For the past four years, I’ve returned to Los Altos for the summer. As a college student on the East Coast, I relished my annual escape from the heavy, humid weather of New England and looked forward to returning to my hometown. Yet these homecomings have never quite been a return to the normal, and they have certainly never been a return to the past.
In some ways, this is due to the fact that I myself am changing. Distance always provides perspective, and my time away from home has certainly done that. In other ways, it’s due to the fact that Los Altos itself has changed. The revitalization of the downtown area that has occurred since I left in 2010 has been noticeable, and it’s exciting to see a bit of the change that in my childhood was only the subject of parental sideline conversations at Hillview soccer games.
I grew up on Havenhurst Drive, and I distinctly remember the mental Marauders’ Map my siblings and I had of our neighborhood. Lee lived to the left. Her garden was next to sacred, which meant that any balls that went over the fence were lost forever or retrieved at great risk. Down the street on the corner was a house with cherry trees with long branches that hung well within the reach of hungry hands. It was a neighborhood with plenty of kids, and there were always doors to knock on and games of hide-and-seek to play.
Yet for all my neighborhood’s liveliness, there was a distinct mix of old and young. I remember particularly our next-door neighbors, Sam and Ruth. When they moved to Havenhurst, the street was a mere dirt road. Sam worked outside of Los Altos and on weekdays would commute by train to and from San Francisco from the Loyola Corners station. Tales of his experiences in Los Altos brought to life a time in the town’s past that I had only peripherally enjoyed through bike rides to Deer Hollow Farm, field trips to the Los Altos History Museum and the occasional walk through an orchard, where, if lucky, I’d sample apricots off wood drying racks laid out beneath the trees.
These windows into the past can still be opened, but what a tragedy it would be if that ceased to be the case. In a time and area where technology is ubiquitous, progress is lauded and the past is quickly left behind. For tech, this works. But it is no way to build a community.
An abundance of creative and intelligent workers inhabit Los Altos and develop products that improve people’s lives. However, I see elements of a culture in our town and throughout the Bay Area that places less importance on the real-world impact of these creations and more on their ability to attract billion-dollar buyouts or land a Tesla in the driveway.
Our disregard for the modesty of our town’s history has been as structural as it has been mental. The new mega-development on First Street feels remarkably out of place, as does the new faux-chateau hotel that’s been built adjacent to the historical heart of downtown.
Towns are not built overnight. They do not come with READMEs or version update releases. They’re built organically, slowly and continuously. The ways in which we encourage Los Altos to evolve should never favor modernization at the cost of destruction of character.
We are unique among the many and varied communities on the Peninsula, and I believe that, at long last, our small-town vibe has ceased to be our greatest burden and become our greatest asset. I’m excited by the potential for change in Los Altos, and I look forward to what is to come. But we must be careful not to destroy what we have as we move into the future. We must always be mindful of our past. After all, you never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
Tom Canty grew up in Los Altos.