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Santa Clara—the city nobody wants to name

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The South Bay city is good enough for 49ers home game, but rarely gets mentioned

Sunset view of a street and surrounding buildings.
Surrounding buildings near Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

It was a big day for Santa Clara on Sunday.

But you wouldn’t know it watching the NFC Championship game at Levi’s Stadium, where the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers 37-20 to qualify for the Super Bowl.

The broadcast’s many seemingly non sequitur establishing shots of San Francisco and Oakland caused the city’s name to trend on Twitter for entirely sarcastic reasons, along with grumbling that, despite the 49ers relocating to the South Bay in 2014, neither the NFL nor the networks want to acknowledge the city of Santa Clara itself.

Here’s a quick history of the new NFC champ’s chronically under-appreciated homestead, sandwiched between Sunnyvale and San Jose.

  • A Spanish scout for the Portola-Serra expedition, Jose Francisco Ortega, stumbled on the Santa Clara Valley in 1769. Eight years later Spain established Mission Santa Clara, named for Clare, the patron saint of eye disease and later television (since legend has it she viewed mass remotely while too sick to attend).
  • Prior to the completion of Mission Santa Clara, Santa Clara University estimates as many as 40 indigenous tribes already occupied the region, with an estimated combined population of 10,000. As in other mission locations, the missionaries considered conversion and baptism compulsory for the nearby tribes; by 1828, Mission Santa Clara recorded over 8,200 baptisms, but also more than 6,400 deaths, most of them due to exposure to European diseases.
  • In 1851, the mission building became a university; in fact, it was “the first college of higher learning in the new state of California.” Note that the current mission building is not the original, which a 1926 fire destroyed, but rather a significantly larger reconstruction.
  • The onslaught of the Gold Rush provoked the construction of a larger and more formalized community in the area around the mission. In 1850, land surveyor William Campbell divided the acreage into 100-square-yard lots. Anyone who wanted land was granted it gratis, but if they didn’t build a house within three months, they lost their claim. Rather than build for themselves, nearly two dozen people opted to ship in homes from the East Coast.
  • The town officially incorporated in 1852, in those days spanning an area less than two square miles. Tanning, flower seeds, and especially fruit farming and canning drove the local economy in the subsequent decades.
  • By 1906, Santa Clara’s population hit 5,000 people. According to Lest We Forget: Complete Story of the San Francisco Horror, a history of the 1906 earthquake published the same year, the quake caused roughly half a million dollars worth of damage on Santa Clara (more than $14 million in today’s currency). The Auzerias building, Elks Club, Unique Theater, and many other buildings on Santa Clara Street crumbled. The Sacramento Bee reported that the old mission “was scarcely injured.”
  • Santa Clara remained a mostly agricultural outpost of just a few thousand people until World War II. In the following decade, city historians credit “a new product, the semiconductor chip” and “the resulting electronics industry” for a population boom. Although growth was still a matter of fits and starts—the city didn’t have a hospital until 1963.
  • In 1950, Santa Clara County had a population of fewer than 300,000 people, and the cirty of Santa Clara was less than 12,000. By 1960, the populations hovered around 640,000 and 60,000, respectively. By the 1970s, which saw the dawn of the personal computer industry, the county was home to more than one million people.
  • Today, Santa Clara itself boasts a population of nearly 130,000. In 2018, 57 percent of the population was college educated, and the median household income is more than $127,000, up from $81,000 in 2010.
  • The average Santa Clara home is worth more than $1.2 million, and the city’s gross median rent is nearly $2,500, one of the highest in the region.
  • In 2006, the San Francisco 49ers began negotiating with the city of San Francisco to build a new stadium, having grown tired of their familiar but antiquated home at Candlestick Park. Failing to broker a deal in SF, the team decided to move. Around 58 percent of Santa Clara voters backed a referendum in 2010 to build a new $1.2 billion, 68,500-plus seat stadium. Construction began on what would eventually be named Levi’s Stadium in 2012.
  • Despite the 50-mile relocation, the team insists on keeping the San Francisco imprimatur in the official team name, uniforms, and merchandise, despite SF City Hall’s threats to try to block the use of the city name.
  • There are 38.61 miles between San Francisco and Santa Clara. It takes approximately one hour and 10 minutes to reach by car, and nearly two hours via public transportation.
  • Although it’s been more than five years, broadcasts from the venue rarely mention Santa Clara by name, often referring to the locale as “Silicon Valley” or “the San Francisco Bay Area.”