Say the name “Mary Grizzle” and the next thing people here think of is reclaiming Santa Clara’s historical downtown, demolished in the post-WWII urban renewal mania.
Grizzle’s family immigrated to California from the Azores when she was a small child. They moved from the Central Valley to Santa Clara when she was in high school.
“We loved Santa Clara,” she said. “It was small, quaint, like the village we came from, and there were a lot of Portuguese people. My parents could participate in the events at the Portuguese Hall. All of the downtown stores knew the kids and watched over us — it was a village.”
Now she’s working to bring it back.
It’s the natural extension of a lifetime of community activism that began when she was young and had to advocate for her Portuguese immigrant parents, who spoke little English.
“I always had to stick up for my father as a young kid,” she said. “Because he didn’t speak English and he’d buy a car and they tried to rip him off. My sisters and I would have to intervene.”
As a high school student, she wasn’t afraid to confront authority.
“When I was still in high school, I went for the citizenship test,” she said. “The judge wanted to know who I would vote for. I wrote letters to government officials, all the way up to the federal government. That judge was fired.”
Grizzle’s crusade to save — and now to restore — Santa Clara’s downtown began with her parents’ house. In 1964, she and her sister bought the house for her parents with money the sisters had saved.
The urban renewal plan to demolish downtown was already underway and in 1969 the City came for Grizzle’s parents’ house. Grizzle started going to city council meetings to advocate for the people who lived in the old neighborhoods.
“I caught urban renewal doing a lot of illegal things like going into people’s yards without notifying owners,” she said. “Like what they did with my parents.
“They took pictures at the trashcans,” she continued. “That’s all they took pictures of, and then called it a blight area. They did that with several other residents. Well, I took my own pictures, and went to the council meeting with them and advised that the City should get rid of urban renewal, not the neighborhood.”
Grizzle fought hard and won a temporary reprieve.
“Residents did get rid of urban renewal,” she said. “But eventually the City did force the people to sell. That’s how the City worked at that time. The City wanted to buy these old homes, beautiful homes. My mother’s house was gorgeous. And people were all pressured into selling to the City, which sold the property to the university — streets and all.”
Grizzle subsequently married and moved with her husband, who was a teacher, to Santa Maria in the early 1970s. When she returned to Santa Clara for the first time, the downtown she remembered was completely gone.
“When I saw it, I just cried,” she said.
In 1999, Grizzle’s husband died, and her mother began having seizures and couldn’t be alone. So, she moved back to Santa Clara. She worked at the senior center, for San Mateo County, and finally in a local furniture store before retiring.
After her mother died, she said, “I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to get over my mother’s death and I was just getting fat and sour.
“I finally woke up one morning and I said, ‘I’m not going to let myself die because my mother’s gone. I’m going to find something to do,’” Grizzle continued. “[I] started looking. Somebody approached me about Reclaiming Our Downtown.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Grizzle distinguished herself by her inexhaustible research into the geography of the old downtown; the original street grid layout, and the buildings and businesses that were there. She was recognized last year with the 2022 Austen Warburton award, given by the Mission City Community Fund for outstanding community service.
She believes that this effort will succeed where previous ones haven’t. One reason is that this is a grassroots effort, unlike previous plans that were born in City Hall.
Another thing, Grizzle says, is “unity between all the factions. We might disagree with the Old Quad Residents Association or the university on certain things. But we’re all in unity and all focused on one thing bringing back the downtown. There’s no divisiveness there.”
It’s still personal for Grizzle.
“I want to bring back the downtown in memory of my mother and my father,” she said. “And for my grandkids and my great grandkids.”