Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

San Francisco: Silicon Valley’s Ghetto

Big American cities have a shameful history of setting up smaller ones into which to punt the workers who make their city run. In Amazing Grace, Jonathan Kozol writes heart-wrenchingly about life in East St. Louis. And a little closer to home, in the shining Valley city of Palo Alto, the workers and their families (as usual, mostly people of color) are shunted into East Palo Alto at the end of the day.

Not only does this keep the workers and their families out of sight and out of crime, but it has beneficial political effects too. The workers may elect their own mayor, who is economically powerless to do anything about their plight, and they may attend their own school system, maintaining the new racial and economic segregation of American schools. (Incidentally, Stanford recently purchased East Palo Alto High School so it can run experiments on the poor children.)

It would be absurd and offensive to compare life in San Francisco to life in these impoverished neighborhoods, but I can’t help but feel there are some structural similarities. Whatever else San Francisco is, it is a reaction to the Valley. Many of the people I’ve met here are doing their best to escape their stifling Silicon Valley jobs, taking the bus or train or car every day into work, then running back as soon as they can.

The result is that San Francisco ends up being something like the opposite of the Valley. The Valley has its clean if gray office buildings in neat squares; San Francisco has its rough and random dirty shops and houses drizzled across hillsides. The Valley is full of conservative corporate behavior; San Francisco is full of left-wing activists. The Valley is where people work, so San Francisco is where they play, throwing frisbees in parks and hanging out in coffee shops or going to dance parties at night. The Valley is a place of businesslike behavior; in San Francisco people hug deeply when they meet. (Not everyone, of course; none of this is everyone, but more than enough to be noticeable.)

The result, like some Marxist dialectic, is that neither the City nor the Valley really feel real. Both are reacting against each other, playing off their faults, waiting for some synthesis to put the pieces back together. The result is, to be sane you have to be in both.

City people refer to Palo Alto as Shallow Alto, which might even be literally true. The city is a thin strip of road, surrounded on one side by houses and on the other by offices, with Stanford behind it and other cities in front. It is, perhaps, a decent place to work — the finest upscale fakery you can find along relatively clean streets where even the homeless are white — but it’s apparently a terribly boring place to live.

Meanwhile the city is all action. People are “intellectually lazy” here, complains one resident. You can zip around on bikes and scooters, drop into parties and nightclubs, gab with friends, eat good food, stroll by shops, do everything but actually get work done. People here are fleeing from work, not looking for it.

And so, to live, you ping-pong back and forth. A job you hate in the Valley, but you have to keep it so that it pays the exorbitant rent in the City, which you have to live in to escape the deadliness of the Valley. High highs, low lows, bright nights, dark days.

I suspect the City works as an escape valve in other ways. Instead of unioninizing your big corporate employer, you simply flee to a False Profit party, secure in your anti-capitalist sentiment. Instead of working to build a better life, you go out dancing with your friends, trying to enjoy the little time you have.

Which, I have to say, is better than most. Most office drones just go home and watch TV, their work having drained from them the energy for any more productive activity. I suspect some of the difference lies in the peculiar economics of the computer industry. The people in it are unusually smart and talented. And the barriers to entry are so low that if they wanted to they could start their own thing (and, as the startup world shows, many do). So perhaps one has to “heighten the distractions” to keep them busy.

But who knows? I’ve got a party to get to.

You should follow me on twitter here.

November 19, 2006


Personally I like working all out and then parting all out, but then again I enjoy both my work time and my play time. Is most of the work in the valley boring? I was under the opposite impression [I’ve never been Silicon Valley].

posted by Holden Karau on November 19, 2006 #

While I respect your right to express your view, I believe, in this case, that your view is extremely skewed, naïve and reactionary.

It is surely true that where there is a larger concentration of corporate business (“the Valley”), there is a more pervasive clean-cut work attitude. It’s also true that San Francisco (“the City”) is much more eclectic and amorous than the Valley. Stating that one feeds off of the other in the way that you describe, though, is a beginner’s mistake.

The City has deep roots in its crazy/funky/cool culture, dating back much farther than the Valley or anything else equally trite around it. The City is being nothing but itself. It doesn’t react to or leech off or bend for anything other than itself. Treating the City as anything other than the extremely autonomous, complex being that has grown to be is insulting to those who make up the City and its entirely unique identity.

The City does not react to the Valley. The City does not need the Valley. The Valley is a side effect that can account for its own corporate stodginess and lack of character through pure introspection. The City doesn’t respect the Valley precisely because it lacks true character and true quality.

Embrace the City. Live in it, with it and through it. Experience the good, the bad and the truly unique things that the City has to offer. Do all of that and become a part of the City without insulting it with this drivel; either that or go back to Boston.

posted by Brad Fults on November 19, 2006 #

There’s plenty of boring corporate offices in the financial district. In fact, the jobs are likely far more of the soul-draning in those offices, than any of the jobs in the city (I have tons of coworkers from the city who pretty much say the same — all the jobs in the city, are pretty much, 9-5 dress-code-required type). There also does exist a conservative constituency in the city (there’s a good article in Reason about that whole community, which I just am not able to find it, which is also mostly socially conservative Catholics), albeit small, but very well connected.

Likewise, The Valley is still a liberal/Democratic strong hold, with perhaps a few libertarian leaning types (but likely even fewer

posted by on November 20, 2006 #

Doh the reply got eaten. Wonder if this is an issue with firefox or the blog software.

In any case, here’s the rest:

Likewise, The Valley is still a liberal/Democratic strong hold, with perhaps a few libertarian leaning types (but likely even fewer

posted by on November 20, 2006 #

Aha, double quotes is what is causing the reply to get eaten. Is this a bug or this an intended feature?

Again, here is second paragraph onwards:

Likewise, The Valley is still a liberal/Democratic strong hold, with perhaps a few libertarian leaning types (but likely even fewer God and Gays (*) conservatives than in the city). While there are indeed more office parks, many of the places are very much unlikely the Dilbertesque cube-farms and offer significant choices to the employees. The Valley is also not without a non-corporate culture: there’s plenty of independent book stores, independent coffee shops — especially in places like Palo Alto, Mountain View and Downtown San Jose.

The real difference is not political, nor economic. It’s cultural: people who are used to East Coast urban cores generally don’t last long in the valley and move up to San Francisco; likewise, people brought in bedroom communities / suburbia of say, Southern California, would prefer suburban Silicon Valley.

God and Gays was meant to double quoted, but this is apparently what caused the rest of the comment to the cut off.

posted by on November 20, 2006 #

That’s a pretty broad brush, Aaron.

It is extremely fashionable to riff on how suburbs are isolating, soul-deadening gardens of commercialism, but it is also starting to get really tiresome. I’ve lived for 4 years in the valley, and for 4 years before that I lived in a big city. I have met at least as many interesting people living in suburbia as I did in my previous, more urban, setting. There are some things missing from suburbia, like live music. But there are plenty of things missing from cities as well - such as the ability to get away from people. I can ride my bike 30 minutes up into the hills and be totally alone.

It’s not as black and white as you make it. Sure, if you visit the suburbs once you might think there’s nobody here but bluetooth-headset-shouting, bmw-driving assholes, but you’d be wrong. Just like you’d be wrong if you visited the city once and thought that everybody there was an insufferable hipster.

Oh, and Brad Fults: Arrogant, too cool for their shoes, pseudo-enlightened assholes like you are the half the reason I don’t live in SF. “The city does not need the valley”? Hah! Take a look at 101 tomorrow morning and tell me how many people drive back and forth between the two every day. Both the valley and the city would be shadows of their current selves if they were removed from each other.

posted by Mark on November 20, 2006 #

There are a lot of people in the City. There are a lot of people in the Valley.

We are all in our little bubbles. It sounds like you, personally, interact with corporate people in the Valley and party people in the City. So there are your stereotypes. Act accordingly.

posted by talboito on November 20, 2006 #


The bottom line is that there are City people and Suburb people, and never the twain shall meet. Even when I was an undergrad at Stanford, I despised San Francisco, and prayed that I would never have to live there.

I would also agree that for the highly-educated, mostly white overclass of the Bay Area, it’s unclear that San Francisco is any more authentic than the Valley. At least the Valley is honest about what it is. The City pretends to be a multi-cultural, egalitarian haven, when in fact few of the techie class that lives there interacts with poor minorities outside of retail salespeople, their gardeners, and their nannies.

posted by Chris Yeh on November 20, 2006 #

No I totally agree with this. While I work in the city (I still work for a nice gray institution that drains every ounce of energy out of my body) and live in the city - I agree. I have lived here for almost 5 years and feel caught in the hamster wheel of working to live & pay rent and then trying to fit in all the other things about the city in my free time (that is not consumed with sleeping). I feel like when I pop out of SF (I am a Cali native) - I am going to wonder where the last 5 years went.

posted by Kitsune on November 20, 2006 #

You’ve hit the nail on the head, for my experience at least — which is almost identical to yours. A lot of geek imports to the Valley feel the same way.

But these places existed long before tech got here, and will exist long after.

SF has the among most vibrant local political and social cultures in the entire USA, so they have a future after tech has gone. But there’s no denying that the techie lifestyle refugees have an impact; if they were the only economic force, SF would just become a theme-park of what it used to be.

You might like Hollow City by Rebecca Solnit. It’s a rambling but heartfelt essay on what the first boom did to SF. There’s also a stab at defining the economic history of artists in SF.

posted by Neil Kandalgaonkar on November 24, 2006 #

The City has been around a lot longer than Silicon Valley - it has its own thing going on.

There may seem to be many people commuting from SF to the Valley, but I would bet you the actual number of commuters is fewer than 20,000 people. Most San Francisco residents actually work in San Francisco.

And if you are truly looking for Silicon Valley’s ghetto, you seem to have overlooked San Jose…

year 2000 report on actual number of SV communters: http://tinyurl.com/ybkrxd

posted by Norcal Barney on November 25, 2006 #

Norcal Barney is right: San Jose is Silicon Valley’s ghetto. It is the only US city of more than 500,000 people that actually loses population during the day when people go to work. That’s why it can’t shake its reputation as a bedroom community (since that’s precisely what it is).

San Francisco, on the other hand, gains several hundred thousand people during the day (not including tourists). It may seem like no one works in SF if you don’t live here, but the City is headquarters of WellsFargo, Bank of the West, Del Monte, GAP, Levis, Charles Schwab, The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, The California Supreme Court, and thousands of other companies, magazines, non-profits, and government agencies. The Bay Bridge is also the busiest bridge in the country (slightly busier than the George Washington bridge in NY) - not sure what all those people are doing on the bridge coming over from the East Bay in the morning if it’s not to go to work downtown.

Note that all daytime population figures come from the US Census: http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/daytime/daytimepop.html

posted by richardofmystery on February 3, 2007 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.