Another American TV import about spoiled teenagers wrapping their new red Ferraris round palm trees because they were jilted by a blonde in training for The Real Housewives of Orange County? No. It doesn’t even refer to the sunkissed boulevards of the Southland. But it is in California.
What CA 94027 refers to is the ZIP code (US for ‘Postcode’) for Atherton, a name hardly known outside the Bay Area in Northern California. Technically one of the many sprawling suburbs of San Francisco, Atherton lies about halfway down the peninsula, nestled between Menlo Park and Palo Alto to the south and Woodside and Redwood City to the north. It is also the most expensive place to lice in the US for the second year round.
The most expensive home currently on the market there is a 12,840-square-foot (1,204 sq. m.) Mediterranean mansion with a $21.988 million (£13.7m) price tag. The least expensive home for sale is a 1,370-square-foot (152 sq. m.), two-bedroom, two-bath bungalow—what locals call a starter home–with an asking price of $1.499 million (£936k).
Despite what you may believe, Atherton beats out anywhere in Miami, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia or their suburbs. New York is closest on its heels: Long Island’s Sagaponack 11962 takes the No. 2 slot, followed by three consecutive New York City ZIPS: Lower Manhattan’s 10013 (No. 3), the Upper East Side’s 10065 (No. 4) and 10075 (No. 5).
Atherton pips ’em all because of its proximity to Silicon Valley and its technobillionaires. Apple, Facebook, Oracle, Google and Cisco are all a 20-minute drive away and San Francisco no more than double that. The nearby Santa Cruz mountains offer tree-lined vistas over the Bay and the Pacific and hiking trails among the towering redwoods. And Atherton’s relatively relaxed building regulations means Atherton Avenue is full of huge construction, 12,000-square-foot ‘statement’ homes.
This is partly a result of strict city regulations forbidding plots smaller than an acre in size. The land costs at least as much as elsewhere in the Bay Area and so only the rich can afford to build big and bold homes to take advantage of all that space. The net result is wierd: no downtown of shops, etc, nor even pavements—just wide streets with tree-lined fenced estates that have automatic electric gates guarding the entrance to each sweeping drive to a house that can’t be seen from the street. If you visit hoping to rub shoulders with Ty Cobb or Lindsey Buckingham or Farzad Nazem, forget it. You won’t even recognise their car flashing by.
Originally known as Fair Oaks, in 1923, the nearby city-to-be of Menlo Park wished to incorporate its lands to include this area. During a meeting of the representatives of the two communities, Fair Oaks property owners realised keeping their community as a strictly residential area required separate incorporation. Both groups rushed to Sacramento but the Fair Oaks committee arrived first. As there was already a Fair Oaks near Sacramento, they decided to honour Faxon Dean Atherton (one of the first property owners in the area. Atherton was incorporated an area of 5.049 sq. miles (13.076 sq. km.) on September 12, 1928.
The government was established with Edward E. Eyre as the first mayor. In 1928, the residents voted to build a Town Hall, which stands today. The author Gertrude Atherton (Faxon D. Atherton’s daughter-in-law) wrote in “The Californians“, “Atherton has been cut up into country places for what might be termed the ‘old families of San Francisco’, the eight or ten families who owned the haughty precinct were as exclusive, as conservative, as any group of ancient country families in Europe.” The local explosion of Silicon Valley and the shed-loads of dosh made therein has done nothing to change that.
So, even today, traffic consists partly of very expensive, mostly foreign cars (plus the odd Humvee) and an assortment of trade vehicles as gardeners show up to mow the lawn, pool maintenance sweeps the inevitable pool and Beltramo’s delivers that week’s champers etc to keep the wet bar and the one in the ‘romper room’ stocked. And yet, the road is lined not just with mansions but the usual US urban blight of power lines draped the length of the road on poles.
Which is a hint of a second reason for Atherton’s popularity among the seriously rich—low city taxes. Inhabited exclusively by the rich, what need is there for common social provision, let alone any public provision for aesthetics? That goes as far as eschewing museums, libraries and even schools (although 4-year private Menlo College is allowed in). Children are freighted out to private schools or go to local schools run by other cities. And so, other than contracting with nearby fully functional cities for waste disposal, police and fire, the overhead for living here (San Mateo property taxes aside) is surprisingly light.
In Atherton, the American shibboleth of market forces finds its ultimate expression. Far more exclusive than upmarket districts of cities, more so than even the gated communities where mostly retirees cower behind security guards at the gate and trim-mowed parklets where dog fouling is a major felony, Atherton has achieved distinction as the equivalent of the cuckoo in the nest or the cancer tumour in the body, living happily on the hard work of life around it, contributing as little as it can in return.
It is a monument to flawed ambition of those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. As a recipe for a dysfunctional community, it could hardly be bettered. Its divorce rate is high; among adolescents age 15-19, suicide is the third most common cause of death (after car accidents and homicide). No wonder divorce lawyers and therapist offices populate the office complexes of nearby Redwood City and Menlo Park. Atherton embodies the saying “Money doesn’t buy you friends—but it does get you a decent class of enemy.“