Nuke the site from orbit.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

We all know Silicon Valley, whether we want to or not. It's where the carefully cultivated children of privilege go to make immense amounts of money -- not so much by selling goods and services to regular people, for a profit, but by selling companies to other Silicon Valley companies. It's a Ponzi scheme that nobody there really complains about, because everyone is pretty wealthy at the start. Failure in "the Valley" usually means a buyout, or exile as a consultant or freelancer, still providing a standard of living far beyond what 90 percent of Americans will ever enjoy.

Silicon Valley is also marketed as The Future of Humanity.

But as a human landscape, it's a crushingly boring sunny suburban slab of freeways, fast food, traffic, and long smoggy boulevards of faded retail sprawling out to endless housing developments of sand-colored stucco boxes. It's Phoenix with milder weather, Orlando minus the mosquitos.

Tech-loving travelers come from around the world to see Silicon Valley, but there's nothing to see -- no Times Square, no French Quarter, just low-rise office parks and security guards circling the parking lots. Could anything be gained by walking from corporate landmark to corporate landmark? Maybe not, but two days of walking always beats two days of looking at a computer, even if I'd be walking from technology company to technology company. [...]

Take a tour of Wall Street and you'll find dozens of fancy restaurants where you can order a steak and a martini and listen to traders bitch about their bosses and their wives. Silicon Valley doesn't encourage lunches "off campus," so every big tech company has a master chef overseeing a menu of delicious and fresh food. The employees have no reason to leave -- gyms, coffee, even haircuts and routine car maintenance can be handled without leaving the mothership.

This makes the employees entirely dependent on the company for every aspect of life. And it ensures that the surrounding neighborhoods are completely starved of people and decent places to eat. The restaurant closest to Apple's world famous headquarters at One Infinite Loop is some dubious Marie Calendar's-style mall diner called "BJ's." Within a few blocks, it's all liquor stores and check-cashing joints and freeway overpasses.

The Facebook office park is surrounded by marshland, at the edge of the unfashionably rundown East Palo Alto, but again the campus is so insulated from whatever's around that it hardly matters. You drive in, you park, you leave when it's time to sleep. Across the giant boulevard is a construction site -- the new Facebook campus, a self-contained rectangle that might as well be on an island -- and a mini-mall with a taco stand, a nail parlor and a Jack in the Box.

This is one of many times when I realize that walking the entirety of Silicon Valley is not illuminating at all. Nobody at Facebook walks this rotten road with its mile-long run-down apartment complexes and the Comcast bill collector leaving shutoff notices on the doors. Nobody at Facebook cares about East Palo Alto's terrible murder rate. Besides, that will all be fixed in a few years, when these last "bad neighborhoods" are recolonized and rehabilitated by the pioneering young couples making ends meet on combined annual salaries of $250,000.

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22 Responses:

  1. I didn't get past the first paragraph. Thanks for reading more and confirming that he's a giant douche.

    • Tom Lord says:

      Thanks for reading more and confirming that he's a giant douche.

      If you don't defend the financial elites, tech industry, and SV segregation then who will?!?

      First they came for the corrupt financiers [with words!] but I was not a corrupt banker .....

  2. sherm says:

    Oh, honestly, Gawker. There is a road like El Camino Real pretty much everywhere in the western world, and they are all shitholes.

    I'm from the valley. Nothing there will ever be compared to a real city and I don't have much desire to go back, but it's not that bad.

  3. Tom Lord says:

    Point of trivia: Ken Layne is apparently out the door at Gawker so that's his farewell piece.

  4. To be honest, looking over the area using satellite imagery, as I did back when I (very briefly) considered working in Silicon Valley, the most common expression coming to mind was "scrapyard", or maybe "construction site". I suspect it looks better from the ground, but the appearance of desert city full of dust, with a bunch of slightly better looking neighbourhoods clumped in various points, never, ever, left me.

    While I wouldn't agree with parts of the article, the sentiment about walking rings a little bit true - although I do expect that people who live there longer know places where it gets better.

    • Tim says:

      You need to mentally recalibrate if you think Silly Valley looks like a desert city full of dust. Even from the air. I have lived in a desert, and SV is not even a tiny bit like it.

    • thielges says:

      When first looking for a job out of college, California was the last place I wanted to land. My friend and lab partner on the other hand was gung ho about Silicon Valley. I remember studying maps of the area (in the days before online aerial photos) and he described the south bay as "basically a desert". From a midwest perspective maybe SV is a desert.

      The author of this gawker bit is somewhat accurate here but the complaints would be the same for 95% of this country's cities. At least Silicon Valley is moving towards denser, more walkable streets simply out of economic necessity.

      Besides what visitor can find the nice walking routes through an unfamiliar town anyways? I've found myself walking miles down nasty traffic choked streets even in the top worlds tier cities. It takes years of living in SV before finding the good walking/biking routes and the interesting parts of town.

      • Richard says:

        At least Silicon Valley is moving towards denser, more walkable streets simply out of economic necessity.

        Sorry, you're making this up. The streets (layout; width; double left turn, three through lanes, right free turn lane, yes!) aren't going anywhere. Arterials lined by walled-off condo complexes instead of rows of walled-off starter mansions doesn't change a thing.

        It's nice, but pathetic, that people cling to these beliefs in spite of all evidence and all historical evidence. San Jose will be the Paris of the West Any Day Now ... due to Light Rail ... due to BART ... due to Economic Necessity ... due to ... ummmmm ....

        It takes years of living in SV before finding the good walking/biking routes and the interesting parts of town.

        The ones 30 to 50 miles north?

        • Tom Lord says:

          The Bay Area is one big real estate ponzi scheme.

        • thielges says:

          Maybe we're looking at different parts of SV. Sure the bulk of single family home suburbia is remaining the same, but there's densification going on elsewhere where it is more politically feasible. Check out the areas around Caltrain stations in downtown SJ, Sunnyvale, and Mt.View and you'll see a lot of higher density residential and commercial being built. Then look at what is happening in the commercial zones in northern SV. Single story office buildings are being razed and replaced with 4-6 story buildings. There's also quite a few denser condo and apartment complexes built along northern First, Zanker, Old Oakland, etc.

          Yeah, it is happening slowly. But it is happening.

          • lenny says:

            Maybe you're looking at the same parts but at a different timescale. The Sunyvale Caltrain station will, of course, someday be different. Maybe even different in the sense of better. But not in your lifetime. When the orchards were cut down and the highways laid, the valley was frozen in amber. Look at the corner of Page Mill and El Camino. Near a university, near exciting startup businesses and shops. Ripe for change. Yet that corner has not changed in any substantive way in at least 40 years. And it will not in the next.

            Sure, you may be technically right: the first derivative is, however slightly, positive. But the second derivative is almost certainly not positive and may not be zero either.

            • Tom Lord says:

              The public discourse around a change to density is muddied by the "Plan Bay Area" crap. That involves building dense, icky, "mixed use residential" near what passes as public transit. Ostensibly this is done because greenhouse gases but of course upon examination the plan is not environmentally friendly. What the plan will accomplish, if it succeeds, is to build said icky places to live on otherwise undesirable patches of land to serve, basically, as servants quarters because otherwise, the oligarchs project, we won't have anyplace at a price suitable for groundskeepers and baristas.

          • thielges says:

            Interesting that you chose the corner of Page Mill and El Camino Lenny. That's the intersection of a county expressway and a state highway. Neither agency has shown much interest in creating walkable places for the past half century, they're more interested in moving the largest number of cars. But that too looks to be changing. I see a positive second derivative.

  5. Edouard says:

    if "I walked around and it sucked" is his idea of great journalism, he should take a trip to LA sometime.

  6. mlis says:

    good grief, how whiny. no argument that it's car culture down there, and that there are a hell of a lot of strip malls. however, getting pissed that it's predominantly suburb is like getting pissed that it's a pain in the ass to drive through union square. you're purposefully applying standards that are obviously inappropriate for the sake of finding something to bitch about. i'm not even originally from the bay area and i can take anyone who asks via public transit to brilliant (or at least very entertaining) local (and often cheap) restaurants throughout milpitas, fremont, sunnyvale, alviso, santa clara, and mountain view. and while it's sadly out of date, takes a way better approach to the culture of the peninsula and the valley - find the bizarre and awesome corners and nooks and enjoy the hell out of them.

  7. James says:

    The two tricks to enjoying the South Bay are learning how to get to the faint halos of culture around the community colleges and universities, and how to take the late night KX/22 busses back from civilization after the last Caltrain.

  8. Ian Young says:

    But... I thought we wanted the future to be full of Zaibatsu Arcologies.

  9. stevo-dude says:

    I'm pretty sure times square is worse than the valley he is describing.

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