Sunday, November 21, 2010

Palo Alto

In a city of the future, it is difficult to concentrate.
—Radiohead, “Palo Alto”

During my first year in California, when I was nine, a group of local parents wrote and produced a theater piece called Perfect Palo Alto. It was a series of skits that lovingly mocked the eccentricities of my new home: Every single adult here works in computers! Our city is populated with well-to-do ex-sort-of-hippies! We’re all really liberal, overeducated, and self-righteous!

This is a weird place, I thought. No one would have ever written a play like that about Framingham, Massachusetts, or Nashua New Hampshire, the most recent cities I had lived in. What would you even say about those places? We’re a suburb of Boston! We have a big mall! And what practical New England parent would ever decide to write that play, much less be seen by their children and peers performing in it?

Palo Alto, I came to understand, was a weird town that prided itself on its weirdness. It was like that kid who makes sure to do everything on purpose to be as bizarre as possible; and, not surprisingly, it was filled with kids like that. Everyplace I went seemed haunted by a strange hippy heritage that traced back to the Sixties. Grace Slick and Joan Baez both went to my high school. My favorite coffee shop, Saint Michael’s Alley, used to be a hangout for the Grateful Dead when they were still the Warlocks. Only back then, the coffee shop had been housed in a different building, one that had long since been converted into the Varsity Theater, where you could watch Rocky Horror or Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation and imagine Jerry Garcia having a smoke there back when he looked like a Chasidic Jew.

The town reveled in its iconoclasm, the college-town in the midst of the Silicon Valley, the town only twenty minutes from San Jose that considered itself a steadfast satellite of San Francisco (an hour’s drive).

When my economics and government teachers explained the difference between liberals and conservatives, they would always say, “Conservative voters tend to be more prevalent in wealthier areas. Where we live is an exception, though.”

And was it ever an exception. Growing up in Palo Alto, Republicans were like polar bears; I’d only ever seen one on TV. Before an election, every front yard sign, every bumper sticker, every snide comment from an adult seemed to be preaching to a city-wide choir: Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton. A few of my fellow students claimed doggedly to be Republicans, in what always struck me as an Alex P. Keaton style act of contrarian rebellion. I never met a real Republican until I went to college—at U.C. Berkeley, a school I chose over a small liberal arts school primarily because I had heard there were Republicans there and I wanted to confirm that they really existed.

Palo Alto’s demographic and social weirdness, when I was growing up, seemed to stem from the fact that people mostly moved there for the school district. At a time when California’s schools were in a fast decline, Palo Alto’s schools were consistently rated amongst the highest in the nation. These schools kept the property values sky-high for the small, single-story, space-efficient tract houses that pervaded most of the city.

In nearby Atherton, every resident lived in a mansion, but they shared a lackluster school district with neighboring Menlo Park. This incongruity used to strike me as odd, until I realized that many affluent areas don’t care about the quality of their public education system, since the residents would all be sending their children to private schools.

But in Palo Alto, all of my friends’ parents were like mine: they had sunk all of their money into a small, expensive house so that they could send their children to a top-ranked public school. So while I grew up in a town with a high average income and high property values, no one I knew ever seemed to have much money. We all had parents who carefully budgeted, who fretted over the money we spent on clothes and food, who considered every purchase seriously: Do you really need that?

Thinking back, I realize that our parents could have been living in bigger houses, driving fancier cars, not worrying about every dollar, if they had chosen to live in cheaper cities with lesser school districts. Palo Alto self-selected for people who valued education—public education—over every other luxury in life, and that was what made it truly a town of weirdos.

The values of our parents seemed to have rubbed off on most of the students I knew. Certainly the interest in education did. Grades were so high that my school could not publicize class rankings for fear of keeping us from being admitted to universities. My 3.6 GPA put me in the 68th percentile of my graduating class.

But our view of money seemed to come from our parents as well. In a city with one of the highest real estate prices per square foot in the country, no one wanted to be seen as rich; instead, students tended to brag about how poor they were. Having a lot of money, or spending it frivolously, was something to be ashamed of. In my high school, it was considered horribly uncouth to have anything expensive or new. I knew one very rich kid whose parents bought him a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday, and everyone mocked him behind his back. He was one of the handful of people I knew who had a new car at all; most of my friends, like me, did not have a car, and none had a car manufactured after the Seventies. At the high school across town from mine, the newspaper ran a “Wreck of the Week” column featuring students boasting about the decrepit state of their vehicles. There seemed to be an acute understanding that we had not earned the money we spent on clothes or cars, and that wasting your parents’ money didn’t make you cool; it made you a spoiled brat.

This rule probably did not hold amongst the small crowd of “popular” kids, but no one cared about them. While they held some sway in middle school, by high school, they could no longer manage to lord despotically over the masses, hopelessly outnumbered as they were. All the horrors I hear reported from other high schools—the football players and cheerleaders and game days and school spirit—were all reversed at my school. Sporting events were under-attended, with teachers begging us to show up. School spirit was for losers. I never once heard a girl admit to being a cheerleader without an embarrassed disclaimer: “Actually I’m a cheerleader. But it’s just because I’m really into dance.”

I moved away from Palo Alto at what ended up being the dawn of the dot-com era. When I applied to college, I had visited the internet one time. By the time I graduated, my father was asking me whether I might want to put off the Ph.D. program I had just been accepted to and make a bunch of quick money as a tech writer, just like every other jackass with an English degree.

Whenever I came back to visit Palo Alto, every other car was a BMW or Jaguar, and there was a new yuppie restaurant in the place of each quirky old diner or bookstore I used to love. Saint Michael’s Alley had been converted from a grungy coffeehouse to a stylish gourmet brunch spot. The Varsity Theater became a Borders bookstore. All the eccentric little corners were swept clean, as if the weird haunted hippy town of my youth had never existed.

During those boom years, when I would visit my mom, I used to go for a run around my old neighborhood—a run that took me past Steve Jobs’s house, an unassuming neighborhood landmark—and each time, I would pass at least four houses knocked all the way down to their foundations. They were about to be built up again from scratch, now taller and with basements and bloated out to the far edges of their lots.

Like every affluent place, Palo Alto seems culturally improved by economic downturn. The bloated houses still stand, but I don’t see so many knocked down when I visit now. The roving crowds of dot-com twenty-somethings in cocktail attire no longer swarm University Avenue in search of mates. Palo Alto still makes me a little sad, seeing it from the outside, its sanitized plazas and former-dives where my teenaged friends used to write on the walls with Sharpies. Still, that is only from the outside. I have a lot of hope that the high school kids are still traipsing around like lost hoboes somewhere I never go, that young Grace Slick is there writing scandalous songs, hidden away somewhere my respectable grown-up eyes can no longer see.


brain said...

I see the loss of that culture when I visit - Palo Alto definitely has a lot more conspicuous consumption now.

The whole town is a lot less quirky - the Cheesecake Factory is on University! How bourgeois! The whole street is an excessive circus, like a mini Beverly Hills.

On the other hand, I saw pedi-cabs going up and down the street. Is that quirky, or only a sign of a class gap on par with a Third World country?

The innovation is still there - the Tech Shop opened up in Menlo Park, and the arts programs in Palo Alto are still pretty cool. Then again these are things you can enjoy without actually living there.

Although I occasionally ponder what I'd need to do to move back (not own a house basically), I am pretty sure I'd be bored to tears living back there again; I don't think I could move away from the decidedly more grungy and more aggressive culture of the East Bay.

I dunno. You really can never go home again.

Jessica said...

Au contraire Karin-- the Rabbit (which wasn't mine, although my parents let me drive it to school when my dad took the motorcycle) was manufactured in 1980. Living the lifestyle!

Karin Spirn said...

Brain--I was always really happy to have grown up in Palo Alto, but I can't imagine ever moving back there; though if you want to have kids, there are benefits, not the least of which is the value of art, education, and innovation that all the yuppiness can never quite drive out.

I saw those pedi-cabs, too! The guys driving them seem awfully spry and well-fed; still, I would feel too guilty to ever let someone drag me around on a bike, even though it's exactly the opposite reaction from the one they want me to have.

BTW, that cheesecake factory makes me ill every time I walk by it. Such a grotesque, hulking fortress, so representative of the spectacle of conspicuous over-consumption that is a meal at the cheesecake factory.

Karin Spirn said...

Jessica--I kind of wondered whether anyone actually had a car from the early eighties when I made that hyperbolic statement. The cars I remember belonging to my friends (as opposed to being borrowed from parents) are mostly Orli's series of giant oldsmobiles
and Sarah's antique BMW--both about $2000, and both very appreciated and beloved by me!

I was reading my high school journal to help me with this post. There is some super-funny stuff I have to read to you.

devi said...

this sounds so much like berkeley now, but I'm on the parent side. I have to say, though, that kids here, especially boys, seem exceptionally NICE. what is that? so respectful and conscientious. I guess they are not teenagers yet.

Karin Spirn said...

Hi Devi!

Having moved directly from Palo Alto to Berkeley on the kid side, it seems funny to compare the two; Palo Alto was certainly no Berkeley.

But in terms of the values the kids ended up with, I thought people who grew up in Berkeley seemed pretty similar to my friends (especially compared to those WEIRDOS from LA), so yeah.

And haha, did you not expect boys to be nice? All my friends' sons are very sweet and sensitive, and sometimes it surprises me, too. Maybe it's because we're girls. Or maybe our culture's expectations of what it means to be masculine have shifted away from "being a total stupid dick."

mochiandmooncakes said...

I've not been back to Palo Alto, other than to show my girlfriend my childhood home, in over 15 years. Brian's correct, you can't go home again. But wouldn't it be nice if that place still existed? I'd love to give my (future) kids the opportunities that we had and the luxury of growing up so seemingly innocent--or was I the only one who was that naive?

Thaddeus said...

I only get to visit Palo Alto every few years. Last time I was there was at the beginning of summer and the old neighbourhood that I grew up in near Addison elementary still smelled of jasmine and looked pretty much the same, it really reminded me of many afternoons hanging with friends looking for something to do.

Downtown on the other hand was vaguely foreign to the town I grew up in. Still had some of the old feel to it, but not quite.

But I completely agree about the feeling growing up there, it wasn't like the "rest of America" it was different. :)


Karin Spirn said...

I probably wouldn't have been back there either, Mochi, except my mom still lives there, and has moved right near downtown. (She sold the house I grew up in, which was promptly knocked down, destroying a perfectly nice house and a bunch of great trees--I can't even stomach going past it now). Downtown is a great place to live because you can walk so many places, but University Ave. is definitely where the worst of the creepiness is.

Thad, I think I remember you lived by what is still the best part of Palo Alto, California Ave. I haven't been back there for a few years, but last time I was, it was still as odd and forgotten-seeming (in a good way) as it used to be.

Orli's dad told me that some insane city planner decided to cut down all the trees on California, though, because they didn't match each other, and no one caught on that this was the plan until it was too late...I haven't gone and seen with my own eyes, but Orli's dad said he couldn't even go there because it was so painful to see the trees all cut down.

Anonymous said...

I moved from Oregon to Palo Alto in 2011. thank you for writing this article. It has made my experience make much more sense to me. I am an Oregonian Hippie and proud of it. I came down to Palo Alto and the yuppie-ness has forever captured interest. Bay hippies are interesting. ANYWAY, i've always been somewhat drunk with envy for kids who grew up there. Most of them I met in 2011 were the richest people I have ever met- to the point of feeling nothing but fucking rage when I went and partied with them. The big names of people I have met astound me. Fruitlessly spending money. Disgusted me. Yet all wrapped up in liberalism, gay-love, and love for education. How did this happen?!

I grew up in a very small, white, poor, conservative town- homophobia/racism/sexism was rampant. (like if they killed you they wouldn't see it as murder because you aren't a human being) and all those kids were dumb as fuck to be honest.The INSANE blessing that comes with growing up in palo alto, it's immense!

However suicide wasn't a common thing at my high school.

i'm residing in Berkeley until July 2013 when I will leave California (Honestly, California is wholly overrated.)

Thank you for writing this! From experiencing Palo Alto I have learned that life isn't about getting shit done because it's what you think you should be doing-- it's about being fulfilled.

Karin Spirn said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts on this, anonymous. It is really interesting to hear an outsider's perspective of my home town. I always feel sad when I hear how Palo Alto has become a town of materialistic yuppies. I mean, it was always yuppies, but they used to be nerdy yuppies in discount clothing! I have always felt really blessed to grow up in a town that valued education and creativity to such a great degree, and I hope kids there are still growing up with that. (You're right that PA has and always did have a lot of teen suicide). Good luck in Berkeley and hope your remaining time in CA treats you well, even if it is (certainly) overrated.

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