Palo Alto Weekly
The last 20 years have transformed Palo Alto
by Don Kazak
Twenty years ago, according to classified ads, you could rent a "nice, 2 bdr, furn. home" in College Terrace for $435 a month, including utilities. Or a "1 bdr, apt sublet, Old dntwn PA" for $375 a month.
You could buy a five-bedroom west Menlo Park ranch house for $335,000 or a six-bedroom Professorville house in Palo Alto for $415,000. The story going around recently is how one Palo Alto home went on the market for $2.2 million and sold four days later for $3.2 million.
No longer is Palo Alto a sleepy suburb tucked next to Stanford. We've gone upscale, and there is some distinction to our hometown these days.
How are we doing? CNN and KCBS radio tell us with several updates each hour when they quote the latest from the technology-heavy Nasdaq stock index, which monitors the financial heartbeat of Silicon Valley.
Want to watch money being made, the future being shaped? Head to downtown Palo Alto for breakfast at Il Fornaio or lunch at Spago, where a recent Time magazine article tells us deals are brokered when bread is broken.
That Sept. 27 issue of Time had a long cover story on the new
Silicon Valley. Imagine how passe the old one feels. The story's apt headline? Get Rich.com
It's all about the Internet, which only a few computer engineers knew anything about 20 years ago, and e-commerce, which wasn't even a gleam in Bill Gates' eye back then. Now we're all dot coms.
The Time article described young entrepreneurs going to Stanford's Graduate School of Business and coming out with ideas that--on occasion-- turn them into Internet millionaires almost overnight.
And they don't even always have to hang around to get the degree. One online startup featured in the article was formed by two women enrolled in biz school who had a conversation, got an idea, dropped out and started their online wedding-registry business. So much for the need to finish school to get ahead.
Of course, something like 29 of 30 online startups crash and burn. But the ones that make it big can make it very big.
Silicon Valley, we all know, started in a garage off Addison Avenue near downtown Palo Alto in 1939, when Bill Hewlett and David Packard started their company on a whim and an idea. They were also very smart. Now, Palo Alto has entered the larger lexicon. A June 7 Time article on the battle over Internet access included the phrase "in a Palo Alto minute." So much for a New York minute.
Maybe the Frank Sinatra classic tune--"If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere"--should be retitled.
We are at the center of something. "Our own universe," the quipsters might retort. But it seems bigger than it used to be.
There's big money here now, big money being gambled out of the Sand Hill Road offices of the venture capital firms, big futures ahead. The traffic is worse, but the backups now feature better cars--big new SUVs and BMWs as ubiquitous as Volkswagen Beetles used to be. The old ones.
The face of Palo Alto has changed in 20 years. Downtown is hardly recognizable from what it was then, and comfy old houses are being torn down throughout the city to make way for larger homes.
The price of living here has gone up, and the population has changed as a result.
With the skyrocketing real estate market pricing less-wealthy wage earners out of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, they have been replaced by software engineers driving new cars who are rarely ever home, but make the big bucks.
The economic shift has also changed the retail business. Downtown Palo Alto in the last 20 years has lost many of its old-time stores and is now known as a place to have lunch. They used to roll up the sidewalks after 6 p.m., but now, thanks to a thriving night life, it's as hard to find a place to park at night as it is during the day.
The first Bloomingdale's west of the Rockies opened three years ago at Stanford Shopping Center, to join other upscale stores like Nieman-Marcus and Nordstrom.
The good life is here, for those who can afford it. But the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening.
And who we are, as a community, may be a little harder to define and figure out than we used to be, as complicated as that has always been.
Some values are grounded in history. Palo Alto has a long tradition of supporting nonprofits that care for others, of excellent schools, of top-notch city services.
You've got to love a city this small that has six libraries. A few years ago, according to a news story, Palo Altans checked out more library books on a per-capita basis than any other city in the state.
The churches of Palo Alto continue a long history of supporting the poor and the homeless, notwithstanding recent Palo Alto laws that have been less forgiving of street people.
But much has changed in the last 20 years.
The Palo Alto Unified School District was closing down elementary schools and selling off the land in the early 1980s. Now, the schools are bursting, school officials are miffed at Stanford for not providing land for a new school, and the school board is talking about year-round school sessions to relieve the overcrowding.
Stanford finally won its long Sand Hill Road battle, with construction under way on the road extension to El Camino Real. At the same time, the university is under more scrutiny than ever from Menlo Park and Palo Alto for its land use plans.
A sea change in Menlo Park politics to slow development can be traced back to the 1987 battle over plans for St. Patrick's Seminary. Menlo Park later sued Palo Alto and Stanford in a losing fight against Sand Hill.
But there is also more regional cooperation than before, even as legal skirmishes continue. The first meeting of the new San Francisquito Creek joint powers authority was held in September, with Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto vowing to work together to maintain the creek and avoid a repeat of the disastrous flooding we had last year.
The cooperation is reminiscent of the early 1990s, when Palo Alto and Menlo Park stepped in to form a regional police team to arrest drug dealers in East Palo Alto and take back that city's then-dangerous streets.
Indeed, the transformation of East Palo Alto is one of the more uplifting stories of the last two decades. Incorporated after a bitter battle in 1983, East Palo Alto's nadir came with 42 homicides, most of them drug-related, in 1992, earning the city that year the unfortunate distinction of being the homicide capital of the country, as rated on a per-capita basis by the FBI.
Today, new stores at the Ravenswood 101 Retail Center are attracting shoppers from up and down the Peninsula to East Palo Alto, with other new stores and development on the drawing boards.
The area's long tradition of environmental awareness has continued. In 1990, Earth Day was reborn out of a storefront in downtown Palo Alto after a 20-year hiatus.
We used to have a yacht harbor.
We started a cable television system, structured as a cooperative, that's now about to be sold to AT&T.
We almost had a presidential library.
We watched a Super Bowl, Olympic soccer matches and World Cup soccer at Stanford Stadium.
President Clinton has had fund-raising dinners here, the vice president makes frequent visits, and the first daughter is enrolled at Stanford.
Stanford's star is on the rise again after a research grant scandal with the federal government darkened its reputation. Stanford, like Palo Alto, celebrated its centennial earlier in the 1990s.
We lost one daily newspaper, the Times Tribune, in 1993, and gained a new one, the Daily News, in 1995.
Palo Alto homeowners continue to battle over historic preservation rules.
We park by color codes in downtown Palo Alto, and the new theorem is that traffic will continue to get worse no matter what anyone does about it.
We suffered through a drought, an earthquake and a flood. No locusts yet.
We are the products of proud local traditions, though sometimes needing a dose of humility.
We get things done, we turn ideas into reality, and we are the future as much as we are the past.
In today's fast-moving world of IPOs and e-commerce, the attention span may be shortened, the focus one of immediacy. Adapt, change and don't be left behind could be the mantra of this brave new world.
But it is still a sleepy little suburb in some of our minds, holding onto some sensibilities and values from a less frenetic time. Those times will never return, but the values and sensibilities of respecting and helping each other can survive in our cell-phone/pager/Palm Pilot world of right now.
It helps to remember who we were as we become our own future.