I guess I had unrealistic expectations. Actually, that’s not exactly true; my expectations were right on the money. I knew I would see what I saw – no big surprises there. And I know that things change, often times for the better. They call it progress… I suppose that depends on one’s point of view. All the same, for some reason, this time I really miss the way things were.
I don’t have any but the sketchiest of memories of my first two homes. When I was only about three or four, my parents bought the home they still live in today. My youth was spent entirely in this sleepy little Santa Clara Valley hamlet. Known for its acres and acres of fruit orchards - cherries, plumbs, peaches - this part of the valley was mostly consisted of apricot orchards. Everyone's yard had three or four trees. However, by the time I had graduated high school in 1981, the valley was known by a much different name: Silicon Valley.
Los Altos has always been a middle-class suburb. Full disclosure? Ok, a white middle-class suburb. I’m not sure how it is that I did not grow up to be racist… credit my parents, the social atmosphere of living through the height of the civil rights movement or maybe it was an associative effect of being so close to Stanford University. We were also within a short drive of the likes of Berkeley, San Francisco or the city next-door and home of Stanford - Palo Alto, where technology, not race, reigned supreme. It was (and still is, I guess) what was referred to as “a bedroom community,” whatever that means.
This was a safe place to raise kids. I think it probably still is, but you won’t see the kids experiencing the same mobility I did in my youth. There was a time when kids of all ages were everywhere, usually riding their bikes. My elementary school (which is still there) is two long suburbian blocks away, probably about half a mile. By the time I was in first grade – just a boy of five going on six – I was riding my Sears Free-Spirit one speed bike to and from school by myself. Ok, not exactly by myself, there were a few other kids making the same trek. That just doesn’t happen today.
Money changes things. More of it inflates and less of it deflates. Los Altos has inflated. Granted, this was no skid row when I was a kid; it was a town of working professionals. Most of the moms stayed at home (we called them “housewives” then - nobody seemed to mind) and the dads worked hard and often long hours – not so much with their brawn, but with their college educated brains. It was very Beaver Cleaver around here and it is only in retrospect that I can say I really liked it. I couldn’t have asked for a more idyllic childhood – comfortable, but not pretentious.
All that is gone now. Is it better or worse? I don’t know. It’s a very different place than where I grew up. Houses – check that – one-quarter acre pieces of land… never mind the house, are selling for over one million dollars today. To put that into context, my parents bought their home forty years ago for well under one hundred thousand dollars - well under! There are some long-time residents that quite literally couldn’t afford to buy their own home. This whole town is out of reach for all but the rich and their kids. Kids who are well beyond comfortable. Kids who don’t need to ride their bikes to school.
The vast majority of the people living here today have no idea what it used to be like. On my parent’s street, there are only two or three that lived here when we moved here. Most of the houses have been extensively remodeled (including theirs) and some have been purchased just so they could be leveled and built anew. The freedoms this town offers to the kids who reside here are largely being ignored. It is every bit as safe as it was when I was a kid, yet money affords parents the luxury of not having to take as many risks, so they don’t.
The technology boom started about the same time I did. We grew up together – sharing the same yard. It made a lot of people rich while leaving many others behind. Of those I graduated high school with, many cannot afford to live in the town they hail from – I can’t. My parents worked hard and got some luck; they were able to retire without having to cash in their home. Consequently, I am fortunate that I can come back and visit, as I am this weekend. It is not, however, always easy to witness “progress.”
In the summer time, right around the Forth of July, all the apricots get ripe at the same time. They used to be all part of the same orchard. Like clockwork, the moms would all get together and harvest them, halve and pit them and lay them out on huge drying boards. They would then load them into their station wagons (remember??) and drive down the El Camino Real to C.J. Olsen’s orchard in Sunnyvale to be prepped and dried. When the 'cots came back, everyone would have dried apricots, as well as jams, jellies and preserves until well into the next year.
Today, those trees are all gone.