California, Silicon Valley, and Stanford

The first thing Californians want visitors to know is that this is not one of those tiny Eastern states. California is diverse, and mostly it is large: 750 miles from end to end, as far as Portland, Maine, to Raleigh, N.C., and just as varied. It's also the same distance from the Shetland Islands to Penzance, and Britain is a good comparison. For just as foreigners tend unjustly to see Britain as England or even just London, and treat Scotland and Wales as poor cousins or ignore them entirely, so it is with California and Los Angeles. Overlay the British map on top of ours, and the English-Scottish border hits the ocean near Monterey. To many Easterners, as in The New Yorker's "California" issue a couple years back, California means L.A., and we in the north (38% of the population, over half the area) dislike being forgotten. And we don't act like Angelenos, any more than New Englanders sip mint juleps on their verandas.

Northern California is culturally a cross between Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Our summers are dry, our style is closer to LA-hyper than we like to think, and we have some palm trees, but we have more redwoods and eucalyptus (yes, eucalyptus: imported in the 19th century by an entrepreneur who wanted to use the fast-growing wood for railroad ties, it turned out to be the wrong sort of eucalyptus and now grows wild and undisturbed). Our economy is not based on entertainment, but on high-tech (computers & aerospace, just like Seattle), shipping, and agriculture. We don't go to the beach much, and when we do we're more likely to clamber in boots over the rocks around tide pools than to sunbathe or surf. Our politics are more liberal than the south's (the Bay Area is the most left-wing metropolis in the nation). Most of all, we read more than we watch TV. San Jose is reputedly the nation's top book-buying city. David and Susan Siegel of The Used Book Lover's Guide were amazed at the number of stores they found in the West.

To sum it up in a semi-literary fashion: John Steinbeck, Clark Ashton Smith, Amy Tan, the Beat poets, Gellett Burgess, and Jerry Brown are Northern Californians. Raymond Chandler, Jerry Pournelle, Carolyn See, Charles Bukowski, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Ronald Reagan are Southern Californians. Does that help?

Silicon Valley is a name that does not appear on maps. It's a socioeconomic concept more than a place, but it does have a locale: from Redwood City, on the San Francisco Peninsula, and Fremont, on the East Bay, down to San Jose, where the Peninsula and mainland meet. It includes Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Cupertino. All these cities are one long contiguous suburb, distinguishable mostly by the styles of their downtowns. (Palo Alto is yuppified. Mountain View has more and better Asian restaurants than any equivalent-sized part of San Francisco. Those two have the local bookstores. Sunnyvale ripped out its downtown and replaced it with a shopping mall. Cupertino began life as a crossroads and never had a downtown.) The high-tech firms are mostly in the industrial belt along the Central Expressway, except Apple which is by itself, overlooking the freeway in Cupertino.

It wasn't always this way. Once there was rolling grass and ranchos. Then there were orchards: cherries, apricots, and plums. The trackless suburbs came in the 1950s, driven by the aerospace economy. The computer firms came more slowly, driven by entrepreneurs mostly out of Stanford. Hewlett Packard, the first big one, was founded in the 1930s. The boom came later. I left the area to go to college in 1975, and came back eight years later to find that my home town had been renamed "Silicon Valley" and was filled with computer companies and traffic jams that had not been there before.

Stanford University was the creation of Leland Stanford, Senior, one of the robber barons who built the transcontinental railroad. When the area south of San Francisco was thinly settled, he owned a huge ranch which he used mostly to raise race horses. (A plaque commemorates the race track where Eadweard Muybridge invented motion pictures: Stanford had invited him to settle a bet as to whether a galloping horse takes all four hooves off the ground at once. Muybridge set up a series of cameras on trip wires, and confirmed that the horse does.) When their only son, Leland Jr., the sort of boy who collected insects and Roman coins, died of typhoid at age 15 in 1884, Leland Sr. and Jane Stanford decided to found a university in his memory, and placed it on their ranch despite its being in the middle of nowhere. Thus the name "Leland Stanford Junior University", although there is no such thing as a Junior University. Palo Alto was founded by Stanford as a residential town for the faculty. The university slowly grew, and the area grew around it.

Today, the central Stanford campus, where the main university buildings are, is itself rather more spread out than the average university campus. It is surrounded by a greenbelt and various other university activities: faculty housing, the Stanford Industrial Park (home of HP, Xerox PARC, and various other high-tech firms), the Stanford Shopping Center (extremely upscale), and SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (whose two-mile-long main beam is crossed by a freeway overpass on Interstate 280).

Economic facts about Silicon Valley:

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