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I'm back, and things have changed

Original post made by Alice Smith, Esther Clark Park, on Jun 8, 2006

I'm back. And Palo Alto changed during those 22 years when I was living in London and Windsor, England.

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)

Comments (6)

Posted by A Side of New Palo Alto
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2006 at 10:04 pm

I hate to make this sound like a hate-reply or anything of that sort so please be reminded that this is not a personal attack on your writing. I highly respect your point of view. I think it's a terrible loss to Palo Alto that it doesn't retain enough of its history and charm. But we have to realize that change is inevitable. Palo Alto is now something quite different than it was say, 22 years ago. The tech age has significantly changed the face of PA and everything that surrounds it. But we ought to be dam& proud of this and other new things around town. I think we would all like to see all of the wonderful suggestions you've made but we need to wake up from our dreams. I have not had the chance to visit England but this is Palo Alto, CA last time I checked and we live in a very different world as far as how the money trickles down. As much as I hate how this is going to sound, I highly dislike people always comparing Palo Alto to somewhere better nagging about how they wish Palo Alto would be more like their favorite town of Oz. Do many of us Palo Altans need a wake up call and get on our feet? Of course! But simply talking about what a shame it is that this town isn't what it used to be isn't getting us anywhere especially when we just try to make it resemble another city somewhere else. We are unique and the time is now. I agree with Alice that we ought to really have more residents involved in the city and make our voices heard. Hopefully this blog/message board/forum isn't just a way for us to "voice" our opinions that stay as text. Let's really do something for a change!

Posted by mike naar
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 9, 2006 at 12:46 pm

A Side of New Palo Alto - your respectful comments on Alice's comparisons of Palo Alto then and new end with the hope that "this blog/message board/forum isn't just a way for us to "voice" our opinions that stay as text. Let's really do something for a change!"

Key question is what exactly, concretely, would you propose be done. It's quite easy to complain about the way things are which is why I had an initial similar reaction to Alice's posting as you did. But the tough part is specifically making suggestions as to what should be done and pursuing our political process to bring about such changes.

Alice comes up with a couple of suggestions concerning police and library resources, as well as her views on the controversial immerson programs (from a resource-standpoint) and the ecological awareness (or lack thereof) of Palo Alto residents.

Were these few changes made, would they really change her view of what Palo Alto is vs. what it was. I have a hard time believing that.

It would be like not seeing a young child grow-up day-by-day and then seeing them again after 22 years. You could get them to wear their hair in a pony tail as when you last saw them, but this will leave you with no more appreciation of who they've become and the challenges they've faced along the way.

But assuming I'm wrong, then by all means, push for these changes, contact your council members, start a grass roots campaign, and get involved with your neighborhood association (which sounds like what Alice is still doing after all these years). These changes may all be for the good, but it won't return Palo Alto (or any other town in this area) back to how it was 22 years ago.

Posted by Craig V.
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2006 at 11:42 pm

I wish to comment on the point Alice Smith made regarding Americans "only car[ing] about their own back yards." As evidence of this, Alice claims that "International sports [are] a joke here: if the contestants aren't American it isn't very interesting, is it?"

First, in 2006, the inhabitants of Palo Alto come from all corners of the globe. Many of these people are in fact now, naturalized Americans and likely do care about international sports.

Second, many Americans who have been here for several generations do care very much about soccer and golf, which are very much international sports. They may not carry the same weight as American football, baseball or basketball, but they certainly generate a great deal of interest, especially to those who might enjoy playing those sports as a hobby or as part of a high school or college team.

I also feel that Alice is somewhat unfairly singling out Americans for not caring about international sports, and implying that this is a bad thing and also a uniquely American problem. Sports are more enjoyable to watch when you have a vested emotional interest in the outcome. If you become a Giants fan and immerse yourself in Giants culture, your emotions will rise and fall with the fate of the team. You will latch on to the history and rivalries. You will feel the thrill of playing the Dodgers and being in the 9th inning, score tied, 2 outs, 3 balls, 2 strikes, runners at the corners when Steve Finley hits one up "Finley's alley," scoring Randy Winn and ending the game.

People all over the world naturally tend to develop an emotional attachment to a team for many reasons. For instance they might have great memories of attending or watching games with friends and loved ones. They may find that discussing team strategy and performance to be intellectually stimulating and a healthy and enjoyable distraction from work or family pressures. The impact of the local media: television, radio and newspapers can't be overlooked in understanding why people start to become interested in their local teams.

The relationship between the teams and the fans is inevitably one part of what makes up a city's identity. What would Boston be without the Red Sox? What about Chicago, without the White Sox (or that other team)? What about Manchester without Manchester United, or Madrid without Real Madrid?

People in those cities, or with ties to those cities, will no doubt use their time and emotional energy to pay attention to their beloved teams. This too is probably a global phenomenon. I wouldn't go to Manchester expecting a local to know what Albert Pujols on-base-percentage was before he went on the 15 day DL. I wouldn't go to Madrid, expecting to have a conversation with a local about how bizarre it was that the Texans passed on Reggie Bush in the first round of the draft, or that the Chicago Bears oddly bolstered their already top-rated defense, but failed to add anything to their bottom ranked offense.

The big stories are probably paid attention to around the world. Many Americans did take note when David Beckham left Manchester United for Real Madrid. It was an interesting story. I'm sure many people around the world have heard about the Barry Bonds controversy.

Alice's theory that "if the contestants aren't American, it isn't very interesting, is it?" implies that the sports Americans pay attention to are made up exclusively of American players. This is patently false. For instance, according to the NBA, "As of February 28, 2006, the NBA featured 82 international players from 38 countries and territories on team rosters (active and inactive) for the 2005-06 NBA season, including 2004-05 MVP Steve Nash(Canada) and 2005 All-Stars Zydrunas Ilgauskas(Lithuania), Dirk Nowitzki(Germany), Manu Ginobili(Argentina) and Yao Ming(China)."
Major League Baseball features players from several Latin American countries, the Caribbean, Korea and Japan.
Hockey has players from of course, Canada, Russia, Sweden and more.
It is true that the National Football league is almost exclusively comprised of native born American players. This is probably due to its system of drawing players only from the NCAA colleges and universities.

Ultimately, I'm proud of where I come from and the teams I root for. I'm a Bears fan because I grew up in Chicago, and the Bears meant everything to me when I was a kid. I'm a Giants fan because I live here now, and I love taking my daughter to the games. I believe that caring primarily for your "back-yard" team is actually a good thing, and a practice carried out globally.

Posted by Member
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 11, 2006 at 12:34 pm

It's refreshing to see and read through new eyes....or old, as it may be. It keeps us on track and begins needed discussion and hopefully some action. Much is good about PA. Much about PA needs to be addressed. Thanks for starting the ball rolling.

Posted by James T.
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 11, 2006 at 1:10 pm

I just wanted to post a quick comment regarding something that you wrote. You said, "I would have a regional police agency and not build a "Palo Alto" police building." I would have to agree with you on one hand and disagree on the other. First off, our law enforcement are working with thier hands tied behind thier backs lately. The crooks have forgotten jurisdictional boundaries, but our cops don't have that luxury. You said that you would have a regional police agency and I could not agree with you more. With having a "Metropolitan" style police agency, you break down the jurisdictional barriers that our cops have to follow and allow for more information to be passed from one "district" to another. The flow of information in one agency is easier than that of twenty! In addition, we (taxpayers) would save money in the end by increasing productivity and decreasing overspending. So although this is a great idea, I doubt that it will happen anytime soon. One can wish but I wouldn't advise holding our breaths too long!

With that said, I disagree with waiting to build a police facility. Have you seen the current facility. It makes Palo Alto look like the ghetto of police departments. There is no space and its dingy and dilapidated. I didn't believe it until I took a tour. I suggest anyone who disbelievs me to take a tour also. I don't think that a new facility should be a grand statement to Palo Alto's wealth, but we need a permament fix no matter what. So even if our Santa Clara police agencies decided one day to merge and form a regional police agency, we still would need a police station (or district) in Palo Alto. The current station won't last that long. Even for the police haters in our community (and with as many tickets that I have been issued lately, I don't much either), we can find some common sense in our heads to realize that the current facility just plain stinks.

Posted by troy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2006 at 10:33 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online]

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