When Rebecca Robinson, a Palo Alto mother of three, told her friends in 2014 that she was moving to Wisconsin after more than a decade in the Bay Area, she received two different types of responses: The first was jealousy, the second bewilderment.
"It was either 'You're so lucky! I want to move. I want to get out of here' or 'How could you move anywhere else? This is paradise. I would never, ever leave,'" she said.
The reactions reflect the spectrum of attitudes Palo Altans have toward their city and Silicon Valley, which has burgeoned into a technological, innovation and intellectual hub rivaled by few regions in the country. Filled with technology companies that have become household names across the globe, the area is home to highly educated, ambitious people who have created a world that's the envy of many: Public schools rank among the top in the states, the consumer economy attracts high-end restaurants and retailers, and a politically active populace involves itself in public service. At the same time, growing problems with commute traffic and housing costs have become a burden for many.
Numbers show that this high-powered lifestyle is not for everyone.
According to a report on Silicon Valley's competitiveness produced by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, fewer people moved into Silicon Valley than left the area in 2016. An average of 42 people more moved out of the region each month in 2016 compared to 2015, the report stated. Some 2,458 people moved to other U.S. destinations per month in 2016. Last month, a poll of 1,000 registered voters by the Bay Area Council found that 46 percent said they are likely to move out of the Bay Area in the next few years, an increase of six percentage points from 2017 and 10 percentage points from 2016.
Additionally, more people are leaving Silicon Valley for other domestic destinations than are coming in. They might be headed for other innovation hubs such as Austin, which had the largest number of new residents relocating from other parts of the country (2,783 per month) in 2016, or Seattle, which gained 2,564 domestic residents per month that year. Silicon Valley, by comparison, lost 2,548 residents in 2016 to other regions of the U.S.
In interviews with several former residents, the Weekly discovered that many of the reasons that attract so many to Palo Alto — the fast pace, the school system — may be the same reasons why others flee from the region. Instead, they seek something else. They are parents who don't want their children going through the stress of attending Palo Alto or Gunn high schools. They are working professionals who are willing to commute from farther away for more affordable housing. They are retirees wanting a slower pace of life.
"My own view," said Brian Brennan, the senior vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, "is it's remarkable that we have not lost more folks from this region."
Housing costs, quality of life
Linda van Gelder moved with her family to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2017, after selling the Palo Alto home that she and her husband bought in 1993, to gain a better "quality of life."
"The Bay Area is just getting intense, crowded and expensive," she said. "Everybody has to work hard to be able to live there. There isn't much time to just relax and communicate with people."
In Palo Alto, her family had a bungalow-style home in the Duveneck-St. Francis neighborhood: three bedrooms, two bathrooms and 1,600 square feet. In Ann Arbor, they have 5,900 square feet, 0.7 acres of land and 50 trees on their property. Several large trees and a large lawn area comprise the front yard.
"It's really nice to have the extra space," she said.
Van Gelder actually grew up in Michigan before moving to the Bay Area. She used to tell people should she would never move back. But after taking her daughter on a campus tour at the University of Michigan a few years ago, she started considering it. She has close friends in the area and just felt like it was the right time.
"It took a couple years from not thinking about moving back to 'Let's move back,'" she said.
Just as Palo Alto is adjacent to the Stanford University campus, van Gelder's new neighborhood is near the University of Michigan — which is in the middle of Ann Arbor. Their house is on a very quiet street about a block from a farmers market.
Van Gelder said someone in Ann Arbor remarked that they must have paid an arm and a leg for their new home.
"Well," she responded, "it's not as much as what we sold our house for, and it's a bigger house."
The median home value in Palo Alto is more than $3 million, according to Zillow. Silicon Valley's median home value rose 10 percent in 2017, topping $1 million for the first time. It is more than double that of the Seattle, Boston and New York City regions, as the Bay Area has become more gentrified.
Though Ann Arbor is also facing increased gentrification, there is an effort to combat it, van Gelder said. The median cost of a home in Ann Arbor is $364,100, according to Zillow.
"There's enough housing," van Gelder said, "so houses don't become so expensive that Ann Arbor becomes more like Palo Alto — like you can't live there if you're a teacher."
Robinson and her husband grew up in Arizona. She, too, didn't expect they would ever leave Palo Alto.
"We thought we'd be there forever," she said. "We never even thought about Wisconsin."
But a few years ago, the family of five set their sights on moving; Robinson cited a culture of stress in the Palo Alto school system as chief among their reasons. They considered places such as Seattle and Portland but settled on Wisconsin after her husband found a way to continue his venture capital work with the University of Wisconsin. They were transfixed by the different pace in Wisconsin. They started commuting, and soon enough, they committed.
Robinson went from a 1,100-square foot home in Palo Alto to a 10-acre property on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin. There is a 100-year old barn, a farm and lots of green grass, but it is only 12 minutes from downtown Madison.
"It's the best of both worlds because it feels super rural, but within a couple minutes, we're in the city," Robinson said.
The high cost of housing has deterred others looking to start a family, like Steve Smith, who was a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University but moved back to Santa Barbara in 2016 — where he is a tenured professor at UC Santa Barbara — with his wife and daughter (they later had a son in Santa Barbara).
"The cost of living was so prohibitive, especially for a small family just starting to get rolling," Smith said. "The difference is here in Santa Barbara is you also have range to have some inexpensive housing. The floor financially in the Palo Alto area was way too high."
The Silicon Valley report pointed to one of the causes of escalating housing costs: While employment grew by 29 percent and population expanded 8 percent from 2010 to 2016, housing units only increased by 4 percent. The gap between job and housing growth is becoming wider, heightening the demand for housing.
This has led some to move just outside the area — people like Arnab Basu, who lived in Palo Alto for five years but moved north to Santa Rosa with his partner in 2015.
"I think it's a necessity," Basu said. "We had to move to make sure we could operate and be the working professionals that we are."
While Basu does not have to commute back to the Valley, others do, opting to move to the outskirts of the Bay Area but make the long drive back. This, Brennan said, is one way to beat the cost of housing, but it's not a long-term fix. Instead of being burdened with sky-high rent, people are saddled with sitting in a car for hours on end.
The difference between traffic congestion in Silicon Valley versus other parts of the country is stark. Kathy Schroeder spent more than two decades in Palo Alto, working in the public school system and as the executive director of a nonprofit before relocating in 2015 to Bend, Oregon, a town of 91,000 people, where her husband's company opened a second location.
"Every time I've been back (in Palo Alto)," she said, "the traffic has been a little bit more challenging."
In Bend, she said, there is virtually no commute. To get to work, her husband doesn't have to pass a single stoplight.
Ann Arbor's traffic situation is bad for Michigan, van Gelder said, but it's all relative. There are only a couple of spots to avoid during rush hour.
"Getting on the freeway, it's slow for not even a mile during rush hour," van Gelder said. "People here think the traffic is bad."
Bay Area commuters would probably beg to differ. Commute times in Silicon Valley increased by nearly 19 percent between 2010 and 2016, more than Seattle, Boston, New York City and Southern California, and the average commuter spends 72 minutes per day on the road, the report found.
"To put it mildly, it's an imperfect way," Brennan said. "It's not sustainable. It's not environmentally sustainable. And in terms of quality of life, it's not sustainable."
Brennan added that he sees the trend continuing in the short term. Only an economic downturn, he said, would change the dynamics. Such a downturn would lead to slower job creation — or job loss — leading to fewer workers, less demand for housing and lower home prices. Even if policymakers introduced legislation to alleviate the housing crisis or traffic issues, the effect would not be apparent for a while.
"It will take us a long time to dig out of this problem that we've created for ourselves," he said.
'I just want my kids to be kids'
According to parents who have left, Palo Alto harbors a culture of stress and pressure that does not exist in their new hometowns. At get-togethers in Palo Alto, the discussion would inevitably turn to where their kids are going to college and how they are going to get in. They would hear their kids and their friends talk about staying up until 3 a.m. studying, taking every Advanced Placement class they could. Perfect ACT scores were the norm.
Robinson — who was on the PTA board at Duveneck Elementary School for 10 years and volunteered in school classrooms in Palo Alto — said she saw the difference when she enrolled her son in a private high school near Madison.
"It feels breathable," she said. "You're at school events and people (with kids) in sixth grade aren't talking about getting their kids in ACT-prep programs and hiring professional baseball players to coach their kids. It just feels more old-fashioned, like what it should be."
Van Gelder, who worked as a therapist and served as president of the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) at Palo Alto High School from 2014 to 2016 and was a trainer for QPR, a suicide prevention program, said she joked to the principal at one point that she was just going to put a couch in the parking lot.
"I'd be walking out and parents would be telling me what their kids are going through," van Gelder said.
Even well-meaning parents are dragged into this lifestyle, according to Smith, who also had a private practice as a psychologist in Palo Alto. He met kids who struggled with depression and anxiety disorders, kids who were scheduled "up to their eyeballs" with tutors, music lessons and sports.
"You get pulled into it," Smith said, "because when everybody else around you is doing the same thing, it's hard to do differently."
Smith is on the board of directors of Challenge Success, an initiative started by Stanford in 2007 that aims to create a more balanced and academically fulfilling life for kids. That balance, he said, is difficult to achieve in Silicon Valley, where youth grapple with the pressure to be the very best at so many different things. It's why he's glad his kids aren't growing up in this environment.
"I just want my kids to be kids," he said, "and run around the park."
What they miss
Smith still visits Palo Alto about once a month. When he comes, he always goes running in Huddard Park in Woodside. He misses the redwood trees, the environment, the natural beauty, the vibrance.
"There is an excitement to being there that is fun," Smith said.
Van Gelder's daughter misses Philz Coffee, and van Gelder wonders how there isn't a Jamba Juice in Ann Arbor. Basu still stops by Fraiche, a locally owned frozen yogurt store in downtown Palo Alto, whenever he's in town.
"We were big fans of it," he said. "Every couple of weeks, I'll go and get a cup there."
In addition to missing their favorite spots and experiences, former residents who moved to more remote areas feel an intellectual difference.
Schroeder traded the fast-paced lifestyle for a small town that gets lots of snow in the winter and is filled with two-lane roads, hiking trails and camping spots. Traffic jams in Bend have more to do with deer or geese wandering onto the streets than too many cars on the road.
"There is a nice small town feel to Bend that I don't have the same perception of in Palo Alto," she said. "People are always stopping and waving people across the street to walk, or letting people in if there are lines of traffic. If somebody has problem on the side of the road, five people stop to try to help."
But Schroeder said she took Palo Alto's intellectual level of discourse for granted. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 80 percent of Palo Alto residents are college graduates, compared to 42 percent of residents in Bend. Schroeder, who called herself "flamingly liberal," was disappointed to learn her new county, Deschutes, went for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election (73 percent of Santa Clara County voted for Hillary Clinton). She has seen signs of overt racism that she didn't see in Palo Alto, like a white supremacist symbol on the back of a pickup truck.
There are many good people in Bend, Schroeder said, but the discussions she has around town are not the same as the ones she had in Palo Alto.
"We don't talk about politics or current events in the same way because they might be warm, wonderful people that I really like, but they may have a different political philosophy than I do," she said. "We tend to avoid those topics more."
When Robinson enrolled her youngest daughter, who had attended Palo Alto High School through her junior year, in a public high school in Madison, she was taken aback — so much so that her daughter finished her last semester of high school online.
"That was a bad mistake," Robinson said. "Being out in the country — how do we say this nicely — they just weren't quite as 'woke' regarding race and feminism."
Smith, who lamented the lifestyle that Palo Alto cultivates for youth, nonetheless misses the racial diversity of the city and the area's overall cultural diversity. In 2016, Silicon Valley gained an average of 2,506 residents a month from international regions.
The data, Brennan said, underscores how immigrants may be transfixed by the values they see in the Valley: the innovation, the diversity, the fast pace.
Smith, likewise, said he found these factors energizing.
"It's neat to be in a place where the things that are driving the tech industry are really just going on everywhere," Smith said. "It's such an educated population that it's just easy to get caught up in stimulating conversations with everybody."
These are assets that former Palo Altans appreciate and part of what they enjoy about encountering fellow expats in their new hometowns. Bend, Oregon has become one locus for people who used to live in the Palo Alto area. Schroeder said she ran into a friend at a concert a few weeks ago who had just moved to Bend a few days earlier.
"Folks who have moved here from Palo Alto have a common background and perspective which is great fun to share with each other up here," Schroeder said. "I totally understand what attracts Palo Alto people to this area, especially those who want to raise their children in a simpler environment or those who want to retire in an outdoor playland."
Former Palo Alto Eichler homeowner Carroll Harrington likewise enjoys the company of old friends in her new hometown of Capitola, a different kind of outdoor playland than Bend. She is enjoying retirement there after spending more than five decades in Palo Alto, where she worked for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, was a consultant for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and had a graphic design business.
Now, Harrington loves looking at the ocean and the more casual vibe. She enjoys going to the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz and people-watching.
"It's a different kind of energy," she said. "It just seems more relaxed down here."
The same goes for her friend, Helen Jones, who moved from New York to Palo Alto in 1969. Jones worked as a counselor at De Anza College and her husband worked for the Palo Alto Veteran Affairs. She enjoyed the climate and raised two daughters.
But when retirement came in 1997, she decided to move permanently to Santa Cruz, where she had a second home. She's never regretted it. Like Harrington, Jones enjoys the ocean, which her beachfront house overlooks. Through her large picture windows, she sees the crisp, blue water, with people strolling by on the beach.
"It was an easy move," Jones said. "It's only an hour's drive. But it's a whole different world."
How Palo Alto compares
Palo Alto's residents tend to be highly educated:
80 percent are college grads. The % of college grads in Bend, Santa Barbara, Madison and Ann Arbor range from 41.6 percent to 72.8 percent.
Palo Alto's students excel at SATs:
The average SAT score is 1,360. The national average is 1,020.
Palo Alto's population is less white than Ann Arbor's, Bend's and Madison's:
56.3 percent are white, 1 percent are black, 30.9 percent are Asian, 7.1 percent are Hispanic.
More Palo Alto residents are foreign born:
35.7 percent were not born in the U.S. In Bend, 5 percent are foreign-born, while in Santa Barbara 25.4 percent are.
Palo Alto's single-family homes are pricey:
The median list price is $2.88 million. Santa Barbara homes are selling for $1.35 million, while on the low end, a median-priced Madison home goes for $275,000.
Sources: 2016 American Community Survey estimates; Palo Alto Unified School District; Zillow.com
Freelance writer and former Palo Alto Weekly intern Eric He can be emailed at [email protected]