By Jack Chang
The Spaceship has landed, and the Cupertino of my childhood will never be part of the same planet again.
The San Jose suburb has deservedly become world famous as the home of the iPhone, the MacBook and very soon, the monumental, ring-shaped headquarters being built by Apple. I grew up there in the 1980s, when the words “Cupertino” and “world famous” were never spoken in the same sentence. I whiled away my high school summers reading and watching hours of TV at my mother’s low-slung Eichler house about five blocks away from the massive construction site now surrounding the Spaceship. We went out for dim sum lunches with my grandparents, aunts and uncles at the Joy Luck Palace across the street from the Spaceship, at a shopping center filled with Chinese noodle shops and a 99 Ranch Market where my grandfather felt up the oranges and fish. This was a solidly middle-class city, the kind that Steve Jobs grew up in, filled with accountants and computer programmers who raised their children on streets with names such as Ferngrove and Shadygrove.
Those ranch houses now sell for about $2 million a pop, with the numbers going up the closer the houses sit to the Spaceship site. That has enriched people such as my mother, who bought into the neighborhood decades ago in the low-to-mid $300,000s. But for more recent arrivals, and natives who didn’t buy in long ago, owning a place here will be out of reach for years to come, and maybe forever. Renting is almost as challenging. Across the Bay Area, slowly and steadily, craft beer gardens, horizontal slat fences and six-figure salaried tech soldiers are homogenizing, smoothing out and making bland longtime working-class havens such as Oakland, Hayward, Redwood City and downtown San Jose, where Google is planning to build up to 8 million square feet of new office space housing 20,000 workers.
Yes, this story has been underway for years now. But it’s now entered a supercharged critical phase, with the opening of the massive Apple and Google campuses as well as the towering skyscraper being built by the office networking services provider Salesforce in San Francisco. For me, watching the four-story tall, third-of-a-mile wide Spaceship rise over Silicon Valley suburbia or the $1.1 billion Salesforce Tower so completely dominate the San Francisco skyline brings a certain dread, and I suspect many who have spent decades in the Bay Area feel the same. Sure, I admit, part of that is my knee-jerk fear of change, but it also reflects my pessimism about what the tech boom has already brought to the Bay Area – the disappearance of so many immigrant-, artist-, African American and other “alternative” communities that made so many of us fall in love with the region in the first place. Visually, these monumental constructions represent the replacement of unassumingness as a longtime Bay Area virtue with Manhattan-style bombast.
This tech-driven Gilded Age is giving us an unprecedented series of monumental structures. The Salesforce Tower, about 50 miles north of the Apple Spaceship, has obliterated the city’s previously tallest skyscraper, the iconic Transamerica Pyramid, from the San Francisco skyline. While the 853-foot-tall pyramid was almost demure, seeming to shrink as it climbed, the 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce Tower thrusts into the clouds with an out-of-place strut.
New York, arguably the world capital of prestige architecture, is, in fact, a useful frame to understand what’s happening in the Bay Area, said Louise Mozingo, chair of landscape architecture, environmental planning and urban design at UC Berkeley. As New York gained its financial and political might about a century ago, the monumental construction quickly followed — the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. San Francisco just inaugurated its own version of the Met last year, when the SFMOMA re-opened a dramatically super-sized version of its old self on Third Street, not far from Salesforce Tower. To me, at least, the new SFMOMA felt gratuitously big, as if it had something to prove with its size. That wasn’t an accident. The 110,000 square-foot museum hasn’t been shy to point out that it’s bigger than the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“If you think about this as a big arc of history, what powerful individuals in capitalist societies do is they build big things that will stay on the skyline for centuries,” Mozingo said. “It’s a very human inclination. The more capitalized you are, the more attention-seeking is the building.”
The Bay Area, however, has long operated in a more low-key style than, say, midtown Manhattan or ancient Egypt. This is, after all, the realm of the Patagonia-clad billionaire and the startup conquering the world from a generic office park filled with Ikea desks. Back in my dim sum days, the Apple construction site was filled with unremarkable office buildings where Hewlett Packard and other tech companies revolutionized the world. Just down Interstate 280, Apple plotted world domination out of another cluster of generic offices. The buildings didn’t used to matter. They were essentially beehives for worker nerds, not lairs for world conquerers. Silicon Valley was about easy come, easy go, quick to build the startup, quick to dismantle it, here comes the next startup.
“You don’t buy those buildings,” Mozingo said. “Failure is the integral rallying point of the Silicon Valley myth.”
With their multibillion-dollar new digs, though, Apple and Salesforce have made it clear that they intend to stick around. At the same time, the two companies have demonstrated that just as they have disrupted the media, office software and telecommunications industries to amass their fortunes, their glass-and steel monuments are designed to disrupt the physical and social worlds around them.
I circled the Apple Spaceship on a recent Saturday morning, as hundreds of orange-vested workers watered shrubs and sidewalks in preparation for record heat that would bake the Bay Area later that day. The cities of Cupertino and Sunnyvale have already widened roads and expanded mass transit in anticipation of the 18,000 workers who will report for duty every morning at the Norman Foster-designed headquarters. For years, Cupertino has given Apple huge tax breaks, but now, the city is poised to reap big financial benefits from higher property and sales tax revenue. Already, Apple-related tax revenue makes up about a fifth of the city’s budget.
Set on top of an embankment, the $5 billion Spaceship dwarves everything else around it – and even seems oblivious to its surroundings. It has no relation to the endless blocks of ranch houses across East Homestead Road, the hot pot restaurants across North Wolfe Road or the sad Vallco Shopping Mall on the other side of Interstate 280 where my sister used to spend her afternoons in daycare. A navel gazing into itself, the Spaceship knows not of the strip mall on Stevens Creek Boulevard with the vacuum and sewing shop, and cares not about mundane neighborhood details, like the fact that Rotten Robbie has the cheapest gas in northeastern Cupertino.
On the morning I visited, employees at a Kaiser clinic across the street from the Spaceship’s main entrance took smoke breaks by their cars. Walking his dog through the Asian-themed Cupertino Village shopping center just across the street from the campus, IT specialist John Ho said he had mixed feelings about his new gargantuan neighbor.
“It’s getting too expensive,” he blurted out, when asked about the Spaceship. Sure, the value of his two-bedroom condo has doubled over the past decade, he said, but his budget is still being stretched by rising prices across the Valley. The Spaceship, he feared, will drive those expenses even higher. “Food costs, grocery costs, everything is going to cost us more,” Ho said.
Others, though, see some upside. Already sweaty from the morning heat, 29-year-old Sumanth Bharadwaj rode his bicycle to work at a local Staples store. “It has been a treasure in our community,” Bharadwaj said of the Spaceship. “Having all these nice companies in the area has secured the housing market. It gives people a feeling of security.”
Jeff Buchanan, policy director of the union-affiliated advocacy group Working Partnerships, said tech giants building lavish campuses around the Bay Area have failed to pour even a fraction of their wealth into affordable housing for their lower-paid employees. He pointed to a study commissioned by the city of Santa Clara that found every square foot of new high-tech office space in the city created $158.80 in additional — and largely unmet — affordable housing need. Buchanan’s group advocates for a living wage, universal health care and more affordable housing, among other causes.
“The rise of the tech industry in participation with this recent tech real estate boom has real effects,” said Buchanan. “Income inequality is being driven by the expansion of a tech industry that has not been supportive of the lower-wage people who work there.”
In contrast to the Spaceship, Salesforce Tower doesn’t have as much of an immediate impact, at least when it comes to housing affordability, since it’s rising amid a jungle of other new high-rises. The tower will also open right across the street from a cavernous new transit center, which should lessen the traffic toll. No, Salesforce’s impact is more of a symbolic one. With its unmistakable size advantage along the skyline, the tower has come to represent tech power itself, and all the income disparity that has made this Gilded Age possible.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, longtime San Francisco resident Peter Putzer trekked to First and Mission streets to snap a picture of the nearly completed tower. Gazing up at its curved, Cesar Pelli-designed bulk, Putzer remembered the old, quirkier San Francisco he had fallen in love with when he first moved to the city in the early-1990s.
“I kind of liked it better in the early days because there was a better ambiance,” said the German-born accountant. “There were real San Franciscans but now you have people moving out because they can’t afford the rent here.”
Of course, that would likely have happened without the Spaceship or the Tower. The buildings are merely in-your-face reminders of all the ways Big Tech has transformed how we live, in Cupertino and everywhere else. They bring an unmistakable message: We rule the world now, and you’re just going to have to live with us.