East Coast native George Richardson arrived 50 years ago to attend Stanford Law School. Like so many before him, he never left.
“I always wanted to come to California to see what it was about. My expectation was, you know, go to law school, go to New York and join a big firm and make lots of money,” said Richardson, who still practices law in Palo Alto. Upon arriving here, “I did a lot of driving around, and I remember falling in love with ... the rolls of the golden hills and the stark green oaks among them. And I just said, ‘Why would anybody leave?’”
Richardson’s love of Palo Alto has led him to volunteer for the school district and get involved in other civic affairs.
He’s not alone in his passion for the community.
When talking about their hometown with Palo Alto Weekly journalists for this newspaper’s 40th anniversary edition, longtime residents and newcomers alike speak fondly of the attributes that drew them here and convinced them to stay: the beautiful homes along canopied streets, the strong public education system, the vibrant civic culture and relatively safe neighborhoods.
Lately, though, as Silicon Valley has continued moving at full throttle, local residents have also been wondering aloud about something their predecessors rarely did: the price of living in “paradise.”
Four decades into the digital revolution, and Palo Alto residents are feeling a growing sense of dissonance. Like the tectonic plates that created the San Andreas Fault, tech has seismically shifted how people live day to day.
On the one hand, the technology industry has pushed the Silicon Valley economy to produce the second highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the country, unleashing unprecedented prosperity and the belief that anything is possible.
But tech’s rise into the Valley’s dominant economic and cultural force has also reshaped people’s lives in ways that residents are finding stressful, from the long hours they devote to work, to the times of day they drive (or don’t, to avoid traffic), to skyrocketing housing prices.
Whether consciously or not, accommodations to this new reality have to be made: Because of traffic congestion, residents now say they won’t hit the road without checking Google Maps or Waze first; they get DoorDash to deliver dinner to them at home because they don’t have time to cook; they install Nest to protect (and remotely keep tabs on) their most significant financial investment, their home.
The impacts haven’t been limited to time and money; there are more intangible costs to living in the always-on culture of Silicon Valley. Some residents complain of their frustration with navigating a more complex, tech-connected world. Others speak of a nagging sense of losing control over their information and their privacy, with everyone’s data being gathered digitally by faceless corporations.
Even tech workers warn of the isolation that the digitally connected world, ironically, fosters. And longtimers wonder what kind of community will be here in 10 years and whether it will still be a place for service workers, artists and others who contribute to the vibrant fabric of the community.
The increase in ... everything
One need look no further than local statistics to get a sense of how much has changed for Palo Altans since 1979, when the Palo Alto Weekly was founded. The San Jose Metropolitan area, once a place of orchards and canneries, now has the nation’s second highest per capita GDP: $128,300, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The 2018 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau pegs the median household income in Palo Alto at $162,319.
That wealth has pushed up the cost of housing, among other things. In 1980, the median price of a home was $148,000; this year, it’s $2.9 million, according to Zillow Research. (The median home value in California is $548,700.)
Renters, who today make up 43% of Palo Alto households, pay a median gross monthly rent of $2,423. In 1980, it was $363 a month.
Over four decades, the ratio of median house value to median annual household income has tripled: from 6 to 1 in 1980 to 19.6 to 1 in 2018.
As one new Palo Alto resident opined, “The only way to afford it here is if one person (in the family) is working in the tech industry.”
Paying off the mortgage has become a top priority for many who are staring at years of financial burden, leading a south Palo Alto resident to tell the Weekly that he wishes he could work more hours, just to earn the money to do that. Of the Palo Alto homeowners with a mortgage, 22% spend more than 35% of their budget on housing, according to the 2018 American Community Survey. While lower than the county’s 25.5% rate, it’s higher than cities with a similar population around the country: 12.7% in Portland, Maine, 14.9% in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and 15.5% in Iowa City.
As an abundance of tech jobs have been created, more people have moved in. The population of Palo Alto in 1980 was 55,225; today it stands at 66,655. And all of those people need to get around, clogging roads that previously never had stop-and-go traffic. Dianna Richardson, who with husband George has lived in south Palo Alto since 1989, said she thinks twice about going downtown or to Stanford Shopping Center.
“There’s just too much congestion,” she said. “There’s got to be a cause or something to take me there.”
Now she shakes her head in disbelief when she sees the local TV news traffic helicopter covering the stretch of U.S. Highway 101 behind her house.
“I really have to think about it before I can just jaunt off and go somewhere. If I want to go to Home Depot (in East Palo Alto), I’m, like, ‘I can’t do that now because then I’ll get stuck on that road,’” she said.
The proliferation of tech devices and appliances over the decades needs no statistics. But ask residents how they feel about the mass adoption of tech and the answer is, “It’s complicated.”
Online shopping is convenient, but every purchase is one that potentially takes away from a local small business — and affects its continued existence in the community, residents told the Weekly. One couple bemoaned the ongoing loss of stores, whether Fry’s or Orchard Supply Hardware, or other local places where owners or employees have expertise to offer along with merchandise.
More than one person commented on the simultaneously good and bad aspects of social media: Neighbors talk with one another on Nextdoor.com but don’t reach out to say hello in person as often. Browsing, “liking” and watching videos on Facebook sucks up hours of people’s days, leading resident David Liu to observe ruefully about social media, “Honestly, it doesn’t make my life any better.”
David Shen, who lives on Churchill Avenue, has made a decision not to post on Facebook, saying that the things people choose to post there create false impressions — both about their lives and for friends, who then think they actually know what’s going on with the person. Both consequences, he said, can be harmful.
Residents speak more favorably of video conferencing, whether through Skype, FaceTime or another website or app — though again, it’s often used as Plan B.
George Richardson recalled a colleague’s recent attendance at a meeting via video because he couldn’t get to the location due to traffic. Parents who raised children here use video calls to keep in touch with their kids, who couldn’t afford to live in the city even if they wanted to.
The new Palo Altans
While the tech industry has gradually been re-engineering the lifestyles of Palo Altans, it has also influenced something much more fundamental: the types of people moving in, drawn by work in the Valley or graduate study at Stanford University.
Longtime neighbors on the 300 block of Poe Street, which has seen a turnover of half of the residences since 2010, say that more of the newcomers are in tech than the people they replaced.
“Palo Alto in general used to be funkier,” said Palmer Pinney, 84, a tech editor who is married to a poet and dancer.
Far more people in Palo Alto now were born outside of the United States — some 35.8%, compared with 18% in 1990, the first year the question was asked on the U.S. Census. Those Palo Altans who are foreign-born generally earn a higher median annual income than their U.S. born neighbors, according to the American Community Survey, though that statistic may be affected by age. With a median age of 45 years, more foreign-born Palo Altans may be in the workforce than city residents who were born outside of California, whose median age is 54, or those born in the state, whose median age is 20.
Regardless of the earning differential, the city’s newfound cultural diversity has pleased the Richardsons, who recall the neighbors they’ve had who were Chinese, East Indian, British, Hispanic, Japanese, Norwegian and Vietnamese.
“It’s actually been delightful, I think, to see the change and the diversity,” George said, recalling a Diwali celebration hosted by an Indian family on the block.
Not only have the Richardsons shared in others’ cultures, they have been able to tell their neighbors about U.S. history. At one of the neighborhood’s Fourth of July parties, which Dianna has organized for the past 15 years, some Asian neighbors asked why she made a Conestoga wagon for the parade.
“I suddenly realized, there’s a lot of people here who don’t know how the West was settled,” George said. “That’s a real classic difference (from prior neighbors). We have to explain.”
Two former Palo Alto mayors, Yiaway Yeh and Greg Scharff, recognized the growing divide between longtime residents and new arrivals, especially the city’s growing Asian population, and launched in 2013 the Know Your Neighbors program, which gives grants of up to $1,000 for neighborhood-building activities. Dianna has received the grant for the past five years, which has paid for table rentals, tents for shade and entertainment for the kids.
“It’s a wonderful thing that the city does,” George said.
While there are neighborhoods in the city where residents say they no longer feel connected to those who live on their block, the Richardsons’ Kenneth Drive has seen a resurgence in neighborliness — and youthfulness. When they first moved in and had children, they were among the neighborhood’s few families.
“We’ve never had a lot of kids on the street,” Dianna said. “But recently ... I’ve seen the complete change in how many more kids are around. ... We usually get like 125 people or so (at the Fourth of July party) and there are just all these little kids.”
“It’s the cycle of the neighborhood. And it’s cycling back now,” George said, referring to the transition of a neighborhood from one generation of homeowners to the next. “If you walk around now, you’ll see kids in strollers, and on bikes and all of that.”
One factor that has changed dramatically in the city since 1980, and even since 2010, is the number of vacant housing units, which at 8.8% in 2018 is three times what is was in 1980. These so-called “ghost homes” are purchased as investments — recently largely by overseas buyers. (Their deleterious effects on neighborhoods have been the subject of reporting by the Weekly in the past.)
As much as the Richardsons are happy with the new life in their Joseph Eichler-developed neighborhood, they share the concerns of many Palo Altans over the city’s ever-escalating affluence.
“I worry about it losing its character as a place that welcomes and honors folks from all stripes,” George said, recalling the rich friendships his kids made at school with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“People of lower economic means ... bring their own richness into the community and their own flavor into the community. ... Things like that, I see those in transition,” he said. “I get it — I know it’s driven economically. But I think it’s a loss.”
If all of these changes have left some people feeling like the city might be struggling to hold onto its soul, residents interviewed by the Weekly say they still hold dear the same relationships and activities that have been meaningful throughout the generations: family and friends, spiritual communities and hobbyist groups, civic and charitable organizations for which they volunteer.
Just like George Richardson, who said that within weeks of moving to California he “fell in love” with Palo Alto, so too has Greer Road’s David Liu, who recently bought his home after renting elsewhere in the city for two years.
“Many consider it the best city in the Bay Area!” the Google engineer enthusiastically told the Weekly. Settling into their neighborhood, Liu, his wife and children spend their time these days playing in the local park and hanging out with neighbors at block parties.
Do he and his family plan to stay in Palo Alto?
“Yes, forever,” he said. “Love this place.”
Weekly reporters interviewed residents in four blocks -- Poe Street, Churchill Avenue, Greer Road and El Cerrito Road -- to learn how they see life in Palo Alto. Read their stories here.
In addition to the profiles of four neighborhood blocks, our anniversary coverage includes an editorial by Palo Alto Weekly founder Bill Johnson on the media business and its future. We also provide a retrospective of the top news from every year since 1979. And we put the spotlight on local small businesses and what they’ve done to survive over the decades.
Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.