Forwarded from Anthony (trip to USA, part 2)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Jan 14 16:20:51 MST 2001


My Trip to America Part 2

Everywhere we went there was the smell of money. Little wafts of its aroma
even reach into the ghetto of East Oakland, and the Mission District barrio
in San Francisco.

It wasn’t just the off-brand cologne of my leftish yuppie acquaintances at
our second night in town dinner party.

As soon as we got on the freeway leaving the airport I sensed it. It took
me a day to figure out what was different. The cars.

The change was already underway when we left, but now it hits you in the
face. SUVs are everywhere - and they are not just Pontiacs, Chevrolets, and
Fords - they are Mercedes, Cadillacs and Lincolns.

The freeways are filled with big, fat cars. New cars. The little Toyota
Tercels and Nissan Sentras that dominated the Bay Area’s highways five
years ago have been pushed aside by minivans, four-wheel drives, and BMW,
Audi, Volvo and Mercedes sedans.

I didn’t see a Pontiac, Oldsmobile, or Buick until the third day of or
trip. Only toward the end of the trip did I realize that some of the SUVs
bore those brand names.

Money is especially evident driving up and down the peninsula from San Jose
to San Francisco and back. Not just new and expensive cars, new and
expensively priced (but cheaply built) buildings have popped up in all
sorts of until recently empty spaces.

In fact, a drive out to the Central Valley, not so long ago the heart of
the world’s industrial agricultural shows an even more startling building
boom. Silicon valley yuppies are buying brand new houses in housing tracts
that are spreading all over former orchards, alfalfa fields and cow
pastures around the town of Tracy and beyond.

Tracy used to be a dusty little cow and farm town, untouched by the culture
or life of the Bay Area over the dry hills to its west. It has become a big
bedroom community, yet it is way over the Altamont pass and deep in the
Central valley. The commute must take hours in each direction.

Just as impressive are the new office and industrial parks. Livermore,
Dublin and Pleasanton, a little closer to the Bay Area than Tracy, were
pretty sleepy towns themselves just a few years ago. The only thing there
was the Lawrence Livermore radiation lab (where people are quietly proud of
inventing the H-bomb), cows, wine grapes, and the far outer fringe of the
Bay Area’s commuter bedroom communities. Now these towns are full of five
to ten story office buildings housing companies like "People Soft". And not
far away are big industrial parks. And of course all around are more
housing tracts, shopping malls, Chuckie Cheeses, etc.

The change in downtown San Jose is also very impressive. New buildings are
all over the place, headquarters of companies like Adobe. And they are
surrounded by expensive restaurants, a new light rail system, new museums,
an improved symphony, an improved opera, new theaters, nightclubs, and a
lot of new hotels.

The old cannery town sure has changed. In the 1960’s it was the third city
of the bay area: behind San Francisco and Oakland. Now it has the largest
population: 835,000 compared to San Francisco’s 750,000 and Oakland’s
390,000. San Francisco is still the financial center, still the cultural
center, still the tourist center - but San Jose is challenging it on those
fronts as well.

I’m sure it’s no accident that Norman Minetta, San Jose’s long serving
Democratic Congressman, is the only (I think) Democrat appointed to George
W.’s cabinet.

The "old" centers of the Bay Area haven’t changed in such startling ways.
San Francisco still looks like San Francisco, Oakland still looks like
Oakland.

But housing prices have gone through the roof. Houses that ten years ago
sold for $90,000 now sell for $500,000. Rents are unbelievable. A one
bedroom apartment in the tenderloin - the old red light district of San
Francisco - goes for around $2,000 a month.

In the middle of East Oakland, once - and probably still - one of the
poorest neighborhoods of the ghetto you find new houses, and remodeled
older houses, standing next door to run-down ghetto relics. East Oakland
still looks like East Oakland, but real estate prices have gone up here as
well. A lot of retired autoworkers have sold their houses and moved to
Texas, Oklahoma, or Louisiana - partially reversing the black migration to
Oakland that filled East Oakland in the years of World War II. Back there
they can buy a new house, and still have a nice wad of cash left over from
selling their little post WWII tract home back in Oakland.

Don’t get me wrong, 73rd and East 14th streets still looks and feels like
the ghetto. And Fruitvale and East 14th still feels like the barrio. In
fact, in some ways the ghetto and the barrio have gotten worse - because
there are no places a person making less than a prince’s ransom in salary
or wages can afford to rent. Young people, and all poor people, find
themselves stuffing twice as many people into the old apartment as they
used to. Landlords have no incentive to fix the building - they think they
can sell it to some yuppie gentrifier.

San Francisco’s Mission district is experiencing something similar. It’s
outer fringes have disappeared. Noe Valley is now yuppie central. Bernal
Heights is becoming a chic bedroom community for silicon valley yuppies who
want to live in the cultural center of San Francisco. Even the fog-ridden
outer Mission has seen real estate prices go through the roof.

But still, Mission and 24th Street looks, and feels - like the barrio.

Salaries and wages have followed - but not kept up with - housing prices.
In the shopping malls and fast food joints in Silicon valley there were
signs everywhere, "Now Hiring. $8.00 an hour". A beginning elementary
school teacher in San Jose now has a starting pay of $49,000/year, and some
school districts are trying to establish subsidized apartments for their
teachers - because it is impossible to buy or rent a house on a teacher’s
salary.

But maybe the boom was ending just as we were visiting its mother lode. The
fact that companies retailing furniture and pets over the internet crashed
should not surprise anyone - they are less cost efficient and less
convenient than old fashioned mortar and brick (or wood and stucco)
retailers. Not even the heavy weights of etailing make much economic sense
when it comes right down to it. Look at Amazon.com.

Everywhere we went we heard stories about hundreds of people being laid
off, and in every San Jose Mercury News we read stories along the same
lines. How far, and how deep, the recession may go is way beyond the scope
of this little travelogue - but it certainly was already beginning to have
its first impact by the holiday season in silicon valley.


Louis Proyect
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