(Photo credit: Palo Alto Historical Association)
I grew up in a lazy college town surrounded by orchards. Two-thirds of the country’s apricots were grown right there in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” We didn’t lock our doors. Teenagers would stick their thumbs out on the main drag and get rides to school. The local university was informally referred to as “The Farm.”
Do you know what? I’m still there. I live only eight houses away from my parents’ old place. Two of my kids graduated from the same high school I did and I have one about to be a sophomore and one who should show up there as a freshman in two years. But almost everything has changed in a single generation.
When I went to Palo Alto High, I was friends with the daughter of the school custodian. I’ll bet anything that no children of a school custodian live in the Palo Alto of today. Like schoolteachers, fire fighters, or police officers, they just couldn’t afford it. When my parents moved to Palo Alto, they bought their first house for $29,500. Now Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has bought a house in town for $7 million. (Thank goodness, I bought a house here long ago.)
(photo from Wikipedia--one of Facebook's former buildings)
What happened? Somehow my hometown of Palo Alto became ground zero for world technology. Orchards filled with cherries and apricots have been replaced by tilt-up buildings filled with software engineers and MBAs. The Valley of Heart’s Delight has been transmogrified into Silicon Valley. Facebook is headquartered in town as is the world’s largest technology company, Hewlett-Packard. Google’s closer to my place than either, just over the city limits in Mountain View. Venture capital firms, trendy restaurants, and startups have pushed out the hardware stores, supermarkets, and bookstores in downtown Palo Alto that catered to local residents. In addition to Mark Zuckerberg, another high tech icon, Steve Jobs, lives here. Stanford University is now known throughout the world. San Francisco has become a place where Gen Y high tech employees eat, sleep, and cavort on the weekends while spending the week commuting down 101 to Palo Alto and other Valley cities. (Does that make San Francisco a suburb?)
It’s weird. I saw an article that mentioned three cities driving the world economy – New York, Shanghai, and Palo Alto. Wow! One of those cities has 23 million, one eight million, and one 60 thousand. Palo Alto now represents the high tech world in the same way Hollywood does show business.
I left Palo Alto to go to college and stayed away for 13 years. But I couldn’t resist the siren call of my hometown. And now I love having my kids go to the same high school I did, but wish they could have what I had in those simpler times.
But if push came to shove, I would not change a thing. Here in Palo Alto I’ve had the rush of working day and night to do my bit to make an Internet software company successful. I love the drive, the excitement, the people, and the opportunity it gives to build something. The Silicon Valley city-state of Palo Alto has even provided a rich vein of ore to mine in mysteries and thrillers. Plenty of crime fiction novels are set in New York, LA, and Washington, but few here. And why not here? Silicon Valley is where board members of the world’s largest high tech company hire private eyes to spy on each other. Where CEOs buy cocaine for their employees and are sentenced to prison for backdating stock options. We have as much ambition, greed, wealth, and criminal impulses as anywhere. Take that Wall Street, Hollywood, and Capitol Hill!
And yet, in a mental archeological dig, I am still reminded of the way Palo Alto used to be. My best friend from those days (and now) lives down the block, and I run into my high school girlfriend every couple of months. Beneath a thin mask that adds only a few character lines, their faces look pretty much the same. Sometimes one of my kids brings a book home from the school library, and I’ll see the name of one of my classmates scrawled inside the cover. When I consult with my lawyer, I remember sitting in the high school bleachers with a bunch of other elementary school friends and rooting for him, the best high school halfback we’d ever seen. That old Palo Alto is a ghost town occupying the same space as the high tech icon of today. I count myself lucky to live in both.