Welcome to a tale of two Californias in the 21st century. In countless love stories books, songs and movies, from West Side Story to The Karate Kid, the boy (or girl) from the other side of the tracks is a tale as old as time.
No one’s really sure where it came from as a description, yet back in the good old days of the railroad, (that icon of the first industrial age), prevailing winds would usually blow the smoke from the locomotives to one side of the tracks, and that smokier side would typically wind up being the less affluent, more-industrialized neighborhood.
But one characteristic remained constant: as a geographical unit, while the town may have been economically and socially bifurcated by the tracks – it remained proximate to itself. As such, it allowed towns to fulfill all the jobs required to make a place work, from construction worker to cop, from banker to baker, from hotelier to haulier, from farmer to financier.
But what happens when “the other side of the tracks” is on the other side of the state? How can everyone co-exist in a municipal ecosystem that allows work, play and life to basically function?
In today’s California, you can witness the fulcrum or ebb-tide of these extremes before dawn every weekday at Altamont Pass, the southeastern, thousand foot high breakpoint of the Bay Area. Altamont divides the white-hot tech jobs of Silicon Valley from the agricultural bread basket of the San Joaquin Valley. And driving east at 5:30 AM on any given day, you’ll be blinded by thousands upon thousands of headlights going west the other way, towards Silicon Valley. Clocking an average speed of 30 MPH (at best), the denizens of westward people, priced out of the five counties ringing San Francisco can be found crawling over the pass at Altamont.
Hoping to “get a jump” on the daily grind, they head out of towns like Lathrop, Stockton, Tracy, Manteca, Newman and elsewhere. Over the pass, and into their workday as receptionists, security guards, Uber drivers, teachers, cafeteria workers and gardeners to the tech elite in the core cities of the Bay Area (that is, the localities that actually have some view of the Bay itself). As they pass Altamont in the pre-dawn light, 1980s era wind turbines rotate silently. Lights from the secret pocket of nuclear weapons development at Livermore Lab come into view (“Science and Technology; on a mission!”). While fading behind in the rearview mirror are yesteryear’s tones of Mick Jagger’s “Street Fighting Man” at the trashed remnants of the Altamont Speedway (the Rolling Stones’ deadly show there in 1969 was the literal and figurative end of the Sixties). And then, they head back out and over Altamont again, at the end of the day.
Per Google Maps, the morning run from Lathrop to Apple HQ in Cupertino takes an average of 2-3 hours. And the same 2-3 hours again in the evening. That means to get to work (on the safe side) at 8:00, your feet would need to be on the floor at 4:30 AM, and rubber hitting the road at 5:00 AM. Running to the carpark at 5:00 PM on-the-dot, you’re pulling back into your driveway at 8:00 PM. “Hi Junior, sorry I missed your Little League, scout meeting, band concert, etc.”
Welcome to the exurban California Dream, a sort of odd metastasis of the Japanese “salaryman” condition. But without the forced-march “fun” of nightly after-work boozing in the bars of the Ginza or Rappongi, nor the convenience of the Shinkansen electric high-speed rail to get back home. To those doing the daily run up and over Altamont, their idea of a little relaxation on the way home might be a to-go bag of In-n-Out Burger (dee-lish), accompanied by the strains of fire-breathing, right wing AM radio fixing the blame on these damn crowded freeways at X, Y, and Z scapegoat-du-jour.
The casual visitor to the Bay Area may be tempted to wonder: What of Oakland, East Palo Alto, or the Richmonds of the world? Surely those places are affordable? Those places, dear reader, have rapidly become the new, quietly-gentrified domains of the top Quartile tech worker. Situated, as they are, on the BART line or CalTrain is a luxury. In fact, Richmond, California (“City of Pride and Purpose”) just inaugurated a gleaming new ferry terminal, offering an even-more refined way to get to-and-from the booming jobs happening in San Francisco. Like its ferry counterparts running from Vallejo, Oakland and Main, the new Richmond boats put “the bay” back in Bay Area, and boast a nice on-board bar with beer, wine and cocktails for post-work tippling, all while watching the sunset after work with a million dollar, boatside view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every. Single. Day. Not a bad way to commute, at all.
That’s cold comfort for the folks stuck in the grinder back up on Altamont. The furthest thing from their reality, actually.
So what if you could simply remove the element of the commute? Relevel the supply of jobs of the future to untapped, untried markets outside the boom of the immediate Bay Area? Site new ventures beyond Altamont’s line-of-demarcation? Keep squeezing the pricing, lack of homes, and traffic congestion of the Bay Area like a Panic Pete stress toy, and it’s inevitable that the center of gravity of Silicon Valley will indefatigably stretch out along its transit corridors that connect urban centers to the suburbs and the exurbs beyond.
If past is prologue, who exactly was it who first fancied putting innovation labs in the former fruit orchards of Silicon Valley? The wastes of post-industrial South of Market San Francisco? The mid-Eighties boxes of Dublin and San Ramon? Those with innovative foresight. Already, we’re seeing initiatives of this sort occurring in up-and-coming places like Sacramento and the I-80 corridor.
Who would be bold enough to site their newest innovation lab in San Joaquin cities like Lathrop? Manteca? Stockton? Nearly 20% of the residents of San Joaquin County have a bachelors degree or higher. Take the University of the Pacific: it’s got an enviable reputation, and happens to be nestled in the heart of Stockton, who’s mayor, Michael Tubbs, might be one of the country’s most innovative (ask him about his challenges to institute an in-progress UBI trial for citizens…). New California governor Gavin Newsom is exploring possibilities to site a new California State university there as well.
One of the biggest draws for Silicon Valley is that talent attracts talent, yielding a critical mass and volume of employees needed to do innovation “right”. But a promise of the Age of the AI means that “to be more digital means to be more human”, and we foresee a time in the foreseeable future where a lot of the brute-strength computing and code-crunching will sublimate to AI and Automated platforms.
That means that any company worth their salt (and with access to world-class methodologies for innovation, design, and a well-trained workforce) should be looking at up-and-coming locations for untapped clusters of talent that no one (so far) has been thinking of, and prioritizing elements to value proposition. Such as the importance and heritage of “place”, or how unorthodox places bring real value to customers, employees and the broader firm, or how untapped brick and wood spaces can fuel rejuvenation of American “main street” spaces (i.e., not bland mid 80s office parks).
For those bold enough to do it, your future employees will thank you. Until then, you can find them 1,000 feet above sea level, at 30 MPH on the 5-to-9 grind up and down Altamont Pass.