" look, that's not always accurate for all industries… especially the large canneries.

When I'm thinking about the Del Monte cannery, or the (not modeled) U.S. Products and Contadina canneries just south of that site, "I'm mostly thinking of the 1940's structures. Here's two photos of Del Monte Plant #3. The first photo was taken in 2007 just before they tore down the old plant buildings. The second is from a slide I bought at Winterrail last year showing the Los Gatos Creek side of the cannery. Both show the Art Deco concrete warehouse structures that were built in the 1940's - old fashioned and appropriate to my eye. Then we get buildings like Mayfair Packing's site on South 10th Street - probably dating to the 1950's, but a relatively modern looking building. But are they really representative of what the area looked like in the 1930's?

Luckily, there's a few photos of the area in earlier times, and they're nice reminders of how industrial buildings changed from the turn of the century to the 1950's. This first photo is a small portion of a large panorama from the John C. Gordon collection at San Jose State University, taken in the early 1930's. (The second Del Monte photo was probably taken on the other side of the creek, closer to the plant, in the late 1960's.) Orchard Supply's future site is just a fallow field for now, and across the creek, rather than a modern concrete building, is a series of tin and brick buildings, expanding in every which way with vents, pipes, and smokestacks sticking up like a porcupine. Perhaps it's just the black-and-white photo, but "Dickensian" springs to mind as an apt description. The U.S. Products cannery along Race St. had the same look in the photo I shared a few weeks ago: massive, dark, forbidding… and popping up out of the back of that photo was the roofline of the Herschel California (Contadina) cannery on the Lincoln Ave. side of the tracks.

The buildings look more like some of San Francisco's former industrial areas than like a Valley town. On the plus side, these canneries do bear a strong resemblance to all those Campbell HO model buildings that often looked like additions and smokestacks had been added until the designer's scrapbox was empty. Looks like that isn't just artistic license.

At some point, I'll be in the midst of building, and I'll ask myself how much difference can a few years make? But I know from past experience that progress was racing ahead even way back when, and the new buildings I'm picturing based on my imagined idea of what 1930's San Jose looked like may just be a bad guess based on some childhood vacation.

Next time I'm doing that, I'll shout out "More dickensian!" and we'll see how it goes.

[First photo: Del Monte Plant #3, 2003, my photo. Second photo: Other side of Del Monte Plant #3, October 1965, East West Rail Scenes/my collection. Third photo: Google Street View. Fourth photo: Del Monte Plant #3, early 1930's, John C. Gordon collection, SJSU. Fifth photo, Hershel (Contadina) cannery, Lincoln Ave as seen peeking behind U.S. Products Cannery. John C. Gordon collection, SJSU.]

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