Chronicling a city
Matt Bowling's collection of essays on Palo Alto richly depicts growth, tensions, celebrations
"Palo Alto Remembered: Stories from a city's past," by Matt Bowling; Palo Alto Historical Association, 205 pp.; $25
Many are the annals of life in Palo Alto. One of the first comprehensive histories, published in 1939 when the city was just 45 years old, was written by Dallas Wood, former editor of the Palo Alto Times.
Since then, an illustrated, limited edition and several centennial publications have further examined the explorers' settlement turned Silicon Valley hub, including Ward Winslow's authoritative 1994 "Palo Alto: A centennial history."
This summer, historian and former second-grade teacher Matt Bowling's "Palo Alto Remembered: Stories from a city's past" joins the collection. But as the subtitle suggests, rather than a chronological survey of the town's growth, Bowling's book highlights some of the city's most interesting people, places and turning points.
As local historian Steve Staiger writes in the book's foreword: "It is a collection of tasty treats rather than a full-course meal."
In 43 detailed vignettes, originally published as columns in the Palo Alto Daily News, Bowling covers events ranging from the international to the distinctly down home. He revisits the Beatles' overnight stay at the Cabana Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza Cabana), the birth in 1951 of the Stanford Industrial Park (now the Stanford Research Park) and the fight over the Winter Club (now the Winter Lodge).
The chapters are grouped into five sections: Landmarks, Long Ago, Changing Times, Conflicts and Citizens.
Each essay is richly supplemented by historical photographs from archives of the Palo Alto Historical Association, which published the book, as well as from copyright-free sources, Bowling himself and others.
Original newspaper articles and leaflets give readers a flavor of the time. A 1950 flier for the Palo Alto Drive-In Theatre shows a Clark Gable flick paired in a double feature with "The Boy with the Green Hair." Readers looking at a copy of a letter by Police Chief Jim Zurcher, written in 1972, will note that Zurcher humorously refers to himself, in the language of student protesters, as "Super-Pig."
Throughout, Bowling writes about the city with affection. In one story, he dwells on the innocent patriotism that characterized Palo Altans' attitudes around the turn of the 20th century. It could be seen in the citywide Independence Day party, which started at dawn with the singing of the national anthem and continued through till 1 a.m., with greased-pig chases, a mile-long parade, fireworks and contests such as "Homeliest Woman on the Grounds."
In another essay, he remembers the stretch of El Camino Real in south Palo Alto that was known from the 1950s through the 1970s as "Restaurant Row." There, diners enjoyed international cuisine at Rick's Swiss Chalet, Ming's (Chinese), Rudolpho's (Italian) and Villa Lafayette (French).
Despite Bowling's fondness for Palo Alto, he doesn't gloss over the tensions and shame in Palo Alto's past. He writes about the origins of Dinah's Shack, whose "Mammy" logo and black waitstaff uncomfortably echoed the Antebellum South. He notes in a chapter about the internment of Palo Alto's Japanese-American residents that in June 1942 — 70 years ago this month — "not a single Japanese American was left in Palo Alto.
"Few Palo Altans protested or seriously questioned the orders of their government. The Times called the policy the 'lesser of two evils,'" he writes.
Bowling also recalls that the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce in 1920 "passed a resolution calling for a 'segregated district for the Oriental and colored people of the city.'" Although the plan never came to fruition, mid-century housing developments included clauses prohibiting people who were not "wholly of white Caucasian race" from occupying homes — unless they were servants of the households, he writes.
Perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of Bowling's storytelling is the care he takes to place local events in a broader context. He begins his chapter on life during World War II by discussing how citizens throughout the U.S. rallied to support the war effort. And in writing about the University Avenue train station, he recaps trends in national transportation to explain the decline of rail travel at the time.
Staiger, again in his foreword, credits Bowling with his attention to the big picture: "All too often local history writers fail to make the association between the lives of the people in their community to what was happening on the larger stage of state, national or international events.
"Matt and his stories present some of those links."
For those who have a glancing familiarity with Palo Alto's history — but lack intimate knowledge of the factors at play in the contentious 1979 closure of Cubberley High School, for example, or the origins of the Bol Park donkeys — "Palo Alto Remembered" will serve as an enjoyable primer. Bowling brings to life the many passions that have stirred the city and its residents over the past 118 years and, in doing so, even explains the origins of undercurrents that still influence life in Palo Alto today.
"Palo Alto Remembered" is available at Books, Inc.; Bell's Books; Kepler's; and Village Stationers in Palo Alto.
Editor Jocelyn Dong can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.