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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@Bittman, Beyonce, and @ByronHurt

via nytimes.com

via nytimes.com

A few weeks ago, food writer and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman dipped his toe into the sea of pop culture studies with his column on Beyonce’s PepsiCo deal, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?” In the piece, Bittman’s eponymous question proves to be rhetorical. Instead of exploring why “stars think it’s o.k. to sell soda,” he explains why they shouldn’t: because soda’s empty calories “directly cause weight gain” and are linked to “obesity and [therefore] early death”.

Bittman’s piece focuses on superstar Beyonce’s enormous endorsement deal from Pepsi in compensation for her performance at the Pepsi Superbowl Halftime Show and her image being emblazened on limited-edition Pepsi cans, an effort on which Pepsi is spending $50 million. In this column and elsewhere, Bittman advocates for legal limitations on soda (for example, making food stamps ineligible for soda purchases), and so he has a clear sense that Beyonce’s choice is a bad one for the health of her fans. He writes that “Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.”

But  Bittman misses an opportunity to understand this Beyonce deal when he rushes to moralize it. Given Beyonce’s political activism, even her advocacy for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Bittman see’s her choice to pose for Pepsi as mere hypocrisy. To Bittman, soda is an obvious killer, an ingestible non-food that should be regulated with “anti-tobacco-style legislation and [tried in the court of] public opinion.” Looking at Britney’s Pepsi ad above, for example, it clearly markets Pepsi as hip, aspirational, youthful, energetic, democratic, carefree, and sexy. Those are still characteristics fans associate with Beyonce, and her acceptance of the Pepsi deal suggests that Pepsi still reads hip, youthful and fun – what may be the bigger shift here from Britney days is not that Pepsi has changed but that a black woman can be the face of hip, youthful, sexy and fun.

Bittman’s equivalence between soda and cigarettes is a false one precisely because of their differences in the eyes of contemporary American consumers.  Beyonce has accepted an endorsement deal from Pepsi without damaging her image of “success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour” (Center for Science in the Public Interest qtd in Bittman). This speaks not only to the strength of Beyonce’s star image but also indicates that soda is not perceived by most as it is by Mark Bittman. He laments that “Seemingly, no celebrities turn down endorsement deals for ethical reasons,” but of course we know that Beyonce would turn down any endorsement deal, no matter the payday, with a cigarette company. She doesn’t even shell for alcohol. (Carcinogenic cosmetics are another story.) Beyonce’s proud acceptance of this deal is an indicator of public opinion on soda: we don’t see it as a killer, not yet. Bittman would do better to understand the meaning of her choice and what it means about soda’s public image.

(Side note: While we’re here, though, let me praise Mark Bittman. That the food-centric writings of a cookbook author are so incisively political speaks to the centrality of food and food policy to many national debates and struggles. His writings on food politics cut to the core of so many facets of American life, government, and community right now: public health disaster, big business corruption, pollution and global warming, revolving doors between government agencies and corporate board rooms, and–let’s not forget this–the thousands of grass roots movements in food, community, and sustainability taking hold across the country every day.)

Byron Hurt’s new documentary, Soul Food, is streaming on PBS.org until January 22. It uses the death of Hurt’s father as a jumping-off point to an exploration of how food health and security impact African American community. Most interesting to me in the film were folks’ contrasting responses to soul food’s roots in slavery: some people took eating the chicken feet white folks wouldn’t eat as a badge of honor, while others rejected slave foods for their association with enslavement. The film is a great exploration of so many foods we think of as plain American: mac n’cheese, fried chicken, stewed greens, but put in the context of African-American history, experience, and culture.

The film was also a surprising compliment to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which (as a story of the Great Migration) is a book about travel, about eating on the go, and about the movements of traditions and cultures of which food is a huge part. Anyway, check out the film and let me know what you think!