By Sharon Simonson
Hometown. Homespun. Home run. Home cooking. Homecoming. Homestead. Homebound. Home girl. Phone home. Homeward. Homemade. Mi casa es su casa. Homey. Homeless. Is there home away from home?
I’ve begun to clear the dust from behind the closed doors of my corona addled mind.
I, like so many others, have gloried in the beauty of the spring, a beauty that people worldwide have viewed through vastly clearer air. You don’t have to be that thoughtful to see the unpleasant irony of such a vital display of re-birth amidst pandemic death. I’m going to make a prediction, though perhaps it is more fledgling hope: after three or four or however many months mostly in our homes, yards and neighborhoods, Americans are going to feel differently about caring for them. Yes, for some it will create awareness that the upholstery on the orange couch in the living room, after a decade, two dogs and six cats, has done its job and has got to go. For others, even those who now feel their houses prison-like, the commitment to home and to our hometowns should grow much deeper. In the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, the symbols for house or town could also mean mother, urbanist Lewis Mumford writes in The City in History. Here in Silicon Valley, where life can feel as transient as light impulses on an electronic screen, a more profound human attachment to our place and a stronger sense of community responsibility could improve our lives immeasurably. In addition to everything else, Silicon Valley supports extraordinary biological diversity. But our home is staggering under the weight of our collective disregard for its well-being.
Our air is dirty, our groundwater polluted. We face long-term drought. Our wholesale drinking water supplier is in disarray. The Bay Area public transit’s BART is dysfunctional. Our trees are dying. There’s even evidence that our famous fog is evaporating. Litter lines our freeways, each wayward to-go cup, plastic lid, fast-food bag, paper-straw cover, and metal beer cap another syllable in a silent testimony to our collective carelessness. We have 23 federally identified Superfund hazardous waste sites—more even than the state’s great industrial powerhouse of Los Angeles and far more than any neighboring county. These sites affect hundreds of Silicon Valley homes and many schools, and sadly, are often associated with some of our proudest, most historic companies including Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, National Semiconductor, Hewlett-Packard, and Fairchild.
The overwhelming majority of adults who live in Silicon Valley—70 percent—like me, were not born here. Indeed, most adults who live in California, especially on the coast, came from someplace else. In 1900, the population of all California was less than two million; twenty of the nation’s forty-five states were more populous. By 1962, after significant in-migration from the rest of the country, more people lived in California than any other state—and it has remained so ever since. Forty-million people live here today, not quite two million in Santa Clara County alone, the heart of Silicon Valley.
The idea of home as we understand is old. In the earliest recorded form of the English language, used in areas of what we call present-day England and Scotland from about 600 to 1150, the Old English word for home, spelled variously as ham or hamum or haam, could mean a village or a town or a group of dwellings. Even this early, the idea of home extended figuratively to mean one’s native land, a place of refuge, or an eternal resting place.
In the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, King Hrothgar shelters his warriors each night in his great hall Heorot, fostering civilization with its essential precursor—personal security. “Nobody on earth knew of another building like it,” the poet tells us. “It kindled the world with its blaze.” The fate of Heorot, of the kingdom’s home, symbolizes the fate of the kingdom. Despite Beowulf’s bravery and success in battle, when he’s gone, Heorot and its civilization disintegrate. In the end, we understand that absent the human will or ability to save the sheltering hall, civilization does not survive.
Near the start of his inimitable book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says, “…(I)f I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming… . Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul.”
After two decades living in Silicon Valley, I’ve witnessed the dot-com and the mortgage-finance booms and busts. The current coronavirus bust and the boom that preceded it will chart their own unique path, but this much I know: the quality of life for every resident plummets during booms, especially for newcomers who are confronted with exorbitant housing prices, expensive food, and terrible transportation. The beneficiaries of booms are not the existing residents, notwithstanding the wildly inflated real estate appreciation for which we are so heavily criticized but which cuts at least two ways: house values go up but so do the prices of goods and services as commercial rents rise and businesses pass the costs to consumers. And our property taxes are staggering. Big tech companies like Google and Apple are among our single largest property taxpayers, but in aggregate, the taxable value of our homes, apartments and condominiums exceeds all other real estate types by billions.
The biggest beneficiaries of our booms are the global technology companies that use the Silicon Valley platform, our collective hometown, to reap billions of dollars in profits annually in markets worldwide with minimal community reinvestment; the global, local and regional industries of growth and their materials suppliers: commercial property owners and developers, architects, engineers, and building contractors; and our local governments, which rely on property taxes, development fees, and sales and hotel-room taxes.
“I feel like I can breathe,” a young friend told me without a bit of irony the other day of how she is experiencing life under the corona lockdown. It’s not that she wants to stay home forever. It’s that she doesn’t want to go back to unmitigated congestion on every freeway and to competition for every square inch of usable space in every restaurant, store, and parking lot. It is all way, way too much—and, most importantly, we are destroying our home.
What California naturalist and conservationist John Muir makes transparent from the first sentence of The Mountains of California is his—and our—physical, psychological, and emotional involvement with our landscapes. That relationship, understood by Mumford and architects worldwide, includes urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes, not just Muir’s beloved Yosemite. We are what we eat. We are what we see. We are where we are.
My Silicon Valley home is my mother. It is my father. It is my husband. It is my children. It is a sanctuary in a world that feels manic in its change. Not only in Silicon Valley but worldwide, I fear we are destroying our homes, and thus, we are destroying ourselves.
Sharon Simonson is the 2019 recipient of The Ruth MacLean McGee Scholarship Award and the 2016 recipient of The Rico-Ressman Scholarship Award from the English and Comparative Literature Department of San José State University. She has worked as a daily newspaper reporter in Silicon Valley and across South Texas and studied journalism at the masters level at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is writing a book about life in Silicon Valley.