Returning to be near my children and young grandchildren, I was struck immediately by the impression that Palo Alto is a very small town — London is obviously different. Many of my friends from my child-rearing period are now politically successful: Betsy Bechtel, Lanie Wheeler, Liz Kniss, Marlene Prendergast, Larry Klein, to name a few.
But that wasn't all I noticed on my return.
The town is richer and less caring. I was shocked when the library bond failed. Moreover, the ugly McMansions replace charming adobes and smaller homes.
I'll bet there aren't the cooperatives that were au courant when I was a young mother. We would exchange babysitting services. One co-op on Clara was utopian. Electrical expertise for babysitting. We used to go out to Lake Laganita and Searsville Lake for golliwogs and a swim. Do they still exist? The children used to paddle around at Mitchell Park's toddler pool. That's gone. And I read that some people complain about the goats in Barron Park, a corner of the city which retains some of the charm and eccentricity of the county: no sidewalks and a bit of rustic living.
I went to law school at 35; my girls were in school. Today many of the younger women continue to work full-time, furiously trying to combine the demands of motherhood and careers: I see many grandparents or nannies at the various parks to which I take my grandchildren — the nannies speaking Russian, Urdu, Spanish or other exotic languages to the children in their care.
The League of Women Voters represents one of the great changes: we had child care at meetings. Members ranged in age from mid-20s to 80s. There were many bright young women informing themselves about local social issues and actively working on voting rights and other post-Kennedy legislation — taking action.
Now, when I go to a League meeting I see mostly the same people I knew when I was in my late 20s. The majority of these wise women are at Channing House or widowed and very few are under 60. Perhaps this is what happens when leisure time is limited to watching or coaching at soccer fields and carting kids to so many activities that leaves no energy for informed civic involvement. A great loss.
I read recently in the New York Times that the Florida League has opted not to register voters because of some draconian financial penalties for late returned registration forms The Suffragettes must be turning in their graves.
I am outraged about our "leaders" condoning torture and wonder why so few here argue openly against such shallow comments as Condoleezza Rice's statement that the Geneva Convention isn't relevant when it comes to dealing with suspected terrorists?
We are rightfully horrified by terrorists at work in the United States, but why aren't we horrified by the taking away of our civil liberties? I am mindful that the American government did nothing for years to stop the notorious collection of funds at the Irish pubs in the United States, which helped finance the Irish Republican Army bombings in Belfast and London.
Do most Americans only care about their own back yards? International sports is a joke here: If the contestants aren't American it isn't very interesting, is it?
I first saw Palo Alto in 1963 and fell in love with the town. I knew I wanted to live here. It reminded me of my home town back east.
Returning after so many years, I look at the tearing up of the valley (Tracy and places east) in order to house the folks who work in Silicon Valley and wonder why we continue to plan so badly. We tore up the rich farmlands of Santa Clara County to produce all those important semiconductor-related jobs and created vast housing tracts on our richest land and polluted the aquifers, perhaps for the next century.
In my neighborhood, Greenacres I, too many of my friends of my age have breast cancer. Chance? Stress? Pollution?
I read in the London Times that Palo Alto had passed some ordinance not allowing clothing to dry outside if it could be seen from the street? True or not, that just reeks of snobbery I can't abide.
I have observed first-hand the people using Urban Ministry's drop-in center behind the Red Cross. The numbers of unhealthy, unhoused, underclothed, underfed men and women (and children) raises concerns of a broader nature.
In England, everyone has a right to housing, education and medical care. The quality of medical care is generally good. The right to housing means that most working class (for lack of a better expression) people have affordable homes in their town. Here there is little access to affordable housing for those who work for Palo Alto (our teachers, firefighters, police).
Few fight for fair taxes (try to get people to fight Proposition 13, despite its many destructive side effects).
Google uses your content of g-mail for its purposes. I doubt many people worry about that here. I do. In Europe, ensuring protection of personal data from misuse was a direct result of World War II. Germany was the first European country to have and continues to have the most stringent laws to protect personal data.
OK, so what would I do differently now that I am back home in Palo Alto?
I would have a regional police agency and not build a "Palo Alto" police building.
I would have Palo Alto be part of a regional library system and push for making libraries vibrant and useful.
Palo Alto should have bookmobiles to support the growing numbers of elderly who can't get to the library.
Mitchell Park Library is a child-sitting site after school for probably 75 middle-school-age kids. Why isn't there a good organized after-school program for all kids? Because the richer kids have people ferrying them around after school whilst the other kids use the library?
We should enthusiastically embrace language-immersion schools and fight for foreign language from kindergarten.
Seeing grotesque Hummers, and other gas-guzzling SUVs lining the streets of suburban Palo Alto makes me think that "saving the environment" is no longer a core Palo Alto value, evidenced by action, not words.
So moving back to Palo Alto has been unsettling. Sometimes I am asked: "Would I rather be here than in England?" My answer is: "Sometimes."
(Alice Smith is a former Palo Alto resident who recently returned after 22 years in England.)
(published in the Palo Alto Weekly 6/7/06)
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