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Why Does San Jose Have So Many Urban Islands?

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Why are there so many unincorporated "urban islands" in the San Jose area?

To find out, first we went to Jane Power's house. When you stand on her front porch, you'd think you're in San Jose. Walk 10 minutes south and you can be at San Jose City College. Drive a few miles east and you can be in the city's downtown.

But when Power and her neighbors cast their ballots, they don't get to vote for San Jose representatives or ballot measures.

And when they call for police, it's not the San Jose police that will come.

That's because despite being completely surrounded by San Jose on all sides, Power doesn't live in San Jose.

She lives in the unincorporated island of Burbank.

“I like being special and Burbank is special,” says Power, who chairs the Burbank Community Association, a collection of residents who gather to talk about community issues. “There’s a feeling of neighborhood. That's something that a lot of places in the Bay Area just don't have.”

All around San Jose you'll find islands just like Burbank — small communities that are completely surrounded or bordered by San Jose or Campbell, but aren’t actually part of any city at all.

While some of these islands are open land, many look just like any other neighborhood. Nearly 5,000 people live in Central Burbank alone, and they fall under the jurisdiction of Santa Clara County....

A Historic Artifact

Jane Power’s home was one of the first houses built in her subdivision in 1905. The bedrooms have no closets and the street in front of her home is so narrow that you can park on only one side of it. Perhaps it was the perfect width for a horse-drawn carriage, but not enough for the cars of today.

Areas like Burbank developed long before the neighborhoods around them did, says Bill Shoe, the principal planner of the Santa Clara Planning Department. In fact, developers began building the first residential tracts in Burbank as early as 1904. Shoe says these islands are a direct result of the way San Jose expanded.

“They're like a window into the history of urbanization in the county," he says.

After World War II, the suburbanization of San Jose mirrored national trends. Returning veterans, the advent of the car and expanding freeways incentivized the city to expand its borders as a way to grow its tax base.

But this growth wasn't always uniform or rational. Because some land was easier to annex than others, the city would skip over pockets of land to continue its outward growth.

“It resulted in an irregular and dysfunctional set of boundaries," Shoe says.

The pockets of land that got skipped over were often neighborhoods with homes built by those who worked at the canneries or in agriculture before the war -- long before anyone thought about suburbanization.

Plans to Annex

While there aren’t as many unincorporated urban islands as there once were, the county plans to eventually dissolve them all into neighboring and surrounding cities, says Neelima Palacherla, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission of Santa Clara County.


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