Carmel beach, 1990, the year my family and I moved to California from New York.
As a kid growing up, mostly on Long Island, NY from 1964 to 1976, with frequent school field trips to Manhattan, I had, by high school, the same singleminded goal for the future as most of my friends: get a job and an apartment in Manhattan.
Or almost singleminded.
Part of me wanted to get on the same fantasy train my friends were riding towards an exciting Manhattan future, but another, less certain part of me thought being a Friendly Ice Cream Manager was probably more realistic. As it turns out, destiny fiddled with both of these future paths.
Me holding my infant son J., 1978. I was 20.
After my first and brief marriage at 19 ended, I finished college in Albany, NY as a single parent. At 24, I married my college Computer Science professor M. Not long before the wedding we took a trip to Israel as part of my preparation for conversion to Judaism, M.’s religion.
Sunrise on Masada, Spring 1984. The photo is of me (blue tee shirt, foreground) taking a photo of the Dead Sea. We hiked up the snake path at 4am to meet the sunrise.
Although M. grew up in Albany, and I had been living there since 1976, by the time we married in 1984 Albany felt small. We longed to be in a larger city, and would think nothing of rising at 5am, putting the kids in their car seats and driving to Montreal for the day. Or Manhattan. Or Boston. We couldn’t afford to stay overnight. The kids slept in the car in the wee hours on the way there, and slept on the way home, usually after midnight. They had no problem whatsoever staying up until midnight, doing whatever we were doing, such as taking them to parks, museums, anywhere they wanted to eat, and walking, with my daughter in a stroller, for miles and miles along city streets.
Jack Welch, aka Neutron Jack, was the primary impetus for our 1990 move to the West Coast, in his restructuring of General Electric Corporate Research and Development, where M. and I worked, M. as a developer in the Computer Science branch and me as a technical writer in the Aircraft Engine division. Before the Welch restructuring, the GE business components funded GE R & D as a flat tax; after the restructuring each R & D component had to solicit funds directly from the business components. This lead to patchwork funding from various business components for R & D projects targeted to those components. We saw the writing on the wall and started looking for work elsewhere, initially on the East Coast. Moving to the West Coast was beyond our wildest imagination.
In 1990, most of the high technology opportunities in the U.S. were in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Boston technology loop was in decline, and there was very little high technology work available in the New York City or Washington D.C. metro areas. After a disappointing offer from Microsoft (in those days Microsoft low-balled salary offers but was generous with stock options and we didn’t yet understand the power of stock options) we focused on the Bay Area and ultimately M. accepted an offer at Adobe. In parallel, I negotiated a consulting agreement with Adobe as a technical writer that was converted to a full-time position in 1992. Within a few years, the GE R & D Computer Science branch was eliminated and the Aircraft Engine division projects were significantly defunded.
Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area seemed like a great big adventure. My son’s father gave us permission to move, a story in itself (not one I can write about though), M. and I were ready for more independence from our families of origin, and the career opportunities were fabulous. On moving day though, saying good bye to about twenty of our friends and family members at Albany airport, we got emotional. Everyone cried. Later, settling our little family into a temporary executive suite apartment in Mountain View, CA, near Adobe, we cried again. The kids said “we want to go home.”
At first, California seemed fake to me, like colorized post cards. Dramatic bald mountains, sheer cliffs at the coast, pastel colored buildings, cheerful waitresses, co-workers hugging me and acting like my best friend. All of it confused me. At the end of the 49-mile scenic drive in San Francisco, I asked M., “is this all there is to it?” Whenever I could, I drove to Carmel Beach, pictured above, because it reminded me of Long Island. In time, buoyed by the warm sunshine, excellent schools for the kids and exciting careers with more stock options and quarterly opportunities to purchase discounted stock, we adjusted.
California has been my home going on 23 years now and although I happily self-identify as a Californian, life in San Mateo County, where I have lived since 1992, still retains traces of an insular outlook, I think stemming from its unique history. The county was originally established by Gilded Age Gold Rush entrepreneurs living and conducting business in San Francisco. They built large country estates in San Mateo County, similar to the Gilded Age estates built along the lower Hudson River Valley, close to Manhattan; one of them provided the original land grant for my church. Sitting in the choir stalls on Sundays, I have a perfect view of a memorial to the purchaser of Rancho San Mateo, William Davis Merry Howard, located just behind the organ.
My church and later the Burlingame Country Club were the two main social centers in the early days of San Mateo.
At church, wider societal changes like broader socio-economic and cultural diversity, feminism and equal rights for gays are still working themselves out in the various guilds and governance groups. A 2008 yelp reviewer attended once and felt like “a glazed donut in a box of scones.” That’s how I felt too the first day I attended in 1996, and sometimes I still feel like a glazed donut, but there has been significant progress, or at least my idea of progress, over the years. These days I see co-mingling of different ideas, if not always outright agreement, and an atmosphere of respect prevails. Year after year, individual members and the various church groups generously support local non-profits providing food, shelter and services to those in need in the surrounding community. Families are welcome and there is an abundance of child-friendly programs and activities. In close to eighteen years of membership, I’ve had my moments of feeling uneasy and I’ve picked a few battles, but on the whole it is a place of happy return week after week. At this point I know I’m not the only parishioner who questions authority and points of tradition.
West facing window of my church.
Outside of church, in the wider community, it is largely a story of increasing urban density and widening socio-economic disparities, and this is where traces of insularity figure in.
Home West of El Camino Real.
West side of El Camino Real.
At one point early on, while James Rolph was mayor of San Francisco 1912-1931, he apparently made a bid to annex San Mateo County to the city of San Francisco, but the bid was defeated by Hillsborough resident Arthur Redington. Without knowing the details of the dispute, it is difficult to argue for the merits of either position, but it does make me wonder if that annexation would have lead to better regional planning, including extending BART further down the Peninsula. In general, the San Francisco Bay Area suffers from a lack of long-range regional planning. If you can’t afford to live on the Peninsula but would like access to Peninsula jobs, it’s expensive and difficult to use public transit to get where you need to go.
And why can’t there be more affordable housing?
East of El Camino Real, not more than a half mile away from the above photos, it is a different world.
Church on the East side of El Camino Real.
Homes on the East side of El Camino Real are generally not as large as this bungalow.
In 2011, Asian and Hispanic voters sued San Mateo County to end at-large election of its Board of Supervisors. At the time, San Mateo County was the only county in California not using the district system. In 2012 San Mateo Country voters passed Measure B, ending at-large elections. It’s still an open question whether switching to the district system will lead to better minority representation, but given that there was hardly any minority representation in the last 157 years using the at-large system it seems like a good time to try something new.
I know it is not a good idea to romanticize a state I haven’t lived in since 1990, and that the problems I’ve described here (and worse) plague many, many counties in the U.S., not just this one county in California, but it’s hard not to miss the benefits of NYC’s long-range regional planning!