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Palo Alto Weekly 25th Anniversary

The good life
Palo Altans enjoy their tree-lined lifestyle, but it comes at a high cost

by Carol Blitzer, Marc Burkhardt, Bill D'Agostino, Jocelyn Dong, Sue Dremann and Alexandria Rocha

Drive down a tree-lined street in south Palo Alto and you'll see a picture-perfect suburban community. tract homes, well-manicured yards, shiny SUVs and the random jogger or bicyclist present a "Leave It To Beaver" image quite alluring to harried professionals working 50-hour weeks.


John Dusterberry

Yet, he suburban imagery is belied by the price tag. That modest Eichler may be worth $1.3 million, and the SUV is probably a Mercedes.

In a community perched between prestigious Stanford University and a still-considerable high-tech industry, homes originally built for middle-class families now attract over-worked professionals earning six-figure incomes. Wealth in the northern side of Palo Alto, traditionally a haven for prestigious residents with political clout, is even more pronounced.


Tom and Peggy Hanks

"The 1990s -- God knows, that's when it was just haywire," said Marlene Prendergast, executive director of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit charged with setting aside affordable accommodations for residents. "That's when we big-time started to lose the middle class."

Census figures support Prendergast. In 1980, the median household income was $24,743. In 1990, it was $55,333. By 2000, following a decade of unimagined prosperity, the median household income was $90,377.


The Keeley family

Housing prices have kept pace. In 1980, the median home price in Palo Alto was $148,900. Last year, it was to $1.07 million.
Rising incomes and home prices have also brought higher expectations to a community that has never tolerated mediocrity.
"I think one of the things I see is people have an attitude of 'I paid x-million dollars for this house, so by God I want the city to provide this service, I want the schools to be good and my life to be perfect," Prendergast said. "They put everything they could scrape together to get the house."

The net effect of such changes are difficult to measure. When the Weekly reported on the state of Palo Alto in 1989, residents worried that newcomer families obsessed with money and careers were disconnected from the values that made the community special.
" It's not that the people moving here aren't good people -- it's just that I can't keep up and my children can't keep up," single mother Geri Rivard said in the 1989 story. Writer Suzanne Arms Wimberley said she "found it really depressing that the Stanford Shopping Center is now the symbol of Palo Alto."


Gretchen and Ed Hillard

Fifteen years later, much is the same -- but the intensity has increased. Traffic congestion is a constant concern, with Downtown North neighbors nearly coming to blows earlier this year over disputed "calming" techniques. "Mega-homes" -- two-story additions or rebuilds that tower like mansions over older, neighboring homes -- also create strife.

Talk to any Palo Altan and you'll likely discover a strong love for the amenities provided by an affluent community in the heart of Silicon Valley.

For many, it's the American Dream come true.

But these days, that dream comes at a high price.

Fifty years ago, John Dusterberry built a house for $25,000 on El Cerrito Road in Barron Park. At that time, nearly every house in the neighborhood was occupied by a 30-something couple with children.
Today, the neighborhood is much less homogenous. Seniors live side-by-side with young families, and few children can be found playing in the quiet cul-de-sacs.

And Dusterberry, 83, is now wealthy. Aside from a pension that yielded more benefits than expected, he's literally sitting on a gold mine.

"It's like this home is worth $1 million," he said. "My total assets are a good deal more than I thought they'd be."

Although Dusterberry's situation is common, few longtime Palo Altans are as frank about their -- or the community's -- wealth. Many preferred to characterize themselves as "fortunate" when approached by Weekly reporters.

"I don't think that's a good thing to put on Palo Alto," said Barbara Busse, a longtime resident of Ramona Street. "Atherton is wealthy. It's not good to be too rich."

Many of the residents interviewed scrimped and saved for houses now worth more than anyone ever dreamed. Margaret Niven, a 70-year-old retired teacher who resides in the 3000 block of Greer Road, bought her home for $24,000 in 1959 with the aid of her husband's GI bill.

When she first moved into the block, Niven met other families with children and similar economic backgrounds. They bonded as their children played together, and would often drop by each other's houses for coffee and conversation.

"Our lives have changed so much," Niven said.

Census data collected over 30 years confirms this shift.

In 1970, 69 percent of the community's households were classified as "families." Of that number, 36.4 percent had children under 18. In 2000, 57.9 percent of Palo Alto's residences were inhabited by families. Approximately 27.2 percent had children under 18.

Tom and Peggy Hanks, 30-year residents of the 800 block of Hamilton in north Palo Alto, bemoan the loss of "traditional community values" as newer residents enter the area.

People lived more modestly 30 years ago, they said. Houses weren't torn down and replaced by imposing mansions. Residents didn't drive Hummers. The pace of life was slower.

"The change is inevitable with the land as expensive as it is," he said. "It was just more fun to walk around before the monster-home syndrome."

The enlarged homes, a great bone of contention among neighbors in recent years, are simply manifestations of "Let me show you how rich I've become," Tom added.

Ironically, newer residents don't consider themselves rich.

Many recent arrivals say they work long hours at demanding jobs to afford the high price of Silicon Valley life. According to the 2000 census, 76 percent of the city's population either work at management positions or are classified as professionals.

"It seems like a lot of people work really hard to survive around here," said Rob Keely, a Hamilton Avenue resident. "You get to think a lot of people are pretty stretched, pretty busy.

"The pace feels a little more hectic."

The way Palo Altans define "middle class" has also changed. Monica McDermott, an assistant sociology professor at Stanford, said the term has a far different meaning in Palo Alto than in the rest of the country.

A Palo Altan's median income is about $50,000 above the country's average, she said. Given that marked disparity, income and possessions considered indicators of wealth in one part of the nation may be run-of-the-mill in Palo Alto.

Sammy and Melanie Oh spent more than $3 million for their home on the 3400 block of El Cerrito Road. They considered the home, located on a 15,000-square-foot lot, perfect for raising three sons and maintaining a home office.

"If you didn't know what the house cost, you'd think it's just an ordinary neighborhood," Sammy said.

The Ohs don't think they're wealthy, however.

"Not here," Melanie said. "We feel fortunate. Everything is relative."

No matter how people define themselves, many Palo Altans say the lack of economic diversity hurts the community.

" When you live in a big city or in a small town, everybody goes to the same school," said Prendergast. "It's the old 'butcher, baker, candlestick maker.' They're all there together."

But in today's Palo Alto, "They're all smart and none commit crimes and their kids are all smart -- and it doesn't feel like we have the full fabric of a community," she said.

" I think it's a loss. It's narrower."

Dr. Don Barr, a Ramona Street resident, also is concerned about the lack of economic diversity.

" Most people are like the other people in town," he said. "That's not unusual. That's what communities like Palo Alto are all about, I guess."

Barr, a leading force in creating an 'Opportunity Center' for Palo Alto's homeless, said the similarity among residents' backgrounds, experiences and economic means can give a community tunnel vision when it comes to society as a whole.

" Living in an affluent community leads to people not thinking about the broader implications (of their lifestyle)," he said. "What does it do to a child growing up expecting a certain quality of existence for all of his or her adult life? Will I resent that someone (less well off) is creating a community that is not as comfortable, safe or physically beautiful as Palo Alto? Will I be aware that Palo Alto is an exception, not the rule?

" Privileges carry with it responsibility," Barr added. "But if you see it as the norm, you don't see it as a privilege."

Some also fear Palo Alto is losing a sense of its history as longtime residents age and their children find the area too expensive to remain.

" It doesn't feel good, " said Gretchen Hillard, who raised three sons with her husband, Ed, on Greer Road. "It's just a revolving door of young people. Who wants to be part of an aging population?"

There are also concerns that working 50 to 60 hours a week leaves residents less time to be actively involved in their community or to form bonds with neighbors.

Paula England, a sociology professor at Stanford, said less people know their neighbors because more women work today to make ends meet. Wives and mothers, served as the social glue that united neighborhoods, she said.

" You might think that this is less true in affluent areas where the women can 'afford' to stay home, but -- except at the very, very top of men's earnings -- women are actually more apt to be employed as education goes up," she said. "So (there are ) lots of two-career families in the upper middle class."

England said the increase in the number of women seeking higher education and careers has led couples to have children later in life, leaving today's neighborhoods with a combination of newborns and toddlers -- or simply no children at all.

Former mayor Gary Fazzino said this shift is felt in city politics as well.

" When I first ran for City Council in 1977, you still had this huge cadre of stay-at-home mothers," he said. "Their career, in effect, was volunteerism. You had a tremendous number who were active in political campaigns and community organizations."

With the advent of two-income families, residents tend to pick and choose their extra-curricular activities more carefully, he said. Now, a resident may join a special interest group like the Junior Museum and Zoo or the Palo Alto Library Foundation.

" That doesn't necessarily translate into a broader, more fundamental interest in the breadth of city or school district interests," he said.
" Who has the time?"

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