Palo Alto Centricity
Palo Alto pictures itself as the Center of the Universe. This tony
town of 55,000 is nestled comfortably at the foot of San Francisco Bay. It
stretches from protected wetlands through a unique urban forest of a nearly
perfect Mediterranean climate to fog-shrouded redwood stands in an open space
preserve of steep canyons and tinder-dry manzanita and oak woodlands. Jasper
Ridge and the San Andreas Fault form an oceanic wind shadow of the Pacific
The geographic center of gravity of Palo Alto is in Stanford Research Park near Arastradero Road and Deer Creek Road. Directly north is residential South Palo Alto. To the north of South Palo Alto are the wetlands along the city limits of San Jose. To the west of South Palo Alto is the business and historic center of North Palo Alto, the capital of Silicon Valley.
South Palo Alto is not to be confused with East Palo Alto. Although they share a ZIP Code, they hardly touch, being separated by a county line along the flood control dikes of San Franciscito Creek and the Great Digital Divide called Highway 101.
The Digital Divide is traversed by a commuter corridor called University Avenue from the Dumbarton Bridge to the Caltrans terminal on El Camino Real, the historic King's Highway, and it is real and figurative in terms of wealth and opportunity, race and language.
At the end of University Avenue is the world's only junior university, Stanford, the Harvard of the West, which the locals refer to as the Stanford of the East. It is a community of political correctness and thoughtless offensiveness, where the University shed its mascot of an indigenous American to a faceless Cardinal color of a failed economic and social empire, and where the marching (?) band of spoiled misfits projects vulgarity for effect. Stanford bisects the community without being a part of it, from the elite Stanford Shopping Center to rural SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, to the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard Company in Stanford Research Park. All of Stanford's residential neighborhoods are under the jurisdiction of Santa Clara County. This has profound effects on voter interests and relations, as students and campus resident academicians do not vote on municipal issues.
Palo Alto is built inside out, with the business centers adjacent Stanford and the residence adjacent the main transportation arteries, and with constricted cross-town roadways. The great political debate is whether to surround the City with an eruv to symbolically enclose the City for the benefit of the substantial Orthodox Jewish residents. The bounded borders of Palo Alto--in all directions even up, where the building height limit is 50 feet, and down, where the water table is as little as 7 feet and is largely near sea level in a 100 year flood plain--coupled with the influx of great personal wealth and demand for civil services, has pressed out the middle class and unsubsidized working class. The city has the world's highest per capita concentration of lawyers, doctors, college graduates and computers, where the adult population has an average of 17 years of schooling. A NIMBY attitude pervades the public debate, belying the armchair liberal attitude, in contrast to the nearby conservative bastions in the nearly rural communities of Atherton, Woodside, Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills, where the residents have enough wealth to insulate themselves from the environment. This may change, as the new dotcom company founders cash in their stock options and pay as much as $1,000,000 for an older home on a 1/6th acre lot, only to scrape it to the foundations to build monster homes on a street with artificial traffic barriers and potholes.
Such is the geography at the hub of the highest concentration of capitalism in world history.