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Strip malls, Applebee’s, and, yes, some Teslas: This is what Silicon Valley actually looks like

Life in Silicon Valley is both weirder and more familiar than you think.

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At a rather unremarkable intersection in Cupertino, California, there’s an Asian specialty foods store called 99 Ranch Market. It’s an outpost of a national chain founded in the 1980s, and it’s tucked into the kind of strip mall familiar to just about anyone who has lived in the suburbs. Apple Park, which has a $4.17 billion price tag, is directly across the street. Everyday life in Silicon Valley really depends on where you look.

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[Image: courtesy Rizzoli]
Photographer Ramak Fazel looks for lesser-known perspectives of the everyday in a new book called Silicon Valley No_Code Life, developed through the shoe company Tod’s editorial initiative No_Code and published by Rizzoli. The book, an investigation into the diverse realities of living in the San Francisco area, shows that the narrative of Silicon Valley as a high-tech vision of the future isn’t the whole picture.

The San Francisco area is one of the most expensive in the United States. The influx of tech companies and tech money from the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Tesla have inundated the area with cash and exacerbated a housing crisis. Even so, Fazel found over about 10 days of shooting between late 2019 and early 2020 that Silicon Valley is much more dynamic than glinting, multimillion-dollar corporate campuses traversed by techies in hoodies and Allbirds sneakers. The built environment gives you a hint.

[Photo: © Ramak Fazel/courtesy Rizzoli]
In addition to that 99 Ranch Market, Fazel’s photographs show contrasting scenes of Laundromats, gas stations, and Brutalist banks. They capture the region’s past with Old West-inspired architectural relics like the Saddle room (“the last neighborhood bar in Redwood City”). And they capture parts of the tech industry we see less often, like an electronic components wholesaler in San Jose or software company CEOs caught enjoying their time off as airplane pilots.

“Silicon Valley has certain products and services that they propose and they offer us and we’re all familiar with, but the actual built environment is something more opaque that we don’t have a clear idea of,” Fazel says. But, he adds, “There’s a disconnect in what we understand about Silicon Valley in terms of people’s lives.”

One of Fazel’s favorite photographs is one he took at Photo Magic, a photo studio in Fremont. The photograph itself doesn’t look like anything special: It captures one man showing another a photograph on his digital camera as he sits on a stool inside the studio, just down the street from the Tesla Factory Showroom.

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But the snapshot tells a deeper story than at first glimpse. According to Fazel, the business relies entirely on providing passport photos for Indian nationals who work as engineers in the area. “It spoke to the bureaucracy that Indians face in getting passports and paperwork taken care of and the seriousness with which they view that,” says Fazel, who says he takes his own passport photos as selfies with his iPhone.

[Photo: © Ramak Fazel/courtesy Rizzoli]
Fazel’s investigation also captures the Valley’s rich history—before the tech boom. He counts off other industries that historically have been based in Northern California, like agriculture, mining and manufacturing, and finance. “It’s interesting to observe all those layers,” Fazel says. “When you peel back the tech layer you pretty quickly arrive at the agricultural past and the idealized Western landscape with the horses and the bucolic fields.”

A Bank of America at the intersection of Green Street, Columbus Avenue, and Stockton Street (page 29) in San Francisco boasts ornate details that reveal the building’s roots in the early 1900s. (Nearby Montgomery Street would later be known as the “Wall Street of the West.”) Old painted signs and large street-level double doors like on the Felix F. Schoenstein & Sons Pipe Organs building (page 48) hearken back to the 19th century, when horse-drawn carriages—not electric cars—got people around.

[Photo: © Ramak Fazel/courtesy Rizzoli]
Ultimately, Fazel hopes that this peek into the reality of the Bay Area—the small businesses, restaurants, and even tugboats that are not part of the multibillion-dollar tech campuses—acts, at the very least, as a conversation starter. “What these images do is they open a conversation about ‘What is Silicon Valley?’ ” he says. “Is Silicon Valley the hyper-protected campus of the [tech] giants or is it the strip mall and the adult bookstore by Google’s Mountain View campus? It’s a complex weave, and the collective group of these photographs creates a discourse.”

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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