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The World of the Coliseum


I woke up one morning not long ago, and noticed that the world that I was born into no longer exists. It was as if I had once lived in Republican Italy, took a nap, and awoke to the Roman Empire, AD 200.


Let me explain. All the farms in these environs that I grew up with -- 40-80 acres with a farmhouse and family -- have simply vanished.

Where did they go?

I suppose when I meet someone with 5,000 acres that I am supposed to think that spread represents the old, and now recombined, 100 50-acre farms under new management. Yet where did the 100 farm households go -- and what replaced them?

When I ride around the rural landscape, I see the old skeletons of farmhouses; but they are mostly rented to farm workers.  Are the social circumstances of renting a house and working on a 5,000-acre farm different from 100 agrarian households doing it -- in terms of local PTA, Little League, the regional hospital board, or city council?

I leave it to you to decide. I can attest only that in terms of agricultural productivity, today’s 8,000-acre almond operations look far more efficient, up to date, and savvy than what 100 80-acre almond orchards used to seem like: old barn, clunky tractors in the yard, kids out in the orchard not up on the latest scientific approaches to fertilization, mom doing the books in a way the computerized corporate whiz kid would laugh at, tight-fisted gramps hobbling about looking for loose tire-popping nails in the alleyway while giving sermons about avoiding a mortgage.

The Tech Ghettos

The new pyramid is not just agricultural. Go to Silicon Valley. In all the old quaint homes of Menlo Park, Mountain View, and Palo Alto that I remember visiting in the 1960s, there is only a small middle class. The houses, true, are almost preserved in amber, appearing just as they did on the tree-lined streets a half-century ago. But what is in them now?

Strapped $400,000 a year-income couples paying $10,000 a month in taxes and mortgages for $800-per-square-foot old frame cottages are not what I remember. Even a far greater number of residents are renting $2,000 a month apartments, while a vast underclass of families in Redwood City and East Palo Alto quadruples up in rented 1,000 square-foot houses.

A few tech and financing geniuses live in splendor in Woodside or Portola Valley (well, not quite in splendor: air lift their multimillion-dollar castles to Fresno or Merced and their square footages and design would suddenly be considered no more than mere $500,000 nice, big houses).

What drives the new madcap California rush to the high-priced coastal strip? The weather has not changed since 1960. Stanford is still Stanford; Berkeley remains Berkeley. Is it the destruction of the old interior muscular world and the new high profits of the cerebral coastal? Does one pass up a $150,000 house in Madera to go into life-long debtor status to buy something smaller for $1 million to escape the dividends of illegal immigration and vast entitlements in the interior?

The small dry cleaner and his wife the teacher do not buy a nice 1,500 square foot home in San Carlos, start their 3-children family in their twenties, and join the middle class. More likely the future bridegroom is still single, living at home until he is 30. His would-be wife is still renting. And at 35 they might marry and have one child with a $600,000 mortgage. There is no room there for the middle-class family starting out youthful, with visions of a ranch house, kids, good jobs, and upward mobility.