Finding Foster City
Reflecting on a year in Silicon Valley’s planned city
At the yawning mouth of the San Mateo bridge, on the Bay side of the 101, you’ll find Foster City.
I lived in Foster City for a year, mostly accidentally. I worked further down the peninsula and I moved into my two-bedroom apartment with my 40 year-old roommate because we were desperate to leave our previous landlords. Twelve months ago, we were strangers. Now, we share ayurvedic cough medicine. She’s worked at Gilead. Everyone around here works for Gilead, this biotech company, or for Visa, a plastic company.
We picked this apartment after seeing it once, for about five minutes. It was the fifth or sixth place we had frantically toured on our respective lunch breaks, and we were tired. We moved in two days later, on a Sunday, after driving to every 7-Eleven on the peninsula to cobble together enough cashiers checks to pay the deposit and first month’s rent.
Every morning since, I took my dog for a walk around the lake to the outdoor amphitheater, where I try to not to make eye contact with huffing fitness buffs or the elderly Tai Chi group who practice there on alternate mornings. Sometimes we stop at Safeway for a donut. Sometimes we go to the dog park, further around the lake.
At night, the Building, the tallest in town, looms over us like the Tower of Sauron, with an octagonal window at its height that is always on. The bustling heart of Foster City, the Safeway, sits at its feet- but they’ve recently changed their hours, so that company, at least, can sleep.
Seal Point dog park is just beyond the boundaries of Foster City, and from the top of the little hill above the park, you can, on a clear day, see all the way to San Francisco. The Bay curves away towards the peninsula, giving the false impression that the city is just right there, a short afternoon walk away. But that 22 miles can take two and half hours to drive. It might as well be on Mars, then at least Elon Musk would be working to get us there.
As far as I know, that is all of Foster City. Every time I’ve Googled anything like “bookstores near me” or “dentist near me” or “people near me”, the answer is always “the nearest bookstore/dentist/people are 1 mile away in San Mateo.” Foster City is the kind of place where, when I enter my address online, I am often notified that “We could not find this address, did you mean [AN ACTUAL CITY]?”
People call our apartment building “Little India.” I like that about it. When I come home in the evenings, I get to weave through crowds of Indian children playing cricket on the sidewalks or making castles in the dirt. Most days, the halls of our building smell like Christmas, and if you sit on the patio long enough, you’re bound to hear all the best Bollywood tunes.
Aside from their wonderfully strong cultural identity, my neighbors are, well, private. I’ve actually never met a single one. I’ve almost met the elderly couple three buildings down whose German Shepherd barks as we go by. They’ve definitely apologized more than once, if that counts as “meeting.”
I moved to Foster City from Sacramento for my job. It’s one of those tech startup jobs, one of those “we’re going to change the world” kind of places that thinks of itself (privately, at least) as the next Facebook. When I got it, I thought it might be The Job — you know, the dream, the first step towards the rest of my life. It took less than a year to realize that people don’t get The Job at 23. At 23, you have A job, and if someone sold it to you as The Job and you bought it, well, then you live and you learn.
One thing you can say about Foster City is that it’s almost close enough to other places to make it nice. It’s almost close enough to San Francisco or San Jose to drive there after work for drinks, but not quite. It’s almost close enough to Half Moon Bay to drive there after work and watch the sunset on the beach, but not quite. It’s almost close enough to Oakland to enjoy the evening art scene, but not quite. It’s almost close enough to San Mateo to be in San Mateo, but not quite. And with almost no access to public transportation, you can almost leave Foster City, but not quite.
I’ve lived in a lot of places; Wyoming, D.C., South Africa, India, but never in a place quite like Foster City. I’ve had this weird feeling that I’ve been living in a hotel, with the views and the park and the nameless neighbors. But that isn’t the case. There must be more to Foster City than I was seeing.
After a few hours in the stacks at the Foster City Public Library, I found exactly three books that mentioned the place. What I found was the very, very short history of a planned city. Construction began in the early 1960s and the town was fully incorporated in 1971. Fifty years ago, Foster City was nothing but a twinkle in the eye of one T. Jack Foster, developer extraordinaire, and a salty pasture in the Bay called Brewer Island.
T. Jack Foster’s plans for the future Foster City were considered so innovative at the time that they were featured in an exhibit in the San Francisco MoMa. A book published in 1963, one year before the first Foster City “pioneers” arrived, recorded these specifics:
“There will be a population of 35,000; they will live in 5,000 single-family homes, 1,600 townhouses, and 4,400 apartment units… There will be nine elementary schools, two junior high schools, and one senior high school; there will be thirteen churches, 230 acres of parks and lagoons for recreation purposes and 460 acres of industrial and commercial area which will provide … 7,000 to 10,000 jobs.”
Looking around Foster City with new eyes, I realized that this is it. A plan. A utopic economic ideal. It’s not a neighborhood molded by the the character and needs of a living community but by the ambitions of a developer who believed the future was his for the planning. Foster City is a city without heart. A fake city, but a convincing forgery.
I’ve realized how unlikely it is that anyone has ever been born, lived their whole lives, and died in Foster City. Not even T. Jack Foster himself.
Closing the books, I wondered if this is normal. I am not from California, and maybe for Californian’s, a city built on sand dredged out of the Bay, with sapphire-dyed “recreational lagoons” and a lifespan shorter than that of the hula hoop is desirable, even exciting.
I’ve only lived in Silicon Valley (if Foster City is even in Silicon Valley) for a year, but it seems like this might be the case. Based on the companies I’ve seen people slave over and the million-dollar peninsula homes and Tesla’s people work for, it seems like manufactured dreams have become something of a commodity.
Either way, I was, for a while, a Fosterian. I was one of T. Jack Foster’s 35,000 inhabitants, 0.00003% of his plan. For me, it was not The City, the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life in. I did not live in The Apartment, nor did I take The Morning Walk, or live The Life. But at 23, people probably don’t have that stuff. They have An apartment, A morning walk, A life, and A city, and Foster City is, if nothing else, A city.
If you liked this story- feel free to click the green heart below, and I look forward to reading your comments! If you’re curious about where I went post-Foster City, check out my post on moving to DC to report on agriculture issues. Sarah Mock