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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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Unraveling history?s mysteries, building community memory

Uploaded: Jun 21, 2006
Earlier this month I talked about things I didn't know.

Speaking to nearly 120 longtime Palo Altans -- including many present and former civic leaders -- at the annual dinner of the Palo Alto Historical Association, I outlined some local mysteries of history -- stuff I've heard rumors about but to which I never have been able to get a definitive answer.

I also announced a $10,000 grant from Hewlett Packard Corporation to fund the beginning of a "community memory enhancement" project I first thought about in 1980 -- long before technology was ready for it. My own schedule and the busy schedules of others in town with whom I talked about it have prevented it taking form in recent years.

But now's the time to begin, and with the HP grant -- more will be needed from other sources later, of course -- to help pay for clerical, organizing and some writing assistance, perhaps now we can begin compiling a truly detailed account of the past half century in Palo Alto and surrounding communities in the Midpeninsula.

The idea is simply to use the power of the Internet -- the most powerful communications tool in history this side of the invention of the printing press in the 1500s and, arguably perhaps, the telephone in the late 1800s.

Starting with some core documents and a timeline, people in the community could build a searchable, linkable database that would instantly tell people what "government by referendum" meant as a description of local politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or what a "residentialist" is, or who really saved the foothills and started the local environmental movement.

That way there will be fewer mysteries of history that leave new City Council and city staff members vulnerable to getting tangled up in the roots and tendrils of old issues about which they have no clear notion.

My first example of a community mystery is a rumor I initially picked up when I was covering Palo Alto for the former Palo Alto Times back in the late 1960s and 1970s. That rumor was that when the sprawling subdivisions were being proposed to replace the open fields and dairy farms of south Palo Alto the city staff recommended requiring the developers to bring in several feet of fill to bring it up above flood levels, say three or four feet.

The second part of the rumor is that developer Joseph Eichler went down and berated the council about that expensive proposition, and the condition was removed. I have no idea if any of that's true, and it would take some detailed detective work to go back through council minutes of a half century ago to find out, if it was even included in the minutes at the time.

Had it been done, I noted, the $28 million in flood damage in early 1998 might have been, say, about $28. But the rumor never included what mountain would have had to disappear to raise all of south Palo Alto above flood levels. Maybe they should have just required four-foot-high foundations for all the houses.

I'm most interested initially in aspects of history that current leaders SHOULD know about. Had city officials been more aware of the intensity of the battle in 1965 to create the city's Park Dedication Ordinance, perhaps the blowup of two or three years ago about swapping park lands at Rinconada Park, Terman Park and Mitchell Park could have been handled with more delicate diplomacy and avoided a blow-up.

But that's not a true "mystery." The history is there. But it's hard to access.

The Weekly published a great Centennial History of Palo Alto's first 100 years in 1994. Earlier, former PA Times journalist Ward ("Dode") Winslow (who was my boss for a time on the Editorial Pages), compiled a great history-of-Palo-Alto book, to which former Mayor Gary Fazzino and I contributed an early version of the chapter on city politics and I drafted a chapter on the history of health care.

But books by definition have limited space, and we're in a new era -- the Age of Googling -- in which people expect near-instant access to information. And they should have such access.

Any newcomer to city and school issues deserves -- no, needs -- to know what went before if they have any sensibility to community traditions or if they want to avoid potential land mines that can blow up in their faces, embarrass them and often frustrate what they are trying to accomplish.

For those who have been participants in slices of local history, this is an opportunity to share recollections, challenge (civilly, please) the remembrances of others and help build a community memory -- one of the most valuable of human legacies.

It could become the ultimate memory-enhancement exercise.


What is it worth to you?


Posted by Ed Bierman, a resident of ,
on Jun 23, 2006 at 7:15 am

Wouldn't something like a Palo Alto History Wiki be a good application here if you are inviting others to write and share memories. You could be onto something here Jay -- communities building collective memories on the Internet. Hopefully, historical societies would fill in the history that goes further back than those who are still with us.

Posted by Walter E. Wallis, a resident of ,
on Jul 6, 2006 at 5:05 pm

Go to the older sections of San Jose or Sacramento, or the real new construction along the Russian River, and you see houses built with the first floor above the expected flood level. The last flooding in San Jose, these were the houses that were not ruined, except where rooms had ben added on the ground level. On the Russian River, they had several floods within months. Many houses flooded the first time were ruined again before rehab had been complete, so the law was changed.

Posted by Howard, a resident of ,
on Sep 11, 2006 at 10:47 pm

I have often thought that a timeline chronology of the "big issues" of Palo Alto would be interesting. For example, remember the "Eruv"? The black mamba? The parrots evicted from the church eves?

Posted by Josh, a resident of ,
on Jul 6, 2007 at 12:34 am

This is already being done. Check out www.paloaltohistory.com
It looks like far from a complete history, but quite a few articles!

Posted by Paula, a resident of ,
on Aug 29, 2007 at 5:03 pm

When it comes to history in East Palo Alto, I remember the simple times, the good life as a child growing up in East Palo Alto in the 50's and early 60's...at great book to read on a child in this era would be adding the edition of Beech Street...The Summer of '59... A summary of this book has been posted in the book section and if you check it out...you will see it is gathering the most interest. The book also has pictures from this era. I believe history comes in more than community news...it also comes from one's personal story and recollections of long ago...whether it be told through the eyes as a child...or an adult...

Posted by Timothy, a resident of ,
on Sep 12, 2007 at 4:02 pm


Where can I find that chapter about the History of Palo Alto politics that would give some wisdom about avoiding the historical traps you mentioned?

Posted by Jack Garner, a resident of ,
on May 5, 2008 at 8:39 pm

Jay: Good to see you are still on the job and coverring the Palo Alto Beat.

Jack Garner, PAPD Captain
Circa 1967-79

Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on May 27, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Wow, this blog has come out of the archives, Jay.

Still, I think you started something. We have at least one thread here going on over a year with PA memories. There have been others. I hope someone is documenting them.

And, yes, I remember the escape of the black mamba. I had a kindergartner at the time in Palo Verde. First they prevented the kids from going out at lunch and recess and then they roped off one particular area for some time. I don't know what the outcome was, but even she remembers it (she is in college now).

The eruv was also an old story that came back to life.

Posted by Bob Harrington, a resident of ,
on May 27, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Maybe a new Wikipedia form could be created, a Wikipedia community timeline. Wikipedia has a ton of good stuff about Palo Alto, but not yet organized on a timeline.

I've been around not quite 50 years, but a couple of my neighbors and a few friends have a great deal of Palo Alto history I am going to encourage them to prepare to share.

Great idea, Jay, and thanks to HP for lighting yet another path for a worthwhile project.

Posted by Nick Burr, a resident of ,
on Apr 26, 2009 at 10:40 am

Mr. Thornwaldson, this sounds great. As someone who grew up in Palo Alto I think it would be a wonderful tool. I would suggest that it would be important to create a program and system which would be accessible to all ages of Palo Altans -- while many older residents might have insights and puzzle-pieces to our collective history which could never be uncovered through archives and records, younger Palo Altans could bring some depth to the current issues facing the town's youth. I myself grew up here in the 1980s and '90s, and certainly my view and knowledge of the city derives from that era. I hope that this proposed online forum/archive becomes a reality as it would be an irreplacable asset to bring cohesion and strength to our community through an understanding of who we are and where we have been to get here.

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