I grew up in Cupertino, California, a place synonymous with Silicon Valley and which most people know as the home of Apple. If you had told teenage Jenny that I would have even half an hour’s worth of stuff to say about Cupertino, I would have been surprised, because my experience of Cupertino was mostly this:
To me as a bored teenager, the city was merely a sea of interchangeable shopping centers, office parks, and six lane roads with eternal traffic lights. It turns out that in the 1960s they already had a word for this: slurb. Like the technology that comes out of Cupertino, my slurb felt disconnected from place and time, somehow equally a-spatial and ahistorical.
A few years ago I started idly researching Rancho Rinconada, the Cupertino subdivision I grew up in. Built very quickly in the 1950s, it was made up of explicitly knockoff Eichler homes — the sort of midcentury-modern version of the McMansion.
These hastily assembled, cookie-cutter houses apparently sold for $8950 each (about $83,000 with inflation). Unbeknownst to me, my entire neighborhood had been built from scratch, almost overnight, only about 30 years before I was born.
I found an unlabeled aerial photo of the whole neighborhood as it was still being built, and switching back and forth between this photo and Google Maps, I was able to label the streets and where my house was. But there was this one wiggly bit on the left that confused me, and didn’t seem to correspond to any roads.
It took me a while to figure out that it wasn’t a road — it was a creek.
I thought that was so weird, that there could have been a creek there that was completely lost to my memory. I kept looking at the map and realized that to the west of Rancho Rinconada, there was yet another creek I hadn’t noticed.
One of the parks next to it had once been Fremont Older Elementary School, which I had gone to briefly before it was demolished. When I thought about it some more, I realized that actually, I had noticed this creek — just barely. In kindergarten, it was just the place that you couldn’t get your ball back from if it went over the fence during recess. When I looked through a 1991 Fremont Older yearbook, I realized that the creek was in the background of many of the photos.
For the most part, the creek isn’t buried; I called this talk Excavating Calabazas Creek because of how I had to dig it out from under my own inattention. It’s something hidden in plain sight, a symbol of the natural history that never quite surfaced in my consciousness growing up.
In going back to look at the creek on maps and then in person, I also came to appreciate it for the unusual route it takes through Silicon Valley, half natural and half infrastructural — a true anthropocene idyll. Following it is like a lifeline out of that ahistorical, a-spatial slurb, allowing me to look at the overhyped from the point of view of the forgotten, the endless present from the point of view of the past, and the digital from the view of the insistently physical.
So tonight, I want to use Calabazas Creek to give you a little tour of Silicon Valley. There will be four stops along the way: an area full of data centers in Sunnyvale, the Apple campus, something called Main Street Cupertino, and the hills of Saratoga.
I’m going to go backwards, or rather upstream, to echo both how I encountered it coming down from Oakland (where I now live), and also how awareness of the creek led me to an awareness of the watershed, the mountains, and shape of the place where I had grown up.
Part 1: Sunnyvale data centers
In Sunnyvale, Calabazas Creek is a straight line, passing mostly unnoticed through an area full of data centers and technology companies.
It wasn’t always in this spot. Originally, it joined up with Saratoga Creek, that other wiggly line that I first noticed when looking at Rancho Rinconada. In the late 1950s, Calabazas Creek was routed away from Saratoga Creek and into its current concrete channel.
This was mostly done for flood control reasons, an ongoing problem as pavement replaced soil and water could no longer be absorbed as it accumulated. Creeks here flooded catastrophically numerous times, especially in the 1950s as the slurbs were starting to develop. In 1952, flooding in Santa Clara Valley caused caused $700,000 worth of damage to roads and bridges (that’s over 6 million adjusted for inflation).
When I pestered Valley Water (formerly the Santa Clara Valley Water District) for details about the separation of Saratoga and Calabazas, they sent me an engineering document with designs for the creek’s rerouting. Seeing the actual decision to reroute water through a constructed channel is a reminder of how indistinguishable an urban creek can be from any other infrastructure. The water goes where we say it goes.
Everything in between this point and the creek’s headwaters in the Santa Cruz mountains is a sort of gradient between natural and manmade. In the hills, it’s a natural stream bed; by my old elementary school, it’s lined with cement bags and imported rocks; and ultimately, it ends up in a straight concrete channel. It makes me wonder: when is a creek still a creek? Or: what even is a creek?
Here, the character of the creek seems almost appropriate to its surroundings, which I would call a landscape of efficiency. I’ll read you some of the names of the places that the creek passes by:
Terix Computer Services.
What happens in these places? Some of them are electronics parts manufacturers, some of them make surveillance systems, and many of them are data centers. Watching the water flow through the concrete channel, I think about the flows happening inside these buildings, and how different they are: streams of requests and information coming in and out, unpredictably, from any place at any time. A data center is about as a close to a non-place as you can get — if it could do away with space and time, it would. The image that Terix Computer services uses on its website is not of its interior, but a stock photo of some data center somewhere, an image that it shares with countless other sites.
That said, some of these companies have became “grounded” in this place in at least one way. Right next to this section of Calabazas Creek are several EPA Superfund sites, where pollution from electronics manufacturing companies contaminated the groundwater with things like trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent originally made as an anesthetic for humans.
In stark contrast to the linear, hyper-logical character of this landscape, the EPA notes that groundwater pollution from the Sunnyvale sites has begun to run together underground, creating a “commingled plume” that extends more than a mile north toward the bay — a reminder that that the machinery that moves our data creates other flows as well.
The offending companies named in the Superfund reports are gone and forgotten, leaving only their contribution to the commingled plume. Somewhat ironically, one of those companies was named Monolithic Memories.
Part 2: Apple (and apricots)
From Sunnyvale, Calabazas Creek passes through some housing subdivisions before it cuts through a corner of the new Apple campus.
Renderings of the “spaceship” campus don’t include the creek. Sometimes there’s also a weird fog at the edges, a dismissive hand wave to the actual geographical site — as though the campus could actually be anywhere.
Like most places in Cupertino, there were once orchards here. In this case they were apricot orchards belonging to Scottish immigrants Robert and Margaret Glendenning, who established their farm in 1851. (Note the barn, which will come up again later.)
From then until the 1960s, much of the area was orchards. For high school students, “cutting cots” was a common way to spend one’s summer. When the orchards gave way to shopping centers, subdivisions, and tech companies, many people mourned the loss of a semi-rural feeling.
But while orchards and tech would seem to be opposed, fruit production in Cupertino was high tech in its own way — systematic and producing ever higher yields. On the Internet Archive, I found a strangely pleasing video of a local grower’s apricot processing machine, which almost reminds me of fruit as data. Before tech, industrial farming was in its own way an abstraction applied to the land.
Below you can see a scene typical of the 1970s, a weird mix of tech buildings and remaining orchards. The Glendenning farm was sold to Varian, which sold to it Hewlett Packard, where my mom would later work as a technical writer.
I sometimes accompanied my mom to work, admiring her line drawings of printers or laminating membership cards for my mystery-solving club. Once, I visited the lobby and tried on an early version of a VR headset. The scene was a chessboard; all the chess pieces were bigger than me, and I couldn’t move — maybe an apt image of my relationship with technology these days.
Recently, I asked my mom whether she remembered a barn being on the campus. She said that she did, but that she never got to see the inside. People would have “beer busts” there, and sometimes she would go and get apricots from the few trees left standing around it.
Apple acquired the campus in 2010 and demolished it in 2013. My mom sent me this video, which somebody amazingly set to set to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.”
On the urging of the Cupertino Historical Society, Apple was compelled to keep the Glendenning barn, but it dismembered it plank by plank, promising to reassemble it near the fitness center where it could become “a hub for employees.” Many years later, the planks have indeed been reconvened (and painted black), but the barn does not seem to be a hub for anything except for landscaping vehicles.
There’s another relic at the new campus, but it was created, not preserved. Inside the circle are a couple of orchards, which Steve Jobs hoped would “create a microcosm of old Silicon Valley, a landscape reenactment of the days when the cradle of digital disruption had more fruit trees than engineers.”
But given the surrounding circumstances, it feels like Baudrillard’s description of the simulacrum come to life. While it magically reconstitutes Steve Jobs’ childhood memory of the past, the campus dramatically cuts itself off from the physical fabric of the city surrounding it. What’s not necessarily evident in renderings of its campus is that it has built gradual hills around the spaceship so that it’s almost impossible to see even when you’re right next to it. Perhaps this explains this giant mountain of dirt that happened while the campus was being constructed.
In Sunnyvale, the creek is a flood threat; at Apple, it’s a security threat. An environmental impact report was supposed to require Apple to build a trail along the section of Calabazas Creek, but they objected, writing that “such a trail through a portion of the site would pose security risks because Apple has been the target of intense scrutiny regarding its future projects.” In an LA Times article, a Cupertino official is quoted comparing the campus design to a moat.
I was a bit apprehensive about visiting the creek at this site, since the LA Times reporters had been chased away by a security guard who believed (mistakenly) that Apple owned the road. When I visited, I parked a mile away at Main Street Cupertino — which I’ll get to in a minute — and bought a Philz coffee to make myself blend in. I strolled as casually as possible across existential landscape, over interstate 280 and down the road that Apple only seems to own.
It was strangely comforting to finally find the creek, as though I was worried it would have somehow been engineered away.
Same as it had for decades, the water went on its way, corralled by striated walls of rocks in wire netting. Apple was building something new right next to the creek and had encased this mystery in an opaque green wall.
I pondered this series of fortifications: of Apple against the prying eyes of outsiders, and of the land against the water that might erode or overflow it. And I took a moment to enjoy this small admission of pre-existing geography into a place whose products seem so unmoored from the physical.
Part 3: Main Street Cupertino
I mentioned that Calabazas Creek for the most part isn’t buried; there’s one place where it is. When I was growing up, it was a miraculously empty lot off of Stevens Creek Boulevard, not far from the now-Apple campus.
Because it had been there for so long, I never thought to take a photo of the empty lot. Now, besides old Street View, the only record of it I can find is of this person very angrily filming illegal dumping there in 2010.
The field’s emptiness was miraculous because already by the time I was growing up, there was a crush of development coming in from all directions, including, for example, the adjacent condo that the creator of this video was living in.
To give you a sense, here’s Cupertino in 1953; there’s our creek, and the rectangle is the area we’re looking at right now.
Here it is in 1961:
The lot’s mysterious emptiness made it even stranger to me that the creek was routed underground here, so I went back to my friends at Valley Water to ask them why. In response, they sent me a 227-page PDF with original drawings of the re-routing, the engineer’s report, the environmental impact review, and various letters from property owners, officials, and the Sierra Club arguing for and against burying the creek.
Just to get you oriented, here you can see where the creek is now underground, the part that goes through Apple, and the spot where the illegal dumping video was made.
It was in this report that I learned that Calabazas Creek hadn’t even been a creek in this spot, or anywhere downstream. It had actually fanned out into a floodplain until 1850, when local farmers dug a drainage ditch so their planting wouldn’t be delayed by spring storms. To make things convenient, they routed the ditch along their property lines so that no one’s farming area would be be broken up.
The descendants of the farmers, when business started coming in and farming was no longer viable, formed Vallco Park Limited, a group that managed the land and built a mall just outside of that aerial photo, to the left.
Due to erosion, the “creek,” which had only been four feet wide and two feet deep when it was dug, was now 40 to 100 feet wide and 15 to 30 feet deep by the time the report was written in 1977.
The report speculates that the ditch would continue to widen forever until buildings and trees were threatened. Reading this, I envisioned this unruly depression growing ever wider, swallowing Vallco Mall, my high school, and the Apple campus — maybe all of Cupertino, turning itself back into the floodplain it once was.
Cupertino engineers weighed multiple versions of two options: either dealing with the creek aboveground, or shunting the whole thing underground through a concrete channel.
Because Vallco Park Limited assumed they would be building the on the land, and because they had no love for the messy channel, they were in favor of the underground option. In fact, Leonard Burrel, president of Vallco Park Limited and great-grandson of one of the farmers who had dug the original ditch, wrote a very detailed and very annoyed statement refuting the claims of Sierra Club members who wanted to keep it above ground. He wrote, “I FIND IT LUDICROUS WHEN I HEAR AN ENVIRONMENTALIST OVER-REACHING, AND OVER-STATING, AND INTIMATING THAT DRAINAGE DITCHES OF THIS DERIVATION ARE OF GREAT ANTIQUITY, AND BEAUTY, AND A PRICELESS HERITAGE LEFT TO ALL OF US BY THE UNSEEN HAND OF AN ALL-WISE AND BENEVOLENT ‘NATURE.’”
That wasn’t necessarily what the Sierra Club was intimating, but they were concerned about breaking up a corridor that might be used by wildlife. The engineers wrote, “It is difficult to predict with certainty whether a raccoon, for example, would venture into a dark tunnel of this length in order to relocate along the creek.”
Burrel had no patience for this either. Other than the couple of quail he tried to support with shrubbery and that he occasionally saw “slumming toward Calabazas,” or the deer that were last seen in 1908, there was nothing there he thought worth saving. Boasting of the great landscaping on existing Vallco properties, he wrote, “The only large animals who may find habitat pleasing are the employees and customers.”
A local resident who contributed this handwritten letter might have agreed. Her seven children were forbidden from entering the creek bed, and under “some hazards,” she lists “poor creekbed full of rock and debris,” “dope addicts and pot smokers,” “sexual deviants,” a suicide, snakes and rats and “no descent wildlife (sic)”. On top of that, it was a “loitering place for students from Cupertino High School” (my high school!). Yet another resident’s letter mentions “packs of loose dogs [that] have torn living rabbits to shreds.”
The compromise was that half the section in question — near the area I had been contemplating at the Apple campus — was built above ground with vegetation. If I didn’t know better, I just might attribute this scene to the unseen hand of all wise nature, and not a bunch of engineers in the 1970s.
The other half went underground, under the empty lot that Vallco Park Limited never ended up building on. If only I had known, in all my years looking at it, that beneath that field lay buried a seam of apparently total lawlessness filled with rats and snakes.
But the field didn’t remain empty. Here it is in 2009:
and 2017. Surprise!! It is now something called Main Street Cupertino.
For someone who grew up whining about the lack of an actual downtown in Cupertino, the idea that an ersatz “downtown” would suddenly appear on the mysterious empty lot is almost too much.
On the sleepy gray day that I visited, each storefront was playing its own outdoor music, creating a dystopian easy-listening remix that wafted down the empty sidewalks. Some things that appeared to be cafes were actually Apple offices, and outside of the Philz I found a giant apple core sculpture, possible a weird, indirect homage to Apple.
I have to agree with Diana L. of Yelp, who writes, “It’s kind of just the same ol’ shit wrapped up in a big ass parking cluster fuck,” or Martin C. who says, “Main Street seems an odd choice of a name for a place where not much happens.” And although I had never been here before, I found it already familiar: it was the same placelessness I remembered from everywhere else, only now with social media accounts.
It seemed somehow appropriate that the image on its website is not a photo of the place, but of a model, presumably from before it existed.
And what of Vallco Shopping Mall, with its lovely landscaping for those privileged large animals, the employees and customers?
Such was the enthusiasm when it opened in 1978 an entire Vallco-shaped cake was constructed for opening day, and a marching band marched through the mall.
It was a verdant, state of the art 70s mall, and it stayed that way for some time. I spent many days there as a kid, throwing pennies into the fountains, skating in the ice rink, and later buying bumper stickers at Hot Topic.
But I think I could already tell that it felt somehow dated, like I was a 90s kid living in a faded 70s dream.
In the 2000s, Vallco started to empty out dramatically until only a few tenants were left; you had to walk down dark, deserted corridors to see a movie at the AMC. When I last visited, I saw lonely stacks of chairs loitering in the atrium and the remainders of a face slowly peeling off of a store window.
At one time, there had been a plan to demolish Vallco and replace it with something called Vallco Hills, a mixed use neighborhood. An incredibly overbuilt page at revitalizevallco.com featured renderings in which the mall has been covered in a giant vineyard, something architects imagined healthful residents jogging through. (Those who scroll to the bottom of the aforementioned page will be rewarded with a 3D flyover complete with fireworks.)
In a way, this pop-up manifestation of the California ideal wouldn’t have been too dissimilar from the orchard conjured inside the Apple campus, but it never happened. Cupertino voters rejected the plan in 2016. By the time I last visited Vallco, even the mall’s informational display for that idea was long abandoned.
And when my boyfriend Joe visited a few months ago, it looked like this. Not just creek banks, but real estate dreams, can erode.
Part 4: Saratoga hills
From what is now Main Street Cupertino, the creek course passes by my former kindergarten, through subdivisions with names like Alderbrook and Brookvale, and up to Mount Eden Road in the Saratoga Hills.
You will find no faux Eichlers up here. The hills are home not to houses, but to estates, including ones like this, a 5 million dollar metastasized McMansion with an attached vineyard.
Here, the creek winds past the mansions in an idyllic natural form, no longer a threat but an aesthetic amenity to residents, complete with private paths and footbridges.
Saratoga has long been the land of the rich. At the same time that the orchards were popping up in Cupertino and Sunnyvale, the elite of San Francisco were discovering this section of the Santa Cruz mountains, as a place for vacations and summer homes.
Not far from here is Villa Montalvo, a Saratoga arts institution and former country home of James Phelan, mayor of San Francisco at the turn of the century. (Phelan, by the way, sought to restrict immigration from Asian countries and thought half-Asians were degenerates… hey, that’s me! 💁🏻)
For those without country homes, the real local attraction was something called Congress Springs. If that, or even the name Saratoga itself, sounds familiar, there’s a reason. In 1850, the hot springs in this area were found to have the same mineral composition as the water from Congress Springs in Saratoga, New York. “Taking the waters” or “taking the cure” was a fashionable thing to do at the time, so a couple of local business tycoons built a 14-room hotel and resort, and started bottling the water, naming their operation after the resort in New York.
Even closer to the path of Calabazas Creek was yet another hot springs and thus, another business opportunity. Here, the Azule Seltzer Company packaged the water in some rather pleasing bear-embossed bottles (which you can see here) and sold it at grocery stores throughout the Bay Area.
Reading the description of their product, I’m reminded of that Californian brand of health-obsessed hype:
The Azule water has a carbonated and pungent taste. The action is antaced (sic), aperient diuratic (sic) and tonic, and is of great service in dyspepsia, torpidity of the liver and intestinal tract, increasing the process of secretion and excretion, and eliminating morbific waste materials in the visceral and cutaneous systems…
The hype didn’t last; Azule Seltzer Springs shuttered around the turn of the century, and in 1901, almost the entire Pacific Congress Springs hotel burned to the ground after a fire started in the kitchen. (No one was hurt; guests and their salvaged belongings were displaced to Los Gatos for the evening.)
The resort was never rebuilt, and although the site was used as a picnic, the San Jose Water Company closed it off to the public after World War II. Five years before he died in 2013, Saratoga historian Willys Peck wrote about falling into the spring as a kid and later drinking the storied water. But when he borrowed a key from the water company and visited the site as an adult, he couldn’t find the springs anymore. He muses melancholically, “I like to think they’re still there.”
The Azule site is gone too, memorialized in a book by Tobin Gilman that looks at the 19th century Bay Area through the lens of its bottles. When he posted images of the Azule Seltzer bottles on Facebook, a few peoples’ comments gave clues to the fate of this spring. A man who had lived on Mount Eden Road in the 70s and 80s wrote that he’d hiked through the property and that “[t]he owner at the time was notorious for taking in stray cats … there were hundreds staring at us as we walked down the main driveway back to the road. If Alfred Hitchcock had made a move called The Cats he could have filmed it there.” Another says her grandparents owned the property until 1962, and that last she checked, a McMansion had been built on the horse pasture.
Now, all that’s left of either hot springs operation is the occasional scavenged bottle and the name of a municipal park in the Saratoga flatlands, next to a freeway and nowhere near the original Congress Springs site.
excavating the present
Throughout all of this, I was struck by the fleetingness of each institution, each fad, and each dream of some opulent future. This fleetingness helped explain my fixation on the Calabazas–which persisted throughout all of this–and why I felt the need to follow it to its headwaters.
Calabazas Creek is no longer on the map up here, so I had to guess. Driving past the mansions, I parked and walked up the Mount Eden trail, following the sound of water and stooping below a fallen tree to see a small tributary to the creek. The sun was setting; it was dark, and I had to let my eyes adjust before I could make out the water running over its sculpted pebbles.
As history overturns and the visions of Silicon Valley come and go, the water flows every winter, and it flows in the same direction. Long before it became a flood liability and a threat to security, and before its steelhead and rainbow trout were extinguished, the creek might have been not only noticed but provident to the Ohlone, the first residents of this place.
Almost everything about Calabazas Creek is now adulterated, starting with pollution and ending with its straightjacketed course toward the bay, past the former floodplain where it used to come to rest. And yet, some version of it remains. Following it up into the mountains, or even into the modified ditches that replaced the floodplain, is a reminder of the shape of this seemingly placeless place — of the “valley” in Silicon Valley.
Even in the midst of a slurb made of corporate franchises and walled tech gardens, it’s not possible to be nowhere, any more than it is for us to engineer away the water during a flood or stop cracks from appearing in pavement. Water moves and land moves. Nothing on earth ever stands still.
A few days after I last visited Calabazas Creek, it rained torrentially in Oakland. I live on a steep hill, and as I walked down my street, I realized why it was so hard to define what a creek is. It’s not only that in some places it feels indistinguishable from infrastructure. It’s that a creek is just one form of water that needs to go somewhere, and water always needs to go somewhere.
I watched an temporary river crossing a street, thinking about how the next day it would be gone.
Calabazas Creek, too, is more an event than an entity. It’s technically not a creek but an arroyo, meaning that it’s dry most of the year and only runs in the winter. The rest of the time, the sunken pathway through Apple and the concrete channel in Sunnyvale sit empty, like place settings for a dinner guest who only shows up once a year.
In fact, Calabazas Creek was dry the first time I visited it as an adult, accompanied by my friend Josh, who had also grown up near the creek without noticing it. We used it as a trail, a surreal perspective on the familiar from the very middle of everything.
Besides the cement bags I remembered seeing as a five year old, some loitering Cupertino High School students (!) and a dark tunnel of graffiti that led under Cupertino Main Street, one thing caught my eye. The creek bed was made of rip-rap, a kind of rocky mixture in which some of the material is taken from demolition. It was probably added sometime in the late 20th century to deal with flooding and erosion.
Upon closer inspection, one of these rocks was actually a piece of a brick building that had been molded by water into a natural-looking shape. I found this “rock” emblematic. Although Vallco businessman Leonard Burrel would likely accuse me of “over-reaching” and “over-stating,” thinking about the creek undeniably reminds me of the reality of water, seasons, and place — even though everything seems engineered to make me forget them.
But no matter what happens, long after Cupertino is gone, the water will still run down the mountain every year. And it will still shape the rocks, no matter what they are made out of.
Special thanks to Valley Water, the Cupertino Historical Society, History San José, the Prelinger Library, and my mom.