With more than a million residents, San Jose, California is the tenth-largest city in the United States—but you’d never guess it if you visited Willow Glen, one of the city’s most coveted neighborhoods. Despite being just two miles from downtown San Jose, the area, which is marked by historic homes, tree-lined streets, and a walkable downtown strip, has a distinctly independent vibe. While it’s technically part of San Jose, to its residents, Willow Glen is also something of a community unto itself.
Throughout its history, the neighborhood has fought to preserve its intimate vibe. Willow Glen began in the mid-1800s as an unincorporated community adjacent to San Jose. Frank Lewis and Isaac Bird realized the potential of the uniquely wet, marshy area that grew willows—hence the name “Willow Glen”—for raising crops. They dug a channel that drained the marsh in 1860, opening the land for farming. By the end of the century, Willow Glen was a top spot for cultivating wheat, barley, hay, tobacco, and hops.
In 1927, during planning of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Willow Glen, which didn’t want a locomotive hub running through its land, became its own city. Residents soon realized, however, that they were lacking their own sewage system—a major issue given the area’s history with flooding. Rather than build their own expensive sewer system, the community agreed to become part of San Jose in 1936.
From its earliest beginnings, commercial and community activity has centered around one street. Originally known as Willow Glen Road, it was renamed Lincoln Avenue shortly after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Since the 1940s, the centerpiece of Lincoln Avenue has been the Garden Theatre, a motion picture venue known for its amber chandeliers, etched glass doors, and painted murals. With its floral-themed, neon-lettered marquee, it best defined the magnificence of Lincoln Avenue in the Fifties and Sixties. The building still stands today, and it remains the hallmark of the neighborhood’s version of Main Street: while it’s occupied by offices and retail, the exterior signage remains—flowers, leaves, lettering, and all.
Throughout “The Glen,” as locals sometimes call it, you’ll encounter friendly, laid-back families as well as abodes in a diverse range of architectural styles, including Victorian, Craftsman, Mission, Prairie, and Spanish style homes. Residents of the tight-knit community have a zest for preserving tradition. For example, every holiday the town has a distinct tradition that draws visitors from all around the Bay Area: luminous Christmas trees and decorations in front of every house, a ritual that began in 1950 with the Cimino family, and one that still stretches to more than 200 streets today.
In the San Jose vicinity? Take a morning or afternoon to explore Willow Glen, particularly the downtown area on Lincoln Avenue between Minnesota and Willow, which possesses the rare sensibility of catering to families, dogs, pedestrians, bikers, and drivers all at the same time.
Below photos from upper left: Willow Glen Sweet Shoppe features a board game table and walls of sweets. A water tower sculpture stands along the Three Creeks Trail. The Garden Theatre is now a home for restaurants and small shops. Its marquee advertises neighborhood events. A sign advertises the weekly Willow Glen Farmers’ Market. Pedestrians cross busy Lincoln Ave.
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Or get the flavors of Willow Glen delivered from these restaurants: