Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Ghost Towns

A few weekends ago, I went off to a sale on a bright Saturday morning. A restaurant in Palo Alto was closing, and I was hoping to buy some dining-room chairs. (I got them, too, nice comfortable ones for $5 each.) The directions from Mapquest were flawed, unfortunately, and I spent an hour cruising around the wrong Charleston Road until I gave up, stopped for lunch, then found the place by accident.

But it’s not the getting lost that matters. It’s what I drove through, looking for the place.

Miles upon miles of industrial parks, fine buildings, vast parking lots, elegantly landscaped grounds decorated with monumental statuary. I know some of those companies. I passed outposts of IBM and Loral and Lockheed Martin and NASA. This is where Billy used to come when he flew west to Silicon Valley: to the defense contractors clustered against Moffett Field like piglets rooting at a sow.

In that hour, I passed dozens of familiar companies, hundreds of unknown ones, but I never saw another car, not parked, not driving. This is Silicon Valley; people work on Saturday morning. When they have jobs. Nine buildings out of ten were placarded with the names of realtors. For Rent or Lease.

I drove out along Bayshore Road, with eight screaming lanes of 101 on the west, the quiet marshes of the bird sanctuary on the east. I saw apartment buildings, office buildings, with boards crying out: Move-in special! First four months free!

This is Palo Alto, where a cramped 3-bedroom, 1-bath house will easily run you more than a million. Two million will get you something with 1500 square feet. The nice houses go for three times that and up. And these are houses in town, with small yards. Palo Alto, home of Stanford, an absolutely lovely small town, one of the most desirable places to live and work in the whole country. The real estate prices I’ve quoted here are from today’s ads, and they’re lower than they used to be.

The empty industrial parks of Palo Alto aren’t alone. I’ve seen them in every high-tech outpost of San Jose, Santa Clara, Milpitas, Hayward, San Francisco. The stores are closing, too, and the restaurants: the secondary businesses that rely on workers with money in their pockets. All up and down the coast there are workers wondering where their jobs went and how that $230 a week is going to keep them going until they find another job. And those benefits are before taxes. (Yes, they tax unemployment here.)

Almost every week, one of the South Bay NaNoWriters has layoffs to report. A number of us have lost jobs since November. Even more have had layoffs in their companies. When you’re the only one left from your department, you tend to feel like you dodged a bullet. Everybody is scared.

from the San Jose Mercury-News:

California's latest revised employment figures showed Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County alone lost 191,500 jobs -- or nearly one in five positions -- between the employment market peak of December 2000 and January 2003. [snip]

Boom-and-bust cycles are certainly nothing new to the greater San Francisco Bay area. But the damage wrought by the dot-com implosion has been broadly felt since so many area companies fed from the New Economy trough.

"This one is the worst .... This time it's everybody," said Jeff Hellman, an out-of-work software tester who is hoping to make a living by playing guitar outside Silicon Valley-area coffee shops and selling his own recordings.


Santa Clara County includes such tech-heavy cities as San Jose, Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. It absorbed about half of the state's post-boom job losses and had a January unemployment rate of 8.6 percent -- above California's 6.5 percent and the national average of 5.7 percent.

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