Stanford on the Cheap

By Christopher Reynolds
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, November 23, 2008

I've never taken an antidepressant, but if the time comes, I'm hoping the effect will be like that of driving onto the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., for the first time.

As the towering palm trees march past in the raking light of a fall afternoon, the gentle declivity of a grassy oval comes into view, gamboling youths upon it and a cluster of red blossoms in the shape of an S.

Then you notice the first stately sandstone buildings, the glittering Memorial Church facade beyond them, a beaming undergrad gliding down an arcade on her bike. And as a gentle breeze brushes past the campus lake and golf course, you try to imagine a bitter argument between people who say these buildings are more Richardsonian Romanesque and those who insist they're more rooted in Mission Revival.

But ultimately, you find yourself asking: What is there on this Earth to worry about, really?

Okay, maybe getting accepted. Or affording tuition. But if you're here simply to drink in the atmosphere, Stanford is just plain dreamy.

My wife, 4-year-old daughter and I rolled in on a Friday, peeked at the campus, then headed back to University Avenue, the main drag. We crept along the tree-lined street, gazing at the gleaming shops, the twinkling lights strung in the trees, the lines for the Miyake and Thaiphoon restaurants, and the crowds at Madison & Fifth restaurant and the Cheesecake Factory.

Eventually, we settled in a block off University at the Palo Alto Creamery, a bustling soda fountain and grill that traces its history to the 1920s. This is a family-friendly place with the usual nostalgic overtones but also an extra sheen of affluence. Along with the sandwiches and shakes, risotto was on the menu, as was the Bubbly Burger, a hamburger with a bottle of Dom Perignon for $195.

"We sell a couple a month," Eric Beamesderfer, the Creamery's operations director, told me later. "After all, we are in Palo Alto."

The real world seems even farther away when you stroll the university-owned Stanford Shopping Center, where Neiman Marcus, Burberry and other retailers of that caliber ply their wares.

No doubt, they're feeling some of the current economic unpleasantness, but I couldn't see any sign of the strain among the shopping throngs that day. And the security guards looked really cool, patrolling by Segway.

Palo Alto (population about 58,000 in 24 square miles) counts itself among the wealthiest U.S. college towns, with a median household^ income of $90,000, twice that of Berkeley, to the north, and a median home price of about $1.4 million.

Based on the few ragged folks I saw hanging around Lytton Plaza, the downtown square, I would have estimated the city's homeless population at, oh, 17, but Santa Clara County counted 196 here last year.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company