Reflections of a Pool Builder: Who's Swimming and Sinking in Silicon Valley

Reflections of a Pool Builder: Who's Swimming and Sinking in Silicon Valley

Story tools

A A AResize



Growing up in California, I always wondered how people could afford to have underground pools in their homes. Today, I work for a pool construction company, 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 the 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 that regardless of the unemployment rate, or the stock market, in Silicon Valley there are some that are coming up and some whose 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, the cementer -- it all gets pricey, and I'm only the first step. There are still the landscapers, the steel guys, the permits and more. The average pool will run anywhere from $25 to $50,000.

I go all over Silicon Valley seeing these pools built and demolished. 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 want their pool demolished, first off, have a dog or two, are above 50, and have kids who have moved out of the house. Those who want a pool built, on the other hand, are up and coming. They either already have money or started making lots of it through one of the many jobs now flourishing in Silicon Valley. The differences between the two groups – in age, outlook, prospects -- is pretty clear.

I met one woman after demolishing a pool at her house in Santa Clara. When we finished she cooked up some BBQ and began telling us stories of growing up on a farm. She talked about how living the city life was different than what she was used to. She said she missed talking to people in person, like she did when she was a kid, versus all the online communication that happens now.

I met another guy, an architect, who told me about how he came to his status in life. I was still new on the job, and he came up to show me how to water the mounds of dirt in his yard to keep it from getting dusty. He told me his secret was that he was a leader and not a boss. He helped his workers when times were hard, like digging with them and staying long after shifts were over to make sure the job was done correctly.

My own boss, Jake, treats us pretty fairly. "I won't make you do anything unless I either did it or do it now,” he tells us. But when the economy sank and work dried up, even that wasn’t enough to keep my co-worker, Alvin, from leaving the company.

Alvin is in his 40’s and from Mexico. He’s one of the hardest working people I know, one of those guys you can joke around with at the work place but still get the job done. He always sported his hat backwards and was the main driver for the bulldozer. He had a million stories, and told me about his working days before working with our boss, Jake.

Alvin rents an apartment in the east side of San Jose and lives with some of his cousins. While digging pools, he also worked another job at the time putting stucco siding on houses. All of that was to support his daughter, who recently had a baby, his nephew, who is going to college full time to be an accountant, and his cousins, all of who work as hard as he does. But like a lot of immigrant families, Alvin lives check to check, so when the pay began to dip he left to find other work.

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

Daniel Zapien is a contributor to Silicon Valley DeBug, a project of New America Media.