|Palo Alto Weekly 25th Anniversary
Palo Altans enjoy their tree-lined lifestyle, but it comes at a
by Carol Blitzer, Marc Burkhardt, Bill D'Agostino, Jocelyn Dong,
Sue Dremann and Alexandria Rocha
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
It To Beaver" image quite alluring to harried professionals
working 50-hour weeks.
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.
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
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
to be perfect," Prendergast said. "They
put everything they could scrape together to get
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
Gretchen and Ed Hillard
years later, much is the same -- but the intensity has increased.
Traffic congestion is
a constant concern,
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
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
Today, the neighborhood is much less homogenous. Seniors live side-by-side
with young families, and few children can be found playing in the
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."
Dusterberry's situation is common, few longtime Palo Altans are
as frank about their
-- or the community's -- wealth.
preferred to characterize themselves
as "fortunate" when
approached by Weekly reporters.
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.
lives have changed so much," Niven said.
Census data collected over 30 years confirms this shift.
1970, 69 percent of the community's households were classified
as "families." Of
that number, 36.4 percent
In 2000, 57.9
inhabited by families.
percent had children
and Peggy Hanks, 30-year residents of
the 800 block
of Hamilton in
north Palo Alto,
loss of "traditional community
values" as newer
residents enter the
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
was just more fun
enlarged homes, a great bone of
recent years, are
of "Let me show
you how rich I've become," Tom
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.
seems like a lot of people work really hard to survive around
pace feels a little more hectic."
way Palo Altans define "middle class" has also
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.
you didn't know what the house cost, you'd think it's just an
ordinary neighborhood," Sammy
The Ohs don't think they're wealthy, however.
here," Melanie said. "We feel fortunate. Everything
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
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
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
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
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
It doesn't feel good, " said Gretchen Hillard, who raised
three sons with her husband, Ed, on Greer Road. "It's
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
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
When I first ran for City Council in 1977, you still had this huge
cadre of stay-at-home mothers," he said. "Their
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
" Who has the time?"
25th Anniversary • 1979-2004