A first-time visitor to San Jose's Fairglen Eichler development may come away thinking the neighborhood is Eichler crazy.
During the annual 'Fairglen Eichler Home Tour,' locals on the street wear 'I Love Eichler' t-shirts, carry Eichler totes, and delve into the minutiae of cork floors, slate counters versus Corian, and the ideal shade of orange for the front door. Inside their homes, enough space-age George Nelson clocks decorate the walls—some houses have three—to keep the factory in business.
The neighborhood is also home to budding entrepreneurs with Eichler wares. Carmen Nicholls manufactures authentic Eichler house numbers for homeowners whose originals have failed the test of time; and Diana Rich, who runs Eichler Style, designs t-shirts and totes, Eichler bibs, coffee mugs, and more.
Scratch the surface, though, and you'll discover what really makes Fairglen special—its neighborliness. The home tour, which is open to residents and friends, is one of the neighborhood's largest social events, but just one of many, which range from a street barbecue to artist open studios, wine tasting, and Christmas caroling.
Besides official events, which are advertised online and in the tiny neighborhood newsletter, the 'Eichler Blockhead,' there are many casual gatherings, dinners, dinner parties, Bunco games, even a weekly 'Desperate Housewives' party. Some of these events occasionally include what Fairglenner Chris Connor playfully calls 'normals,' their non-Eichler neighbors.
What brings people together initially, neighbors say, are the Eichler homes—their pitfalls and promise, the way of life they promote, and their ethos. "It starts with the houses and the architecture," Dave Peterson says of life in Fairglen, "and it then develops."
"Somehow the Eichlers attract people who have something in common," says Tom Borsellino.
People in Fairglen love Eichlers and modern furnishings, and no one more so than Borsellino, who has lived in the neighborhood twice. But what brought him back the second time wasn't style, but substance. He missed "the type of people the houses attract," people with a wide range of interests who arrange visits not via e-mail but by ringing the bell.
"One of the things that attracts me to Eichlers is the optimism of the 1950s," Borsellino says. "It was a more neighborly time."
Fairglen, which includes more than 300 houses in three separate pockets in the Willow Glen section of San Jose, was built from 1957 to 1962. The neighborhood has no community center and no regulations. But it is tied together by formal and informal networks.
The neighborhood home tour, organized by a revolving committee of a dozen Eichler owners, attracted 250 locals last May. An online chat room allows neighbors to discuss problems, learn about modern furnishings spotted in nearby thrift stores, and stay in touch. The 'Blockhead,' published by Carmen Nicholls, publicizes happenings and announces birthdays. Eichlers-for-sale open houses always attract neighbors, who love to admire, criticize, and learn from their neighbors' homes, and chat with friends.
The result is a neighborhood that really feels like a neighborhood. Borsellino, whose work took him to Chicago between his two stays in Fairglen, says he met few neighbors in the Windy City—even though homes all had front porches, which neo-urbanist theorists say promote friendships. And those neighbors he met proved less than stimulating. "I went an entire year," he says, "when I didn't have a single conversation that didn't end up with sports."
"Here people just drop in," says Sandra Ailio, who's lived in Fairglen for two years. She attributes some of that to friendships made on the home tour, which concludes with a barbecue. In Fairglen, Nicholls says, "People just come on in, and you end up having a glass of wine, and there's the evening."
Sandra and Juta Ailio were shopping for a home in the neighborhood when they met Dave and Lynne Peterson at one of the Eichler open houses of Loni Nagwani, an energetic Fairglenner who specializes in Eichler real estate. The Petersons almost ordered them to buy a house in the neighborhood, and then took them home for dinner.
And when newcomers finally move in, Phyllis Van Wagner is likely to greet them with a houseplant. "I'm one of the older people, and I should do that," says Van Wagner, an original homeowner whose home was one of the first in the neighborhood.