California

Silicon Valley, then and now

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Sunday afternoon at the Apple store on University Avenue in Palo Alto. LA Observed photo.

In the opening of a piece that is mostly about Silicon Valley techheads venturing into politics, the New Yorker's George Packer describes the changes being wrought in San Francisco and the peninsula communities south of the city by the new wealth of Silicon Valley's current occupants. You might admire it, you might not, but it's happening. He compares the Palo Alto he grew up in with the Palo Alto of today, where new wealth is "swallowing up the San Francisco peninsula." Interesting, stark contrasts observed by a local. Here's the whole piece.

In 1978, the year that I graduated from high school, in Palo Alto, the name Silicon Valley was not in use beyond a small group of tech cognoscenti. Apple Computer had incorporated the previous year, releasing the first popular personal computer, the Apple II. The major technology companies made electronics hardware, and on the way to school I rode my bike through the Stanford Industrial Park, past the offices of Hewlett-Packard, Varian, and Xerox PARC. The neighborhoods of the Santa Clara Valley were dotted with cheap, modern, one-story houses—called Eichlers, after the builder Joseph Eichler—with glass walls, open floor plans, and flat-roofed carports. (Steve Jobs grew up in an imitation Eichler, called a Likeler.) The average house in Palo Alto cost about a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Along the main downtown street, University Avenue—the future address of PayPal, Facebook, and Google—were sports shops, discount variety stores, and several art-house cinemas, together with the shuttered, X-rated Paris Theatre. Across El Camino Real, the Stanford Shopping Center was anchored by Macy’s and Woolworth’s, with one boutique store—a Victoria’s Secret had opened in 1977—and a parking lot full of Datsuns and Chevy Novas. High-end dining was virtually unknown in Palo Alto, as was the adjective “high-end.” The public schools in the area were excellent and almost universally attended; the few kids I knew who went to private school had somehow messed up. The Valley was thoroughly middle class, egalitarian, pleasant, and a little boring.


Thirty-five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis, and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Louis Vuitton. There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

Private-school attendance has surged, while public schools in poor communities—such as East Palo Alto, which is mostly cut off from the city by Highway 101—have fallen into disrepair and lack basic supplies. In wealthy districts, the public schools have essentially been privatized; they insulate themselves from shortfalls in state funding with money raised by foundations they have set up for themselves. In 1983, parents at Woodside Elementary School, which is surrounded by some of the Valley’s wealthiest tech families, started a foundation in order to offset budget cuts resulting from the enactment of Proposition 13, in 1978, which drastically limited California property taxes. The Woodside School Foundation now brings in about two million dollars a year for a school with fewer than five hundred children, and every spring it hosts a gala with a live auction. I attended it two years ago, when the theme was RockStar, and one of Google’s first employees sat at my table after performing in a pickup band called Parental Indiscretion. School benefactors, dressed up as Tina Turner or Jimmy Page, and consuming Jump’n Jack Flash hanger steaks, bid thirteen thousand dollars for Pimp My Hog! (“Ride through town in your very own customized 1996 Harley Davidson XLH1200C Sportster”) and twenty thousand for a tour of the Japanese gardens on the estate of Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and the country’s highest-paid chief executive. The climax arrived when a Mad Men Supper Club dinner for sixteen guests—which promised to transport couples back to a time when local residents lived in two-thousand-square-foot houses—sold for forty-three thousand dollars.

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A lot of younger employees of Silicon Valley companies live in the city and commute to work in white, Wi-Fi-equipped company buses, which collect passengers at fifteen or so stops around San Francisco. The buses—whose schedules are withheld from the public—have become a vivid emblem of the tech boom’s stratifying effect in the Bay Area. Rebecca Solnit, who has lived in San Francisco for thirty years, recently wrote in The London Review of Books, “Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. Right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government.” Some of the city’s hottest restaurants are popping up in the neighborhoods with shuttle stops. Rents there are rising even faster than elsewhere in San Francisco, and in some cases they have doubled in the past year.

The buses carry their wired cargo south to the “campuses” of Google, Facebook, Apple, and other companies, which are designed to be fully functioning communities, not just places for working. Google’s grounds, in Mountain View—a working-class town when I was growing up—are modelled on the casual, Frisbee-throwing feel of Stanford University, the incubator of Silicon Valley, where the company’s founders met, in grad school. A polychrome Google bike can be picked up anywhere on campus, and left anywhere, so that another employee can use it. Electric cars, kept at a charging station, allow employees to run errands. Facebook’s buildings, in Menlo Park, between 101 and the salt marshes along the Bay, surround a simulated town square whose concrete surface is decorated with the word “HACK,” in letters so large that they can be seen from the air. At Facebook, employees can eat sushi or burritos, lift weights, get a haircut, have their clothes dry-cleaned, and see a dentist, all without leaving work. Apple, meanwhile, plans to spend nearly five billion dollars to build a giant, impenetrable ringed headquarters in the middle of a park that is technically part of Cupertino. These inward-looking places keep tech workers from having even accidental contact with the surrounding community.

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Lazy Sunday afternoon: Stanford University, left, and downtown Palo Alto. LA Observed photos


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