Building Silicon Valley Pools, I See Who’s Swimming and Who’s Drowning in the Economy

Who's making it in the Valley and who's time has passed, can sometimes be judged by what's going on in their backyards.

Growing up as a young kid, I always wondered why in the movies people would have underground pools in their homes, while my family could barely afford the pool made of material that usually pops. Now that I am older, I work at a pool construction company. Pools are the still a status symbol of wealth, and as I demolish some pools and dig holes for new pools, I am getting a window into who’s swimming and who’s drowning in Silicon Valley economy.

Having done this for over a year, the pattern I see is those who want pools made are new money – young techies on their way up. The ones demolishing are old money – former bosses of companies and industries, some that don’t exist anymore. The truth is regardless of the unemployment rate, or the stock market – in Silicon Valley there are some that are coming up, and some who’s time has passed. I see who they are while digging holes in their backyards.

Based on the type of pools I have to dig, and the locations we go to, I can see why I never had one growing up. This business is expensive, the price for renting the tractors, the wood, the steel -- it all gets pricey, and I'm only the first step. There are still the steel guys that come in, the cement, the landscapers, permits and more. I go all over the Silicon Valley seeing these pools getting made and demolished. Neighborhoods in Los Gatos, Los Altos, Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Woodside to name a few. The craziest one I saw was in San Jose. I didn't even know there were huge homes like that on my side of the city. New money in an old part of town. 

Most clients who wanted their pool demolished, first off, had a dog or two, were above 50, and the kids moved out of the house. So they had no more need for a pool. While many of the people who wanted a pool built were up and coming -- either already with money, or started doing really well since their type of jobs were flourishing. And then there were the blends, multi-generational families who transition from one source of wealth to the more modern ones. Like for instance, this one family who had recently purchased a house in the east San Jose hills, their son looked managed a tech company but couldn’t have been no more than 25-years-old. The mom rolled in a nice Mercedes and he did too.

Through this job, I've traveled and met very interesting people. Each place had its fair share of people that were either cool, or didn't talk much since they were off working. But the people I did encounter were all cool, like there was one house in Santa Clara where after we finished the demolition of the pool, the lady cooked us some BBQ, and told us her stories of growing up on a farm. She talked about how living in the city life is way different than what she was used to. She told us to just look at how families eat dinner – usually not sitting at the table at the same time since everyone is so busy.  She told us how she missed talking to people in person like when she was growing up, versus all the online communication now. She was telling us about her journey from living the country life to being apart of the tech world.

I also met a guy who was the regional architect for a construction company, I think for building property like apartments or something. I was maybe a couple months in with the company, and I was still learning a lot about what my position was. I think he knew that, cause he came over to me while I was watering the mounds of dirt so the area wouldn't be dusty and he asked for the hose. He then took off his sunglasses and then asked me if I was new to this position. I said yes and he told me, "Let me show you exactly what you’re supposed to do." He then started waving the water hose with a slight movement of the wrist, which made the water look like a sidewinder snake traveling across the air. He then began talking about exactly what he did for a living, since I was curious, and told him his house was beautiful earlier that day. He told me that he came to his status in life from being a leader not a boss. Meaning he helped his workers when times were hard, like digging with them, showing them how to do certain things, and staying long after making sure the job was done correctly. "You treat 'em right, they'll treat you right," he said.

I worked with this guy named Alvin and my Boss Jake. Alvin is in his 40’s and from Mexico. He is one of the hardest working people I ever had the chance to meet. He is one of those guys you can joke around with at the work place but still get the job done. He always sports his hat backwards and is the main driver for the bulldozer. He has a million and one stories, and tells me about his working days before working with Jake, and leaves these gems of quotes like, "What you mean you don't want to go to work today? What are you gonna do, play with sticks instead?” He rents an apartment off the east of San Jose, renting with some of his cousins. He also works at another job on his free time where he puts stucco siding on houses. He has a daughter who had a baby, he has a nephew who is going to college full time to be an accountant, and his cousin's all work just as hard as he does. I think he's doing all this just so his families next generation gets a chance at a better life, and he's willing to give up his own.

Jake is the owner and boss of this whole operation. He is in his 50’s and has lived an incredible life. He is a smart man, and is fair when it comes to work. He says, "I won't make you do anything unless I either did it or do it now.”

Recently, there was a drought for work, which resulted in almost a month of it being dry. During this time, after some couple years of service Alvin left the company. It was sad to hear Jake call me and tell me Alvin left. But I understood why, since he was like most immigrant families I know, living check to check.

I’ve managed to stay with the company, and business is starting to pick back up. And yes, one day, I do want my own pool. I want the life of the people who swim in Silicon Valley.

About Daniel Zapien

Daniel Zapien is a San Jose native photojournalist who has worked for DeBug for over 5 years. He runs the youth editorials teaching how to tell your story through writing and documentary stroytelling through video and photography.

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