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February 23, 2024 5:02am
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Murphy: Sunnyvale's Main Man

Murphy Avenue is probably the best-known area in Sunnyvale

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Murphy Aveneue is probably the best-known area in Sunnyvale (well, perhaps besides the Yahoo! building), but the neighborhood's heritage can be lost in the enticing aromas of world-class restaurants or jovial spirits of Sunnyvale nightlife. Yes, there was a time before that, and we're not just talking about the original Sunnyvale Town Center (which opened in 1979).

No, it all comes back down to a man named, appropriately enough, Murphy. Martin Murphy Jr., that is. Martin and his family are more than just a key note in Sunnyvale's history; in fact, it dates back farther than that, when the historic Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party grouped together and left Iowa to head west. It was 1844, after all, and the notion of "There's gold in them hills!" had started to tickle the fancy of many a mid-westerner. This particular group was notable, though, for pioneering the Donner Pass over the Sierra Nevada range two years before the Donner Party and five years before the legendary rush of 49ers headed west.

The Murphys -- and indeed, the rest of the families in the party -- were successful in their gold mining. Martin Murphy Jr. took some of his earnings and bought a chunk of land called Rancho Pastoria de las Borregas in 1850 following the Mexican-American War, which now makes up Sunnyvale and neighboring Mountain View. Murphy put his roots down, establishing a ranch farm and building the first wood-frame house in Santa Clara County. In fact, you can see a replica of this house at the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum. True aficionados are out of luck, though, as the original house was demolished in 1961.

Even though Martin Murphy Jr. died in 1884, his legacy lived on in the town that bore his name. However, Murphy's residents discovered they could no longer use the name in 1901; instead, the name Sunnyvale was officially chosen to be the name. Nearly a decade later, Sunnyvale incorporated to become an official city.  As the city grew, the area around the Murphy Farm became the central gathering spot for commerce, and a downtown vibe grew up around the area known as Murphy Street.

In the past century, the city of Sunnyvale has seen plenty of changes. The farming community of the early 1900s could have never imagined the technology being produced today in companies such as Yahoo! and AMD. Similarly, Murphy Street has seen its share of businesses come and go, and even the vibe of the neighborhood has changed quite drastically. At one point, Murphy Street was the heart of a traditional downtown area. In 1979, the massive Sunnyvale Town Center shopping mall opened, and for a good number of years, was quite successful and often dwarfed the goings-on in the Murphy Street area. However, like many shopping malls during the late 1990s, Sunnyvale Town Center began to decline and was eventually shut down in 2007.

In its place, a new downtown shopping district was planned, along with high-rise commercial offices ready to stand next to Silicon Valley giants. Of course, the global economic downturn affected things, and while the Murphy Street area (or technically, South Murphy Avenue) maintained its popularity, the redevelopment slowed. Today, things have began moving forward again, and the city of Sunnyvale looks to revitalize its downtown the way that a downtown should be -- vibrant outdoor blocks of shops and restaurants, where daytime shopping and nightlife can coexist. Mobile phone giant Nokia signed a lease for one of the giant office buildings in May 2010, and in December 2010 -- just a little while from now -- staff will begin moving over.

Other work continues for both commercial and residential purposes, with the ultimate goal of creating a cohesive work-and-fun downtown that acts as a boon to the local economy. Through it all, Murphy Avenue has stood the test of time, and its collection of restaurants, bars, and entertainment continue to be Sunnyvale's entertainment heartbeat. The rest of downtown may soon prove to be just as popular, but there's certainly something intangible about the tradition that the Murphy Avenue area holds.


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