Why I’m Not Leaving Silicon Valley
I just read a moving and troubling article on Medium about life in Silicon Valley by a local resident:
It’s heartfelt and insightful, and I share a lot of the concern, stress and dispair expressed. I also want to share a personal response — in no way is this meant to be a rebuke — rather, a perspective from someone who has lived here a long time and experienced some of the back and forth issues.
My family moved to Sunnyvale, Ca, in the heart of Silicon Valley, in 1960 — but we had not heard the term in those days. We considered our region the Santa Clara Valley, and the main industries were agriculture, aerospace and some nascent technology businesses.
My father worked in San Francisco in sales, so my parents bought a brand-new tract house built in an apricot orchard; it was cheap — $25,000 — a lot less than in Palo Alto where you could easily spent $35,000 or more for just 3 bedrooms. Many of the men, and some of the women, in our neighborhood worked at Lockeed, Ames, NASA or other military installations across Highway 101.
But along with cheap home prices, we had low wages; my first real job after 5 years of college paid a generous $600 a month and I felt rich. The inflation was moderate, but home mortgage rates were much higher. So buying a home was difficult.
As a freshman, I enrolled in the brand-new Homestead High School. In our district, because of all the military bases and defense contracts, extra money was awarded on a per-student basis to the tune of $1,800 per semester (if you had a parent who worked in those industries) — that was equal to a good 3 months salary for a skilled worker. In fact, we had so much money from government funding that we had our own closed-circuit television studio. We had good teachers, and money for sports teams and other activities.
There were very few non-white students, I can remember most of them by name. I ran on the track and cross country teams with a guy named Pedro who lived in a shack where De Anza College now stands; they had no plumbing, and no running water. His parents worked in the orchards; after high school, I don’t know what happened to him.
Civil rights were in the news daily, with the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act, and there was widespread unrest all over the Bay Area, with lots of protests on campuses, the Black Panthers organizing in Oakland, and the United Farm Workers organizing and picketing throughout the Bay Area. There was violence periodically and police crackdowns that sent peaceful protesters to jails and hospitals. We drove a caravan down to Delano to bring supplies to striking farm workers who didn’t even have toilets in the fields, and who were getting sprayed with pestices from airplanes.
We lost friends, as well: Bob Clyne and John Wesolowski went to Vietnam and died in the spring of 1968; their names are on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. Several others — I recall Brock Langford and Bobbi Nielsen — died in car accidents; most of us didn’t wear seat belts in those days.
Air quality is something you would not believe: the smog in the summer and winter months was thick and grey, and burned your eyes. The San Francisco Bay was so polluted that there was a movement to pave it over entirely; the Bay was eventually saved by three local women who started a campaign that fortunately succeeded. But in the 1960s and 70s, the smell that wafted over Sunnyvale on a warm summer night was pure sulpher dioxide. We called Silicon Valley “the Pit,” and many of us swore we would leave and never come back.
When I graduated from high school, I went to Foothill College for 2 years so I could live at home and work and not cost my parents money they did not have. I took out small loans, but it took years to pay them back. I then transferred to UC and graduated with little debt. I realize that’s a rarity today and I think it’s a terrible problem that needs urgent resolution.
Were there drug problems? Not when my high school class graduated in 1966, but by 1968 when my sister graduated, pot use had soared, as had prescription meds. And some of our neighbors had serious mental problems: when his wife tried to leave the house, the man across the street lay down in front of the car and screamed, “Go ahead, kill me!” It was unpleasant.
However, I got my first real taste of drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness when I moved to Santa Cruz, which had become a gathering place for people with nowhere else to go. After working in Santa Cruz for a few years, my (now) wife and I decided to get out, so we left for New York City. There we found out just how good we had had it in the Bay Area; it was not only dirty, expensive and frantic, but crime-ridden as well. So after a year or so, we moved back to the Bay Area with a new perspective. Over time, we found careers and settled down.
Most of my friends scattered after college; now I’m glad I can reconnect with some using email and Facebook and other sources. I still live on the Peninsula, and while I’m just recently retired, I have no interest in leaving. Yes, it’s wonderful weather and it’s nice being in a prosperous area, but on fixed income it’s scary and intimidating, the pace is too frantic — all those things that were mentioned in the previous article.
And yet … after working and living here for half a century, I would hate to leave — especially since things are getting worse. Why? Because someone has to try to make things better. If we who live here can’t stay and fight for the benefits and fairness and quality of life we have enjoyed, who else will do it? I can’t see leaving it to newcomers to somehow find their way here and then meet the challenge of trying to fix what has been broken for years.
So, I hope you — and anyone else who is thinking of leaving — will reconsider; and if you already left, find a way to return. It will take time ane effort, and forces are working against us. And we well may fail. But there is much to be gained by staying and seeing this through — as a community, which is what we are, and will have to become better at.
Postscript: After publishing this article, I recalled that when we were living in New York in the 1970s, I read an article in the New Yorker magazine about a couple who got tired of the stress, noise and crime in the Big City; they bought a ranch way out in rural Idaho and moved there with a sense of great relief. The first morning, while they were enjoying their new paradise, a neighbor drove up in his pickup truck. He welcomed them, then invited them to a meeting: the federal government was spraying agent orange herbicide on nearby land, and it was leaking onto their watershed and into their drinking water. So they had gone from one set of problems, to an entirely different set of problems. That story has stayed with my these 50 years.