Paean to the South Bay

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The South Bay doesn’t get a lot of love. People call the Peninsula Silicon Valley—and culturally, these days, it is—but Silicon Valley proper, the geographical valley that led to the naming of the tech boom’s place-space—is really the Santa Clara Valley, the low-lying land at the southern base of the San Francisco Bay, a dry, flat expanse crisscrossed by expressways where fruit orchards used to be, now studded with shining buildings crowned in the recognizable neon logos of Intel, Dell, Tivo, Linkedin, Motorola, Samsung, Symantec, Norton, and more.

This is where I live, during the few months a year when I leave my graduate school semester in Syracuse and stay with my boyfriend, who works in tech. We live in Sunnyvale, a municipality bounded by Mountain View to the northwest, the Bay to the northeast, Santa Clara to the southeast, and Cupertino to the southwest. We’re in a tenuous position as far as Bay Area sectionalities go, constantly having to click through listings in “The Peninsula” and “South Bay”—even sometimes “Santa Cruz”—anytime we look for restaurant listings, through Craigslist ads, and the like.

As I said, we don’t get a lot of love down here. Everyone knows San Francisco and Sausalito, Oakland and Berkeley, and these days even Palo Alto and Mountain View are tech-white-hot. I think of the Valley as the overachieving kid who never gets much attention because they always seem to succeed, they don’t need the help. The South Bay has powered the Bay Area’s explosion in real, cultural, and political capital, but I don’t see that acknowledged so much. Everyone talks about the Google buses but no one thinks about where they’re going to, these arbitrary town suburb things delimited from one another by signs and zoning, the ephemera of cartographers with no real geographical correlates here on the flat, open ground.

The houses are Eichlers or Eichler-style, flat square single-family homes built in the 50s over razed orchards with a handful of trees left for fun. Closed to the front, wide open in the back, private which also means isolating, no front-porch banter between neighbors, not even a stoop to squat on.

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last summer’s tomato plants in our backyard

No culture to speak of, if by culture you mean theater, dancing, public art or museums worth a visit. In Sunnyvale our downtown is the one-block “Historic Murphy Street,” an Epcot facsimile of urban life with large parking lots behind the two rows of restaurants on either side of the street, and an enormous Target and Macy’s just beyond.

The real life down here lives in the strip malls, a strange reality that I’ve begrudgingly come to love. Our favorite Japanese restaurant, Hoshi, an izakaya joint in Santa Clara, is in a large strip mall, next to a liquor store and a Safeway. In Sunnyvale, the best imported foods are all to be found at Felipe’s and there’s free pool and darts at Beefy’s Cabin, in a tiny strip just across the street—just don’t go on Thursdays unless you want to join the darts tournament.

For great Vietnamese food we slide over to San Jose. If you want to buy clothing or books, you have to go to the mall.

In Cupertino and all around us there are huge Asian malls with Ranch 99 supermarkets, Chinese restaurants, filled with Asian nationals speaking in foreign tongues. I love it there. On Yelp we found a Hunanese place called Chef Ma’s, in the back of a mall where even the waiter didn’t speak English.

Hoshi!

Hoshi!

In every strip mall there is a Kumon and a martial art’s place, for the kids, and along historic El Camino Real, the big box stores repeat themselves: CVS, Safeway, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Verizon, Rite-Aid, rinse, repeat.

We want to leave this place, this desolate suburbia where I speak to no one all day and have to get in my car to go anywhere, and yet the thought of leaving gives me pause. I’ve come to love this weird, quiet place, the smell of the salty marshes at the base of the bay, the ghostlike boathouse in Alviso, the quiet determination of Alum Rock. I feel protective of this place, like I want to warn it of the gentrification sweeping down the Peninsula like a wave, even as I know that my white boyfriend and I are the gentrifiers, the people brought here to work in tech, displacing the working class Latinos who are our neighbors, who speak in our local taqueria and laundromat in Spanish, then switch into English for me.

my man at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton

my man at Lick Observatory, on Mt. Hamilton

At dusk the South Bay turns colors, the sky glows iridescent like gold, and on the other side of the mountains are the ocean and in those mountains are deep ravines filled with redwoods and swimming holes. My boyfriend is a biker and it takes half an our to slide out of the valley and onto Mt. Hamilton sat staunchly behind Alum Rock. The Junction, a dusty biker bar with Sierra Nevadas and pulled pork sandwiches, and above it, domed and white, Lick Observatory, the Sacre Coeur of San Jose. Sunnyvale is an hour to SF, an hour to Oakland, fifty minutes to the coast on the Peninsula or down in Santa Cruz. The center of the wheel never gets the glory. No one talks about reinventing the hub.

Y’all down with the Dao De Jing? I’ll leave you with sutra 11:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space that makes it liveable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

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