A cautionary tale for Solano County

A recent report brought grim news from fabled Silicon Valley – people are fleeing Santa Clara County in droves.

According to KCBS radio, more people are leaving Santa Clara County than any other county in the nation. Roughly 12,000 erstwhile Santa Clarans bailed out last year alone.

Surprise, surprise…

The region that was once known as “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight” has become too expensive, too crowded and too smoggy for normal human beings with annual incomes under $1.5 million.

Between dot.com disasters, real estate frenzies and a general “what the hell happened here, anyway?” ambiance, it’s no wonder that people are packing up and moving to places like Hollister and Tracy.

This should serve as a cautionary tale for Solano County, where we still have things like cows, trees, tomato crops and relatively fresh air – plus a big ol’ brewery and studio apartments that rent for considerably less than $2,000 a month.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Santa Clara Valley had those things, too.

Less than a decade of growth-at-all-costs development, zany real estate speculation, brief (but spectacular) technology-driven wealth and short-sighted civic planning decisions brought it all to an end.

The valley that once had one of the richest agricultural bounties in the world now has “heritage orchards” so children can see what fruit trees used to look like.

At one time, Santa Clara County had a healthy mix of housing, industry and agriculture. There was room to breathe and anybody with a full-time job could afford decent housing.

Then the Me Generation collided with the More Generation and suddenly greed became a virtue and living in the Valley of the Heart’s Delight became a matter of grim survival for anyone taking home less than $500,000 a year.

The orchards disappeared, the freeways gridlocked, high-end boutiques flourished and dot.com cowboys dominated the landscape – until they all went broke at once.

It was not a pretty picture and, from this native Santa Claran’s viewpoint, it still isn’t.

Sadly, we always said this could never happen. Whispers from the valley’s not-too-distant past still echo in my memory.

“We’re not going to wind up like LA. We know better. We cherish this land…”

Somewhere along the way, they let their guard down.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not anti-growth. I’m not anti-industry. I’m certainly not anti-money.

But sometimes you have to slow down and think about just what you might be losing when you begin selling your heritage, when the farms disappear and the rolling hills are leveled for overpriced shacks and the air turns dark and acrid.

I don’t go back to my hometown much anymore. I really wouldn’t want to live there and, besides, I couldn’t afford to.

People leaving Silicon Valley in droves? Doesn’t surprise me in the least. I just hope I don’t have to write the same thing about Solano County in 10 years or so.

For all its bumps and blemishes, Solano County’s a nice place to hang out. And it reminds me, just a little, of a place I used to call home a long time ago…

Originally published May 18, 2003

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