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Identity Politics

The split personality of Silicon Valley/Santa Clara Valley

By Richard von Busack

All it takes is to get behind the wheel, and you can learn right away about what a region of dual opposites we live in. Take Calaveras boulevard. The businesses along it are a mix of world cultures--Vietnamese and Indian and Mexican and Chinese and American--all yoked together by four lanes of crowded traffic. Follow the road up into the hills and signage stops, except for the infrequent warnings not to shoot guns or throw trash from the car. Within 20 minutes, you're in a California that Zorro could love--black oak trees, white-faced cattle, turkey vultures riding the thermals, hills that roll back into cloudless infinity.

The Santa Clara Valley: Call it, as it was called, the Valley of Heart's Delight, or call it the Silicon Valley.

It's always been two places in one: the land of overnight successes, of the richest, leafiest suburbs and boutique villages, of Lexuses and Hummers, of stock options that can keep a lucky man comfortable for the rest of his life. But it's also a working-class, hardscrabble place of tip-up buildings, office parks floating on a sea of bad debt, shoddy, gloomy apartment complexes.

At one moment, the vacancy rate can be scarily low, spurring a housing crunch that sends workers commuting in from 60 miles away. A few short years later, every other apartment building is wearing a for-rent sign. All are, if they admitted it, about as uncertain of the next day's employment as the day laborers from Puebla or Michoacan who stand idle but hopeful by some of the Valley's busy roads.

If there are the rich valley and the poor valley, the boom valley and the bust valley, there are also the old valley and the new valley. Down in Milpitas, a vintage feed and tackle store stands a stone's throw from a new Sikh temple. In San Jose, the sleek, blond-wood and chrome nightclubs around the Convention Center aren't far from vintage workingman's watering-holes. Streetcars and movie palaces--two elements of the American past that got discarded far too hastily--are traditions retrieved here.

In downtown San Jose, construction continues on the restoration of the Fox Theater, a 1920s-era colossus of marble and red velvet. Nearby is the already completed modern library tower. From the eighth floor of the library there's a reading bridge--as remote as a space capsule, silent with air conditioning and the muffled tapping of students using laptops. Look down, and you get a vision of old San Jose, with the ivy and palm trees of the San Jose State University campus laid out below.

There's no typical valley person any more than there's a typical valley spot. Silicon Valley plutocracy intoxicates the world, luring people in from all over the planet to come here and get rich quick. Some of them make it. Many others just get by. Almost all who stay learn to love the place, sharing its contempt for pretension, its open pursuit of pleasure, comfort and self-expression, its unexpected friendliness. A place with so many cultures colliding and mixing is destined to make its name in the world of art, just as it has in the world of technology.

In our 19th annual Best Of Issue, Metro celebrates the best of everything in one underrated California urban area. However, it's the people--the poor, the rich, the entrepreneurs, the artists, the newcomers and the rooted old arrivals--that have made the Santa Clara Valley such an extreme, and extremely exciting, place.

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From the September 25-October 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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