For years, Campbell was the quintessential California suburb, a community of pleasant residential streets orbiting around one major shopping center. In recent years, though, this city of 39,000 residents has done its best to shed this image while revitalizing its historic downtown core. Today, downtown’s Campbell Avenue is a hub of activity, with shops and restaurants and a year-round slate of community events.
But strolling through downtown, past sidewalk diners at Mo’s and Willard Hicks – or at local favorites Opa! or Aqui – doesn’t only provide evidence of Campbell’s trip into the future. Downtown is also a portal into Campbell’s past.
One block from Campbell Avenue is Orchard City Drive, a name plucked directly from Campbell’s agricultural roots. At South 2nd Street and Orchard City, the historic Campbell Water Tower still stands. Erected in the 1890s by city founder Benjamin Campbell, it’s just a few blocks away from the historic Campbell Farmer’s Union Building, a one-time fruit packing warehouse that is now the headquarters for tech company On-Site.com, one of Campbell’s top 10 employers. Residents of a certain age might also remember this building as The Bodega nightclub, one of three live music venues that rocked Campbell in the 1970s and 80s. Back then you didn’t have to drive to San Francisco to see Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Eddie Money or even Neil Young; you could see them in Campbell.
In revitalizing its downtown, Campbell’s city leaders emphasized preserving as much of their city’s past as possible. Sometimes that meant repurposing historic buildings like the Farmer’s Union Building and the glorious Mission/Spanish revival campus of Campbell High School. Established in 1900, the high school was shuttered due to declining enrollment in 1980. Today it serves as Campbell’s community center. Its imposing auditorium is now the Heritage Theater, which still draws big name performers.
Campbell also found a new use for the historic Ainsley House, an Arts and Crafts mansion built as a private home in 1925. Once located on 83 acres at the corner of Hamilton and Bascom Avenues, it was moved downtown to 300 Grant Street in 1990 and is now the Campbell Historical Museum. Its carriage house, also moved, is now an art gallery. As for the corner of Hamilton and Bascom? Today it’s where you’ll find the headquarters of eBay, Campbell’s most prominent tech resident.
For all of its historical importance to the growth of the Santa Clara Valley, Campbell did not incorporate as a city until 1952. If you tour Campbell today you’ll see that rapid growth followed incorporation and continued into the 1970s. You’ll see modest ranch-style homes built between 1950 and 1980, the ones that earned Campbell its reputation as the embodiment of middle-class suburbia, with a smattering of newer, larger homes that reflect the changes in Santa Clara County as the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” became “Silicon Valley.”
You’ll also see new construction closer to downtown, multi-story condominiums and apartments located within walking distance of both Campbell Avenue and the Campbell light rail station. Downtown has responded with a weekly Farmers’ Market and regular events such as fashion shows, outdoor wine walks featuring products from local wineries, outdoor movies and events for each major holiday. On these days, Campbell’s streets fill with families, young professionals, retirees – the entire town comes out to enjoy what seems to always be great weather and the buzz of an active community. This is what Campbell was in its days as an agricultural powerhouse, and what it’s become again today.