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For families, Palo Alto still has a strong lure

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Portraits of a Community


For families, Palo Alto still has strong lure

Despite the feelings of past generations, newcomers feel a sense of community

by Vicky Anning

Twenty years ago, Harry Rodda and his wife, Judie, grew fruit and vegetables on the roof of their south Palo Alto garage. They bought their groceries from local food cooperatives. They organized against the Vietnam War. And Judie, a stay-at-home mom, raised her two girls with the guidance of her neighborhood coffee klatsch. Their daughters, now 34 and 38, used to walk to school, and they played in the street until the street lights came on.

Today, Judie Rodda would no sooner let a kindergartner walk to school alone than push her out into the busy Palo Alto traffic, she said.

Congested streets and anonymous faces have replaced the bucolic tree-lined streets that attracted the Roddas to Palo Alto several decades ago. The sense of community they valued has disappeared, they say.

Yet today, the families who continue to pour into Palo Alto still see a community with great schools and services. Finding friendly neighbors and a better lifestyle here than elsewhere, they speak of a Palo Alto with many of the qualities that appealed to the Roddas when they moved here.

The Roddas, who bought their Greer Park home in 1964 for $25,000, no longer think Palo Alto is a great place to raise children. And they certainly wouldn't pay the going price of $700,000 for an Eichler like theirs.

"I think it's a great loss that life has sped up and the economy is so stifling," Judie said. "It's just crazy--everyone working full tilt. It's very stressful."

Twenty years ago, Judie had time to sit around with other young mothers and share child-rearing tips. Twenty years ago, everyone in their neighborhood was friends with everyone else and knew each other's children, she said. Today, the Roddas' 5-year-old granddaughter has to make a play date to meet up with other children, she said.

Judie's youngest daughter, Megan Cox, now 34 and a teacher at Nixon Elementary School, bought a two-bedroom fixer-upper in College Terrace six years ago with her husband and two small children. They paid $250,000 for what Judie called a "rundown shack" and have put all their savings and energy into remodeling it.

Megan, who has lived in Palo Alto for most of her life, said she has traveled the world, and she wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But it's not the same place she grew up in.

"That small-town feel isn't there anymore," she said. Her parents agree.

"I'm not a person that thinks old is better," said Harry Rodda, 61, a retired architect. "(But) there's been a change. Palo Alto used to be a quiet, wonderful little downtown. Now you can't find parking. Everybody's in a hurry."

Said Judie: "People are more into their own world now and more concerned with paying rent and getting ahead."

While Harry and Judie, also 61, enjoy the vibrant downtown restaurants and the bustle that comes from the constant influx of people arriving at Stanford University and Silicon Valley, they regret that some negative things have crept into Palo Alto life.

"I always feel we're on the leading edge of something new," said Judie. "I just wish that good manners had come along with it. I see people who are too rushed to be polite."

The Roddas are also disturbed by what they consider an ostentatious display of wealth.

"I do object to seeing these beautiful old Palo Alto homes disappear and (people) build monuments to their own pretension," Harry said.

While the Roddas would never live anywhere but Palo Alto, they might think twice about moving here today.

"Palo Alto has always been a desirable place to come, but now maybe the things you come for aren't there anymore," Harry said.

Recent arrivals to Palo Alto see things somewhat differently, however.

Yvonne Dennis, 40, has just moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles with her husband, a business developer for Intel Corp., and their two young children. They were drawn to Palo Alto for many of the same reasons the Rodda family came when Palo Alto was a middle-class suburb: good schools, child-friendly services, tree-lined streets, proximity to Stanford and San Francisco.

But Yvonne, a former banker, thinks the desire of previous generations to sustain the small-town feel is unrealistic.

"It is growing, and things have to change," she said.

As an example, she cites her frustration over the 25 mph speed limits along busy thoroughfares like Middlefield and Embarcadero roads.

But after scouting out properties in the Bay Area--looking at houses from Cupertino to Menlo Park--the Dennises decided Palo Alto had the right mix of urban diversity and suburban charm.

"We didn't want anything too suburban," said Dennis, who was drawn to the Community Center neighborhood of Palo Alto because it is within easy walking distance of schools, Rinconada Park, Children's Library and the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. When the Dennises moved into their new home in May, one of their new neighbors brought over freshly grown beans and tomatoes from their garden.

"I actually think people are very friendly around here," Yvonne said. "Much more friendly than I'm used to."

Yvonne describes most people she's met so far as "down-to-earth" rather than pretentious, although--like the Roddas--she objects to the so-called "monster homes" she sees going up in other parts of Palo Alto.

"I'm not interested in living in a community of lot hogs," she said.

When asked, Yvonne can't think of many downsides to her newly chosen neighborhood.

"The community has as much if not more than we expected," she said.

But one thing she and her husband weren't prepared for was the competition both for homes and enrollment openings at Palo Alto schools.

"We'd been told to get ready for the sticker shock," Yvonne said. "We really didn't know it would be that bad."

While the couple were trying to sell their three-bedroom home on the west side of Los Angeles, they spent more than a year looking for something they could afford in Palo Alto. Eventually, they bought their three-bedroom, two-bathroom house for $750,000--one-third more than they had budgeted. At the same time, they took a loss on the sale of their $250,000 Los Angeles home after trying to sell it for six months.

They console themselves with the thought that, in Los Angeles, they would have had to put both their children--now 5 and a year old-- through private schools. In Palo Alto, they trust the public schools.

But openings at many of the elementary schools are limited. In May, while their house was closing escrow, Yvonne rushed to their neighborhood school, Duveneck, to register her son Peter for a kindergarten slot. She was told there was no guarantee of a place in the fall. They might have to drive Peter across town to Barron Park Elementary School, they were told. After all the couple had been through to find a house, they couldn't believe what was happening.

After a summer of uncertainty, the school increased the number of kindergarten classes. Peter started kindergarten last month. His classroom is a portable, but at least he is now within walking distance of his school.

Yvonne intends to get as involved as she can with her son's class. In fact, the Duveneck principal told parents of the incoming kindergartners that she would rather see them commit time to the school than money. But in a year or two, when her daughter is in preschool, Yvonne hopes to return to work. And it's not just a money thing.

"There are certainly days when I think it's a lot easier going to the office than looking after two small kids," she said, sitting among the unpacked boxes in her family room.

Once the boxes are unpacked, the Dennises don't plan to move from Palo Alto, at least until their children have finished school.

"This is the only place to live, so we might as well bite the bullet," Yvonne said.

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