TIMELINE: Palo Alto's journey into the 21st century | News | Palo Alto Online |


TIMELINE: Palo Alto's journey into the 21st century

A look back at the city's pivotal role in the arts, education, politics, technology and science

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one of the city's most notable figures in its 125-year history, talks on a landline in his office, nearly three decades before he introduces the first iPhone. Photo courtesy Palo Alto Historical Association.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: The Palo Alto Weekly celebrates the city's 125th anniversary by remembering the moments, people and events that highlight the city's entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. View the timeline that incorporates photos and videos on our Atavist page.


The last time Palo Alto celebrated an anniversary milestone -- its centennial in 1994 -- Facebook didn't exist. Neither did Google. And the subject of how to reconfigure four railroad crossings was a debate way off in the future.

"I bet in the future, computers will be everywhere. ... Maybe transportation will be different," contemplated Emilie Mead, a junior at Gunn High School at the time, who was among those who left a message in the city's centennial time capsule for future generations to read.

For Rebecca Wunder, the first girl to play on Gunn's football team, the future represented more opportunities for women.

"When you read this, girl football players may be more common, but now it's really not normal," Wunder wrote in her time-capsule message.

The girls' thoughts from a quarter of a century ago, plus the rest of the contents from the recently opened time capsule, will be on display on Sunday, April 28, during a celebration commemorating the 125th anniversary of Palo Alto's incorporation on April 23, 1894. The event also launches a new annual city holiday: Palo Alto Day.

The event will provide residents the opportunity to reflect on how the city has changed over the past 25 years. While computers have come to define much of Palo Alto's culture, including everyday life, women are still a rare site on the football field.

Palo Alto historian Steve Staiger said that while many issues, such as traffic and growth, have remained top conversations throughout the city's history, the cost of housing today is the one thing that's most different from 1994. If he only had one item to put into a time capsule today, it would be an advertisement from a local paper showing housing prices, he said.

"When the first house sold for $100,000 in the 1970s, it was a really nice house, and you went 'Wow.' But now it's shocking. You can't find a home for less than a million," Staiger said.

The scale of things, he said, has changed more rapidly.

"In the '50s, there were big traffic jams when Stanford had a football game and at 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday," he said.

Palo Alto was primarily a bedroom community serving San Francisco, he explained.

"Today, this is a destination work place," he said. "There's thousands of more people here in the daytime; it's much larger than the sleep population. That's very different than before."

Now, it's a traffic jam coming to Palo Alto in the morning from both the north and south, and at the end of the workday, its reversed, he added.

Steve Player, who moved to the city in 1967 after graduating from Stanford University and served as president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce during the 1994 centennial celebration, described Palo Alto as a very different place than it was two-and-a-half decades ago at the start of the dot-com boom, which created a real estate frenzy as billions of dollars in venture capital showered the area. It's a phenomenon that might have slowed slightly during the market crash in 2000 but has never really stopped.

"We already had a lot of things here. There was HP, Varian ... so we weren't a small town, just a different town," Player said. "I think the energy the new techies brought to town is positive, but now it's a little bit of a different environment.

In the morning when the commuter trains arrive, hundreds of "young, energetic" tech workers unboard and fill up downtown. It wasn't like that before, he said.

The tech industry's success also has created a lot of young homebuyers who can afford to purchase a home, tear it down and rebuild, he said.

"That used to be unusual, but now, you buy it and it's gone. Neighborhoods are changing," he said.

The current president of the Palo Alto Chamber, Judy Kleinberg, who is organizing this weekend's celebration and helped launch Palo Alto Day, said the influx of workers has revitalized downtown: There are more people staying in hotels, dining out and shopping.

But, like Staiger and Player, she recognizes that there are new, or at least more intensified, challenges.

"We've always had startups downtown, but the concentration of extraordinary ones have changed the face of those who can live here," she said.

And for those trying to a launch a startup in a city known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley, the landscape also has changed for them.

"In some ways it's probably harder, and in some ways, it's a lot of easier," Susan Packard-Orr, daughter of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, told the Weekly in May 2018. "My father started his company in 1939. He didn't have any of the (resources) available now. There weren't any venture capitalists, so he borrowed money from the bank. Tech startups now are surrounded by marketing firms and design firms and a CFO you can hire one day a week. ... There's this whole infrastructure out there now for startups in Silicon Valley that wasn't there at all."

Staiger said the past 25 years also have allowed the city to finally reach an age where it's old enough to spark genealogy inquiries from those who've discovered that they had ancestors living here as far back as four generations. Genealogy inquires are on the rise, he said — right after requests for information about Palo Alto's Midcentury Modern home builder Joseph Eichler, the Grateful Dead and Cubberley High School's 1967 social experiment in fascism called The Wave.

Palo Alto Day celebration on Sunday

To honor Palo Alto's 125th anniversary, the city is hosting a community party from 12:45-3:15 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, at King Plaza in front of City Hall at 250 Hamilton Ave. The official ceremony will start at 2 p.m.

The event will feature music, cupcakes, a historical retrospective and reflections on Palo Alto's past, present and future. Contents from the time capsule, buried in the elevator shaft of City Hall during Palo Alto's centennial year in 1994, will be on display at City Hall.

What's a quasquicentennial?

While not commonly used, there are words for milestone anniversaries, derived from Latin roots. Palo Alto marked its 100th birthday, known as its centennial, in 1994. This year, the city is celebrating 125 years, called a quasquicentennial.

In another 25 years, in 2044, Palo Alto's residents will observe the city's sesquicentennial, or 150th birthday.


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9 people like this
Posted by The Public Interest
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 26, 2019 at 8:08 am

"Palo Alto was primarily a bedroom community serving San Francisco, he explained."

Yes, a bedroom community, which explains the single family homes.

Let's retain the character of our community, which is why we moved here in the first place.

Do you want tall apartment buildings, with little parking, built next to your single family home? Yes, that's what will happen if SB 50 passes.

Please oppose SB 50. Please contact St. Seen Jerry Hill and Assm. Marc Berman.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 26, 2019 at 8:43 am

In many ways Palo Alto is still stuck in the 50s. We have very poor infrastructure and very poor public transportation. Our power lines are still swinging amongst trees susceptible to storms bringing them down and frequent power outages. Our traffic lights refuse to become peak time only or go to flashing mode overnight when there is no need for being stuck at a red light when you are the only car on the road at 1.00 a.m. We have no shuttles for most of our secondary schools and unless students ride bikes or are lucky enough to live within walking distance, cars are the only way to get there from many neighborhoods. The creeks have accessible paths for crews, but there is no pressure to open these up as bike paths and pedestrian paths. Our pedestrian underpass under 101 closes for 6 months or so each year and we can't get any bridge although we are told it is coming. The only method to get to both nearby airports is by car as any method by public transport takes approximately 2 hours - just not viable for someone ahead or after a 10 or 15 hour flight. We have no electronic signage at garages showing accurate empty space count or ability to pay for parking by phone app. The permit process and inspection process for even a simple remodel upgrade of kitchen or bathroom takes months instead of weeks. Grocery and household affordable shopping has to be done outside Palo Alto as the lack of big box stores and full service supermarkets makes local shopping sadly lacking. Our choices for broadband are poor. The list goes on.

Palo Alto is in the centre of Silicon Valley. Palo Alto residents are at the forefront of innovative technology that is used by the rest of the world. Visiting Palo Alto one would never know this is the 21st century as it is not evident in the way the City makes us live our lives.

3 people like this
Posted by The Original Public Interest
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 26, 2019 at 12:29 pm

It used to be an attractive town up until the mid 90's. Now the neighboring towns are more attractive for livability.

3 people like this
Posted by The Good Days In PA Are Long Over
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 26, 2019 at 12:37 pm

As Peter Fonda told Dennis Hopper towards the end of 'Easy Rider', "We blew it."

The same can be said for Palo Alto...as of TODAY.

10 people like this
Posted by Ming Le
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 26, 2019 at 3:21 pm

Did not live here 125 years ago. Imagine life in Palo Alto not good for Chinese people.

Today Palo Alto is good living environment with excellent public schools and shopping opportunities.

Housing also very affordable. If one has at least $2,500,000 in cash you can buy home in Palo Alto. Nothing fancy but OK for small family with grandparents.

Much talk about high-rise dwellings being added to city. Nothing wrong with that as other people need place to live too. In China, not uncommon for entire cities to look like San Antonio Road area.

> As Peter Fonda told Dennis Hopper towards the end of 'Easy Rider', "We blew it."

Did not know what this meant until I asked older person at work. He said two drug dealers on Harley-Davidson went looking for America and never found it.

When I was younger, single and still living in China, university friend & I bought used Honda motorbikes and went looking for rest of China. We ran out of gas.

3 people like this
Posted by @Ming Le
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2019 at 4:15 pm

"Housing also very affordable. If one has at least $2,500,000 in cash you can buy home in Palo Alto."

Yes, very affordable for the average multi-millionaire.

7 people like this
Posted by A Trip In The Way Back Machine
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2019 at 6:36 pm

125 years ago...Palo Alto = predominantly a white (lower to upper middle class) population. Minorities (Asian, African-American & Hispanic) relegated to manual labor or domestic work.

60 years ago...same as above but minorities now working as civil servants (including the US Postal Service) or production jobs at burgeoning electronics companies. Communities remain well-defined with minorities residing primarily in South Palo Alto.

30 years ago to present...influx of professional East Indians & wealthy Chinese immigrants. Asian population from overseas soars to 40% with whites now becoming a minority.The new immmigrants are no longer relegated to residing in South Palo Alto as they have the financial resources to live in the nicer PA neighborhoods.

Projection for beyond...aging white PA residents 'cash-out' on their inflated & overpriced homes. Successful East Indian tech entrepreneurs & Chinese professionals in the medical fields buy a majority of the remaining Palo Alto homes. Demographics change radically...60%+ Asian (parents originally from overseas) with a white population of 30% or less with poorer Hispanic (6-7%) & African-Americans (1%) making up the remainder.

Not taking into account RV transients & the homeless who will continue to gravitate towards this affluent community due to conveniences and quality of life considerations.

1 person likes this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2019 at 8:25 pm

Rose is a registered user.

I believe Stanford was forced in years past to provide transportation from the Caltrain stations to campus and to the industrial park, and they have a network on the campus proper and it's all FREE. Our City has done nothing similar to help diminish traffic, air and noise pollution in Palo Alto. As far as I can tell, our City isn't working with other cities on the Peninsula to improve public transportation so we can get out of our cars, reduce the traffic and parking problems, and make our carbon footprint smaller. It is unbelievable that every evening after rush hour and all through the weekend, Caltrains come ONLY ONCE PER HOUR and even every hour and a half on the weekend! There is NO shelter in the Millbrae station so if you return from SF on BART and want to transfer to Caltrain, you might sit in the cold and damp air that blows through the Millbrae station for up to an hour. If you don't want to get stuck in Millbrae waiting for Caltrain, you drive to Millbrae, use BART to go and return from San Francisco, and then hop in your car to return to Palo Alto. That's a 30-40 drive each way because we have inadequate Caltrain service at night and on weekends. This is pathetic and no one is doing anything to improve the situation. We could be relaxing with a book or a podcast on the train if there were any.

Like this comment
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2019 at 8:42 pm

Weekend Caltrain service was cut back to hour-and-a-half intervals to help with the electrification work, so contractors wouldn't have to get out of the way so often.

5 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto In 1894
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2019 at 2:55 pm

"125 years ago...Palo Alto = predominantly a white (lower to upper middle class) population. Minorities (Asian, African-American & Hispanic) relegated to manual labor or domestic work."

^^^This perhaps Palo Alto's 'Golden Era'. The country was still young & there was plenty of open land.

The Spanish-American War was only 4 years away & having fulfilled its Manifest Destiny, the time was now ripe for America to become a global nation & explore the prospects and rewards of imperialism.

Everyone knew their place in Palo Alto and as a result, the various socio-economic classes & ethnic groups co-existed with minimal friction. To have been born white & of upper-middle class background was the ideal scenario as one could afford domestic servants & groundskeepers...unlike today. And those who worked for upper-middle class families were grateful for their livelihoods.

The emergence of Stanford University put Palo Alto in the same league as Cambridge & New Haven thus its nickname 'Harvard of the West'. And back then, no one complained about the Stanford mascot!

Gold coins were still in circulation too & a penny actually bought something.

To return to Palo Alto's yesteryear of 1894 would be a dream come true for those who value & appreciate the way America was truly supposed to be.

Like this comment
Posted by The Palo Alto Way
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2019 at 4:05 pm

> To return to Palo Alto's yesteryear of 1894 would be a dream come true for those who value & appreciate the way America was truly supposed to be.

> Everyone knew their place in Palo Alto...

^^^ To some this may sound a bit non-PC but I concur with your sentiments.

Things were probably way better back then...fewer people = fewer hassles.

2 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 30, 2019 at 8:37 am

The grim reality of Palo Alto and world of the immediate future is global warming. No more fossil fuels or we'll be toast by the end of the century. Back to the stone age. Science is what we have. Seaweed oceans? Anyway, build while you can. The key number this summer: humidity. Our most important service: the fire department. Economics: the dismal science.

George Drysdale the misanthrope

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