The Silicon Valley Creative Class Takes Over

The divide between Silicon Valley’s creative class and their blue-collar neighbors could be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of America.

| Summer 2014

  • A sign at the entrance to Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park. The valley’s economic base has shifted from hardware and software to social media, where the profits come from advertising and the selling of users’ data.
    Photo by Flickr/Nina Stawski
  • Across the railroad tracks past the tiny Atherton station, we were now in the featureless, nearly treeless, semi-industrial flatlands of Menlo Park stretching eastward to the bay. The demographic change was instant: ¡No se habla inglés!
    Photo courtesy Creative Commons/Tumbenhaur
  • Bikes at Google’s Mountain View campus. I explored at noontime, huffing and puffing on Google-supplied bicycles painted in Google-signature primary colors.
    Photo by Raido Kaldma
  • A business on the border of Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. There were suddenly plenty of commercial establishments—ramshackle, brightly painted, graffiti-adorned storefronts with hand-painted business signs mostly in Spanish.
    Photo by Flickr/Eric Fischer

“If you live here, you’ve made it,” David Berkey said to me as I rode shotgun in his car two months ago through the Silicon Valley’s wealth belt. The massive house toward which he was pointing belongs to Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google. With a net worth of $24 billion, Brin is Silicon Valley’s third-richest denizen and the 14th-richest man in America, according to Forbes. Berkey was chauffeuring me down Atherton Avenue, a wide, straight, completely tree-lined boulevard nicely bifurcating the city of Atherton (population 7,200), located 29 miles south of San Francisco, boasting no commercial real estate, and with a zip code (94027) that was recently listed by Forbes as America’s most expensive.

You couldn’t really see Brin’s house from the car, though—just a swatch of rooftop, maybe a chimney—because the point of the trees lining Atherton Avenue and nearly every other street in Atherton is to hide the dwellings behind them. Where the screens of trees happen to thin, property owners have constructed high hedges, high wooden fences, and high brick walls, so that when you look down Atherton Avenue from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west toward the commuter railroad station to the east, you see only the allée of trees—pine, palms, eucalyptus, sycamore, and juniper—shades of gray-green and brown-green shimmering placidly in the early autumn sun. “This is the Champs-Élysées of Atherton,” Berkey explained. The other thing we didn’t see from Berkey’s car is people, except for the occasional driver on the road.

Turning corners, we drove past other fancy and half-hidden real estate owned by other Silicon Valley grandees; Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, have a 7,200-square-foot house somewhere in the hedge maze. Before there was such a thing as Silicon Valley—that is to say, 40 years ago—Atherton was an affluent bedroom town for white-shoe law-firm partners and Old Economy executives who liked to ride the Southern Pacific Peninsula to their jobs in San Francisco, imitating their East Coast counterparts who rolled on the Hartford-New Haven line from the Southern Connecticut Gold Coast into Manhattan. That was before today’s hiding-the-house custom, and the executives’ front lawns surged out like green carpets to Atherton Avenue and its side streets. Now, Atherton is mostly teardowns and brand new mega-mansions—or at least as mega as their owners can get away with, given Atherton’s highly restrictive zoning laws that mandate enormous lot-to-footprint ratios. To increase their overall square footage, Atherton’s new breed of homeowners typically tunnel out vast underground extra space—wine cellars and home theaters—beneath their dwellings. The dominant style these days is a fanciful mix of Palladian Neoclassic, Loire Valley château, and Mediterranean villa, spreading out manor-house-style to cover as much ground as the zoning laws allow.

“This was a vacant lot five years ago,” said Berkey as we cruised by one of the spanking new stone-faced Atherton domiciles with its multiple dormers, chimneys, tile-roofed turrets, and columned porticos. “Now it’s worth $5 or $6 million. And this house here—it recently sold for $7 million, $4.4 million more than the asking price.” We passed the Menlo School, tuition $38,000 a year, where the parents pick up their kids in Range Rovers and fly them in private jets to exotic foreign locations for birthday parties. Down the road lay the Sacred Heart School, the Menlo School’s Catholic opposite number, where the tuition is only $34,000 a year. Their feeder is Atherton’s Las Lomitas School, rated among the top elementary schools in the state of California.

Las Lomitas is technically a public school, although its main support comes from a lavish parent-funded foundation that last year alone raised $2.8 million. “It’s going for $3 million this year,” Berkey said. “For the parents, it’s an attractive tax write-off. We can do good and feel good at the same time, because it benefits our own children.” Also not to be missed was the Menlo Circus Club (initiation fee: $250,000), featuring daily tennis, Friday polo matches, and state-of-the-art stables for horse people who can’t afford or don’t want to be bothered with the ranch-size spreads of owners who stable their own horses, farther up into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Berkey himself doesn’t live in Atherton. He can’t afford to. He’s a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and his wife, Eleanor Lacey, is general counsel at SurveyMonkey, which occupies Facebook’s old startup quarters in downtown Palo Alto. That makes them part of what is known as the “middle class” of Silicon Valley: two-career couples with family incomes in the low-to-mid six-figure-range. They and their two daughters live in neighboring Menlo Park, in what is essentially a modest 1950s tract house, the kind of flat-roofed, three-bedroom, two-bath, sliding-glass-patio-door, under-2,000-square-foot residences, pleasant but not pretentious, that were built en masse well into the 1970s as cheap starter homes, because back then it was conceivable that there could be such a thing as a cheap starter home in the valley. Berkey says his own house is currently valued at $1.2 million.

4/22/2016 7:10:24 PM

got thru page 4 - mention of eye scream Cohen's latest prompted a futile ramshackle search for a sno-cone here the deep summer Philippines. ? a village without no commercial real estate - that's a hoot and thanks vernon hill for in part defraying the tax basis there; really miss the summer celebration main stage..forward und out. thnx

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