Silicon Valley’s Toxic Waste stirs memories — and why not?

Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic writes a fascinating tale of the ghosts of Silicon Valley —  most of those ghosts being the old semiconductor fabs and the toxic stew left behind by the years of chip manufacturing that gave the valley its name.

The piece is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the valley’s history, which I happen to be. It comes with a nifty database of the addresses of old valley headquarters that will give valley veterans the chance to wax nostalgic.

Madrigal became inspired when he stumbled upon “Rich’s Guide to Santa Clara County’s Silicon Valley,” which listed more than a thousand addresses for corporate headquarters circa 1983  — about the time the valley’s unique culture was the subject of a National Geographic examination.

Using those addresses, Madrigal plotted the geographic center of the valley in 1983, sort of the way some brainiac figured out that somewhere in Kansas is the geographic center of the United States.

And the valley’s historic center is: Super Space Self-Storage, which has nothing to do with RAM or ROM, but with actual storage of actual stuff  — stuff belonging to the valley’s vast army of transient engineers, who can’t fit it in their overpriced apartments.

One of the things I admire about Madrigal’s piece is the way he describes the valley — a place that is notoriously difficult to describe. Just what is this place? In his tour around the valley’s geographic center, Madrigal finds two auto body shops, a music school, a strip club, a couple of for-profit colleges targeting immigrants, a Chinese medicine school, an Indian restaurant, a chip company, a rock-climbing outfit, a real estate office and on and on.

Which is what the valley is: A mish-mash, to use the technical term.

But it is also still the technology center of the world and Madrigal makes that point early — even if it’s a different sort of technology center from what it was 30 years ago.

His piece ends on a wistful tone  — a look back at a place that was a manufacturing powerhouse and is now a shell of that dynamo, left with the Superfund mess that was the subject of countless stories in the Mercury News in the 1980s and beyond.

But, as Madrigal points out, the toxic plumes are largely under control. And here’s a shocker Madrigal didn’t touch on: Silicon Valley still is a manufacturing powerhouse. I spent some of last  year telling the story of the valley’s manufacturing resurgence, beginning with this story.

It turns out manufacturing still provides about 20 percent of the valley’s  jobs and that the number of manufacturing  jobs has been fairly steady for the past several years. In fact, it turns out, Silicon Valley has the second highest concentration of manufacturing jobs among the nation’s major metro regions.

The reality, however, is that those are very different jobs from the factory jobs that were in the valley in 1983; and the products being made in the shadow of Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like are very different, too.

Consider it the nature of the valley. Not only is change inevitable in Silicon Valley. Change is vital.

(Photo of Fairchild Semiconductor assembly line in 1964, Mercury News archives)






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