Just over a month ago I spent a week in the Bay Area. For the first five days I resided in Palo Alto (I attended an astronomy conference at Stanford) and then I spent the weekend in San Francisco. It wasn’t obviously enough time to get a real idea of the place and to understand how it would be to live there (also, this piece won’t take into consideration the big variations that must exist from place to place in the Bay). However, I wanted to write down some initial personal contrasting impressions and sentiments regarding the region in the world that most contributes to bring forward the tech sector . My thoughts below will be mostly sparse and limited (thus mainly a bullet point list), and possibly incorrect, but definitely honest and genuine—I recorded them in my Notes app as they came to mind (some editing and details were applied at a later stage; some points were also discussed with a couple of other British researchers who stayed with me during my time in the Bay). I will try to read more about the area in the future to correct the likely misconceptions, but I thought it was interesting to put down in writing the initial impressions that a European visitor may get.
Let’s get started:
- Palo Alto’s surroundings and the Stanford campus seems like a playground where tech people can experiment and try to create their dream visions. In some case, only later they will extrapolate it and make it work for the rest of world
- The Silicon Valley is not the real world, and some people there don’t seem to know
- Stanford campus is so huge that not only it is essentially a town in itself, but it manages to spread the students so much that everywhere is rather quiet, even near the cafes and restaurants. Everybody should have the right to study in a place that has these facilities and this campus. I know many American campuses are like this, but talking with people around it’s still not clear to me how much that is sustainable (looking at the news, costly education in the US is a bigger problem than people on campus admitted)
- We had to travel locally (both to go the conference venue and when we visited nearby areas) a lot using Uber, unless we wanted to spend a couple of hours (between buses and walking) to cover just 10 miles and in some cases no public transport was possible at all. The public transports in the valley in fact are quite bad and everyone essentially needs a car. It’s not surprising that Uber was born in that area
- Essentially all drivers, without our input, complained about traffic in the Valley, but were optimistic that self-driving cars would solve the problem soon (nobody I know talked about this topic without my input ever before, almost everyone there apparently does)—they don’t seem too concerned because nobody was driving as their main job (some were even students trying to make some money in their free time)
- Among the uber drivers, we met: a former Apple employee on a sabbatical year after his marketing department was fully fired at once when advertising strategies declared it redundant; a Trump supporter (or, more correctly, a Trump apologetic) who was concerned about going on holiday to Europe now that “it’s full of migrants” and about Bernie Sanders who “would create a socialist state, but what people want is to make money, you know?”
- Despite the valley being almost fully urbanised, some areas like Palo Alto are incredibly green and you can see, if you lived there full time, that the most interesting past time for the weekends would be going to spend some time in the wilderness (also because not much else seems to be offered in town, other than cinemas, concrete shopping centres, and many parking lots)
This deserves its own section as we were surprised about how much homelessness seems to be a huge issue in San Francisco, despite remaining unmentioned in general news coming from the area. When last summer I was in the States I noticed it was definitely a bigger problem than in Europe, but San Francisco strikes me as an extreme case.
Walking on Sunday 90 minutes along Market Street (the Main Street of the city, starting from the financial centre) we could see literally tens of homeless people, several at any given time. They almost live in the background, it feels like people are now used to them and they don’t even notice anymore—the urine smell in the streets amplified by the warm sun is now probably also just something not worth of notice. In those 90 minutes we also saw two, in two different circumstances (in one even in front of the Twitter headquarters), fiddling with a needle in their veins, in the main street without trying to hide from the policemen or the general public. Reading up online afterwards, I discovered that the problem is so common that the council even provides clean needles to whoever needs them.
Talking with a person from San Francisco who was sitting next to me on the plane going back to the UK, I was told that the reason for such huge homelessness is simply the weather (attracting them from all over the US), and the fact that the council and the people of San Francisco are “very nice” and always provide free food and shelter. Reading more on the web I found out that actually the vast majority is local and many are apparently veterans, and—in many cases—simply people who couldn’t cope with higher and higher rents and ended up in the streets. Of course, as you see it clearly when strolling in San Francisco, mental health is also a key issue: a large fraction of the homeless are clearly undergoing mental problems and you notice them talking to themselves or behaving in similarly uncommon manners.
I can’t reconcile how that land, leading the world’s innovation, hasn’t found (or hasn’t bothered to find) a way to tackle this problem. The above may almost sound like I’m complaining about homelessness ruining my sightseeing, but I felt sad and disappointed about witnessing an entire community that has been clearly failed by society and the State.
Overall, it was an extremely stimulating time in the Bay Area. We were surprised both positively and negatively regarding different things. At the same time, we agreed that we wouldn’t be sure about how much we would enjoy living in the area for more than a limited period. Silicon Valley (broadly speaking) definitely offers unique possibilities, but we didn’t find the California paradise that we may have expected.
P.S. Did I mention that when I passed along the Apple Store of Market Street the pavement had sprays of blood all over and a policeman was standing next to it. What the hell happened there?