There they are, posed outside Cupertino’s number-one tourist destination. The full breadth of selfie styling is on display. Some stand clutching the 1 Infinite Loop sign, almost woozy with proximity to power. Others crouch. Some do the "Ellen" group shot with Apple’s headquarters in the background, or point to the Apple on the sign. The visitors are admirably racially diverse and gender balanced. They love Apple, and this will make a great Instagram.

Down a cement path, the actual Apple buildings rise in green-and-beige four-story blocks. The only part of the complex open to the public is the retail store, a humble first-floor shop where one can buy Apple hoodies, t-shirts, water bottles, and assorted tech accessories.

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While Apple’s products underwent a nearly magical transformation after the iPhone, the company's office buildings retain the early, boxy Mac aesthetic. They are functional, and not much more. Woz, not Jony Ive.

As the world’s richest and best-known tech company, Apple sits at the center of an almost unbelievably profitable network of manufacturing plants, logistics centers, and retail outlets. The company could increase its revenue by $40 billion this year, which would be more than than half of Google’s total revenue. Apple’s supply chain stretches across the world, emanating from this node in the global matrix. But its headquarters’ centrality is cognitive only. Cupertino is where the most important e-mails come from, but few of the actual raw materials or laborers or products move through its atrium and into the campus.

Apple didn’t need to be here. It did not choose this place for access to cheap electrical energy or for proximity to a river or ocean. The general Silicon Valley location helped, certainly, but Apple’s landing right in Cupertino was mere chance. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak happened to grow up around here, and now hundreds of millions of people have seen the town’s name, immortalized as the default location for all iOS devices.

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Cupertino, in other words, was not destined to be a company town, but it became one. Sixteen thousand Apple employees go to work each day in the many buildings Apple controls in the city. They’re interpenetrated by chain restaurants, acupuncture doctors, some of the nation’s best schools, and neighborhoods that seem cut-and-pasted from the 1970s.

Many Apple employees pass through as few of its streets as possible on the way from private bus stops to their buildings. I’ve seen several employees jokingly refer to the town as “Poopertino” on Twitter. And the casual disinterest, or even disdain, for the town has been part of the Apple workforce’s collective attitude since long before the company’s post-iPhone boom. “Other than the mechanics of lunch, traffic, and hotels for out of towners, I don’t recall a single instance of actually talking about the city as its own entity,” said Tim Holmes, who worked at Apple from 1995 to 2002.

“I always found Cupertino to have no there there,” Holmes, a long-time San Leandro resident, said. “Strip malls, few sidewalks and those that existed simply ran alongside six lane roads on one side and on the other tinted glass monoliths full of high tech offices, often empty.”

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Think of Apple’s iconic television ads. They often occur in empty space: a well-lit, bright white backdrop of nothingness. Apple has produced ads like this since 1984! Where is this place? Where is Jony Ive always talking to us from? The answer is Cupertino. But what is Cupertino? Cupertino is a pleasant place from which to use screens.

Apple converts real places into ideas. They even have begun to name operating system releases after beautiful California locations. Mavericks, Yosemite: these natural wonders become computing environments.

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But Cupertino is a real place. So, let’s fill in the picture. Let’s tour it like people once toured Detroit, gathering postcards from the attractions, pedestrian and humble as they might be.

I. The Crossroads

It’s Friday morning at the Cupertino Crossroads Shopping Center. This intersection—De Anza Boulevard and Stevens Creek Road—has been at the center of Cupertino’s history ever since Juan Bautista de Anza passed through what would become the city in 1776. It was on a knoll not more than five miles east of here that he and his crew became the first Europeans to see the Bay on an overland expedition from the south.

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Tiny little Stevens Creek, then known as Arroyo San José de Cupertino, meanders north through Silicon Valley, eventually emptying into the Bay through some marshes near Google’s campus in Mountain View.

Come east, though, from that historic hill, crossing over 85 and past De Anza College, a pretty two-year institution tucked next to the highway, and you reach the crossroads.

This is the heart of Cupertino’s agrarian mythology. It’s where the blacksmith was, when people’s most important tools were made of steel, not brushed aluminum. The general store was here, too. If you were here in 1939, a hand-painted sign would have told you San Jose was eight miles east, Sunnyvale three miles north, and Saratoga four west.

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Nowadays, it might be useful to think of Cupertino as very near the southwest edge of Silicon Valley. Go south or west and there’s not much but gorgeous, coastal hills until the Pacific Ocean ends the continent.

Go north or east and you find yourself in a wonderland of computing history: Hewlett-Packard, Google, Intel, Xerox PARC, AMD, Oracle, Yahoo. Youngbloods, too, like Facebook, and ghosts: Shockley Semiconductor, where it all started, and Fairchild.

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Now, in this parking lot of the Crossroads, what we have is a TJ Maxx, a UPS store, Staples, a yoga studio, a frame shop, a Starbucks, couple of hair salons, couple of banks, a treadmill store, and Pizza Hut. The only sign that a technology company might be nearby is the presence of a Philz, a coffee chain that ran undisturbed for years in the Mission, before stapling itself to the tech industry (it’s the on-campus coffee provider at Facebook) and seeing its fortunes expand. The chain raised something like $15 million in 2013 to keep growing.

This Philz is staffed with cool kids from the community college, but they know they are located across the street from the beginning of the Apple warren. The guy prepping bagel sandwiches is wearing a purple shirt from Palantir, the secretive software company originally funded by the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, and which has been used by many agencies in the intelligence wing of the US government. I get a Turkish coffee with mint and cream and sugar and, as at all other Philz, the coffeemaker asks me to try it “to make sure it’s perfect for you.” It is, and I start my walk through Cupertino.

The walking route I took from Apple's current headquarters to the site of its future HQ.

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II. Infinitives

While 1 Infinite Loop is Apple’s headquarters, the truth is that the company has been, as Steve Jobs put it to the Cupertino City Council in 2011, “growing like a weed.” Apple’s current headquarters hold fewer than 3,000 people, but the company has more than 16,000 employees to house. “So, we’re renting buildings—not very good buildings either—in an ever greater radius from our campus,” Jobs explained.

Much of the commercial real estate near 1 Infinite Loop is now Apple controlled, but not all of it. Apple’s buildings sit next-door to music schools and nail salons and markets.

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In fact, it has long been this way. The original Mac project team was housed in various buildings along Stevens Creek and a small road called Bandley Drive. So, I head up Bandley, aware that the dominant type of interface in computing was born right on this street.

There’s a Noodles & Company on the corner surrounded by nine tall palm trees. The road curves gently past a Cantonese dim sum place, Lei Garden, on the left, and the loading docks of a big Asian grocery store, Marina Food, on the right. On this rare cold, gray morning, only older Chinese people are walking the sidewalks.

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The first Apple building shows up on my right. It’s fancy, new, mostly glass. I glimpse kitchen workers getting things ready and skinny-jeaned Apple employees buzzing in and out. Apple buildings show up on my left, too: Bandley 8, Bandley 4, a Ducati office.

Then, sandwiched into this non-campus campus, a slate of businesses catering to Cupertino families: There’s a swim school, a Joyful Melodies music classroom, and Little Mustard Seed, which offers afterschool programs and classes, including English, Mathematics, and Mandarin.

Whether it's a nursery for Apple or children, it’s all stucco-and-terra-cotta strip mall. The only institution that’s tried to modify the architecture to fit its purpose is The Chinese Church in Christ in Cupertino, which constructed a four-pillared symbolic roof over its entrance with a cross in the gable.

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Founded in the 1970s by “foreign students who were studying in the South Bay area,” it’s one of 50 Chinese churches founded in Santa Clara Country since 1980, and one of six branches of the CCIC, which are spread out around the lower rim of the Bay. At CCIC-Cupertino, they worship in Mandarin, like the majority of Chinese churches in Santa Clara County. (By contrast, San Francisco’s Chinese churches are split mostly between Cantonese and English.)

Despite the proximity to Apple’s campus, Johnson Lee, the church’s pastor told me that there’s not much interaction between the company and the church. “We’re a community member. We do service to the community,” he said. “So, Cupertino or Apple are not our main concern. I’m not a city planner or a city council member. I’m not in a position to even think about that.”

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There is Chinese Cupertino and there is Apple Cupertino, and the two don’t often mix. Meanwhile, seven thousand miles east in southern China, hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers at Apple suppliers are assembling iPhones and iPads.

Blue-collar work is not what Chinese parents in Cupertino want for their American-raised children. The city has become notorious for its high-quality, ultra-competitive schools. Every single school in Cupertino ranks a 10 out of 10 on the California Academic Performance index.

III. The bus

I continue down the quiet street, passing a shopping cart with an abandoned Safeway deli dinner sitting alone in its belly, then hang a right at Mariani Avenue towards the main campus. On one corner, there’s an acupuncturist, who could be serving either Chinese Cupertino or Apple Cupertino, and on the other, a parking lot, where buses disgorge Apple employees commuting in from the rest of the Bay Area.

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In San Francisco and Oakland, these buses have been the target of protesters’ ire. In those cities, tech employees are seen as interlopers who drive up the price of housing (and everything else) without really being full residents of the city. They often leave at 8 a.m. and get back at 8 p.m., spending as many waking hours on the buses down to Silicon Valley as they do in the cities in which they live.

In Cupertino, you see the opposite problem: what the buses steal away from a community. While Oakland and San Francisco support thriving cultural scenes, there’s nothing going on around Apple’s campus. No one sticks around after work. They get the hell out as soon as they can shut down their computers.

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Watching Apple employees arrive fresh-faced and a little chatty is heartening. An hour-plus commute down 101 every morning would not find me leave me cheery very often.

I watch the people pass by the perfectly symmetrical face of the building, Mariani 1. White guy in jeans and Vans, a gray north face jacket. Indian guy in sensible walking shoes, red backpack. White guy in light jeans, black fleece. Indian guy in black jeans, black shirt, vaguely elven shoes. Indian guy in striped golf shirt, puffy white sneakers. White guy in khakis, toting blue-and-white bag on a self-powered unicycle.

One would not have to be an expert to detect that, yes, we’re near a tech company.

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IV. Orange Tree Lane

Crossing De Anza, I pass a boxy, glassy building. The sign says, "The Sobrato Organization." What’s that? It’s the headquarters of one of the pick-sellers of the digital gold rush. They’ve developed 173 real estate projects in Silicon Valley since the 1950s, riding each successive tech wave. Across the region, people live and work in 16 million square feet of space built by TSO, including 1 Infinite Loop.

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The Sobrato family’s net worth is estimated at $4.8 billion. And like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, John and Sue Sobrato have pledged to give it all away philanthropically or leave it to their family foundation. Up through 2013, they’d given away $263 million at a rate of $15 to $45 million per year.

The Apple buildings that surround TSO are unremarkable, Dilberty. I somehow catch up to the unicycle man and watch him powerwalk, wheel in hand, through the doors of a very 70s office.

Even the 6 Infinite Loop entrance, which looks much like the one people pose at out front, seems, absent the pageantry, quite normal. Four stories of greenish glass and sandstone, delivery trucks and a Chevy Volt parked out front, dudes in fleeces coming and going. This is the loading dock to the future, and it feels much more like a loading dock than the future.

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I pass through a path that separates the loading dock from Sam H. Lawson Middle School, which is ranked 12th out of the 2,257 middle schools in California. It is figuratively and only just barely not literally in the shadow of Apple’s headquarters.

As I leave the school behind, I am shocked to find myself in a residential neighborhood that resembles the Wonder Years. There’s a house with oversize ornaments hanging from a leafless tree, a blue-and-white Lazy Daze RV parked on the grass next to the driveway. Another ranch has a naked flag pole driven into patch of yellow grass. Bricks climb halfway up the façade and then give way to beige wood.

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One squat little home on the corner, flying an American flag, has red-wrapped presents under a garlanded fir tree. A string of lights arcs up to a shooting star on the chimney. It is the middle of January.

A green hose snakes aimlessly through the grass from a spigot. Chimes hang from a gutter pipe above the doorstep, still and quiet.

We are three blocks from the headquarters of the most profitable technology company ever, on Orange Tree Lane.

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I turn down yet another deserted street and start wandering back towards Stevens Creek Boulevard and spot a tiny house that looks old, real old. All in, it’s maybe a thousand square feet, with a real tile roof and an awning over the window. The landscaping is well-loved, a trumpet flower tree dripping across the wall near the door. Behind the low brick-and-iron fence, there’s an artistically displayed rusty machine, an agricultural pump.

Out front stands a man in a red fleece and jeans, with a perfectly trimmed white mustache. His name is Sal Mendez, and he’s been living in Cupertino for 50 years. When he moved into this neighborhood, it was mostly orchard. There were four houses on the block. Back home near Visalia in the central valley, he’d worked on a farm. “10 hours a day, no holidays, no vacation. I got tired of it,” he said. “I said, I need a better future for my family. They all went to school, and hey.”

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When he arrived in Cupertino in the early 1960s, he latched on with PG&E and spent 37 years with the utility. On the day we met, his son had just retired from Xerox. “And my other son retired from Lockheed,” he told me. “If I would have stayed where I was working at, that wouldn’t have happened.”

I asked him how often he thought about being so close to the world’s most powerful tech company. “Almost every day,” he said. “When I tell my friends I live close to Apple, they go, ‘Ohh!’ That’s a nice company.”

Perhaps Cupertino does lack some charm. “Where I was born, they were more friendly. But everybody has got money around here,” he said. “I don’t have money, but I’m comfortable. Some times they say hi. Some times they don’t. It’s OK.” But this is where Mendez has made his home and his life. Everyone expects him to sell his house and harvest the small fortune he’ll make with a quarter-acre lot in such a desirable city. “I’ve got everything close. My church is over here. The liquor store is over here. All the restaurants,” he said. “What more can I ask for?”

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V. The Great Divergence

Cupertino has worked out for Sal Mendez and his neighbors. The schools are great. Crime is low. The weather is as good as it is anywhere in America. The area’s unemployment rate is 3.3 percent. The homes might look modest, but the median price of a home sold in the last three months was $1.4 million.

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Apple funded a report on its economic impact on Cupertino in 2013. The report tabulated that Apple paid $1.3 billion in salaries to employees living in Santa Clara County, and indirectly paid or induced an additional $1.4 billion in wages. The company’s 1,285 employees who lived in Cupertino alone received collective wages of $159.4 million.

Local companies benefit from Apple's presence, too. The same report pegs the total impact of Apple’s purchases from companies in the cities of Cupertino, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale alone at $5.9 billion.

The city government’s tax haul is not huge in absolute terms—$9.2 million in corporate taxes during the fiscal year 2012/2013, and $6.5 million in sales taxes. But that’s a big chunk of the local budget. Additionally, there is the $25 million of local property taxes that Apple paid that year, and an additional $32 million per year that the company expects to pay on its new campus. That helps fund those excellent schools.

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Yet all of these numbers don’t capture Apple’s economic impact on Cupertino and the Bay Area generally. Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has dedicated much of his research agenda to the question of what “innovation jobs” do for a region. His book The New Geography of Jobs opens with a parable. A young engineer, David Breedlove, was living in Menlo Park in 1969. He liked his job, but wanted more space for his family. From his perspective, Visalia and the smallish Silicon Valley cities like Cupertino and Menlo Park were fairly equivalent. They were at a similar economic level, the schools were similar, and Visalia was a bit safer. It was reasonable to Breedlove to move his family to Visalia.

Nowadays, high-tech engineers do not move out to Visalia. And people who came from Visalia like Sal Mendez would have a really, really difficult time buying into Silicon Valley.

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Moretti calls it The Great Divergence. “Workers in cities at the top of the list make about two to three times more than identical workers in cities at the bottom,” he writes in The New Geography of Jobs, “and the gap keeps growing.”

And Moretti argues that a big part of the economic inequality is the “multiplier effect” that high-tech jobs have on the metro areas where those jobs are. His econometric studies have found that for every new tech job a region gets, five additional jobs are created outside the industry (e.g., lawyers, CPAs, teachers, nurses, hairdressers, baristas).

Cupertino, and everyone lucky enough to live there, is on the better side of the divide. The new company town might not have Diego Rivera murals and Carnegie libraries, but it has been insulated from the economic shocks of globalization that have hollowed out the country’s middle class.

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The changes are deep and real, but the reasons for those changes—why one geography rises and another falls—are not easy to deduce. “How did Apple end up in Cupertino in the first place?” askedLeslie Berlin, Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. “It was close to where the founders went to high school. A completely non-deliberate decision. A lot of the things we associate with Silicon Valley were just non-decisions.”

VI. The Rotary Club

I walk down to the end of Blaney, past a convenience store that’s been empty since Marlboros were $5.08 a pack. Then, I swing back out onto Stevens Creek Boulevard, past Asian restaurants of all persuasions, to Pacific Workspaces, a kind of co-working space, where local professionals of all stripes share a receptionist and some basic office machinery, but work out of separate rooms.

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Paul Hancock is sitting in the reception area at Pacific Workspaces wearing a blue blazer and gray slacks. He’s a CPA who has been in Cupertino for decades—the kind of guy who is in the local Rotary Club. That, in fact, is where he first heard of Apple in 1979 or 1980. “Two young men came in and they were talking about two 23-year-old guys named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. And they were starting this company called Apple Computer. I remember them describing why they picked the word Apple: It had something to do with some mystic thing of Steve Jobs,” Hancock said. “None of us had any idea what it was going to mean in the long run.”

Hancock sees Apple’s impacts in terms of the effect on other local businesses. He jokingly grumbles about how bad the traffic is—and more seriously wonders what will happen to all those “not very good buildings” that Apple’s been renting when their new headquarters are finished. Will the area around 1 Infinite Loop become a ghost town? At the very least, it might get easier to rent office space.

As we’re wrapping up, the Pacific Workspaces office manager emerges from the back to make sure that nothing negative was being said about Apple. “That might make Apple not too happy with us,” she said. “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to give that impression,” Hancock reassured us. “I have too many clients who work there.”

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I bid them a good afternoon and wander past more Asian-shop-filled strip malls towards Tantau, where I’ll swing north towards Apple’s campus. One produce market caught my eye. It had a shelf filled with taro root and kabocha squash and “special yam” topped with three smiling lucky cats, massive rice containers, Little League baseball trophies, and old agricultural implements. A jumble of Santa Clara Valley mythologies, unintentionally arranged.

In 1980, 90 percent of Cupertino was white. This was the suburban dream as marketed to white people by other white people. But this town, which young white people begrudgingly trek to each day from hipper points north, turns out to be a great place to raise kids for Asian immigrants. Cupertino is now an “ethnoburb” — and a much more interesting place because of it.

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On the other side of these strip malls lies Cupertino High School. At the city’s schools, a fascinating racially charged situation has arisen. With so many high-performing East and South Asian immigrants packing the city’s schools, white kids have become associated with academic failure, an inversion of the racial structures found in many other districts. Tomás Jiménez, a rising star sociologist at Stanford, has been digging into Cupertino’s schools, doing in-depth research with educators, students, and parents in the community.

Faced with competitive pressure in math and science, the parents of white children respond by emphasizing the other things their kids are good at, beyond academics. “Wait a second. What about our social growth, our emotional growth, this balance?” one parent said to Jiménez. “I think, as Americans, we tend to want to have a more balanced childhood for our kids and we’re interested in academics but we also want to have them do swimming or music or whatever,” said another.

How else can their children grow up to be the ones designing in Cupertino?

Soon, the students of Cupertino High will be just across Highway 280 from the coolest, most awesomely futuristic office building in the world. They’ll eat at the same string of Asian restaurants (Viva Thai, Mongolian Hot Pot, JOY Palace, Sushi Hana) as the Apple employees who choose not to take advantage of their on-site lunch options.

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The Roasted Coffee Bean has printed a simple sign, which hangs in the window: “APPLE WELCOME 2ND CAMPUS.”

VII. The big green monster

Gilbert Wong, city council member and two-time mayor of Cupertino, remembers when he first laid eyes on Apple’s new campus headquarters. Steve Jobs had invited him and another council member to 1 Infinite Loop, where they chatted about the plans.

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Then Jobs grabbed a special set of keys and led them down a dark hallway. He opened the door and inside was the room-size model of Apple’s completely circular, all-glass headquarters.

Jobs wanted them to be awed by the awesomeness of the plan. “And I was awed,” Wong told me.

“It’s a little like a spaceship landed,” Steve Jobs later told the Cupertino City Council in the summer of 2011, as he publicly introduced the plan for Apple’s campus. The land was originally developed out of apricot orchards to become the headquarters for Jobs’s heroes Hewlett and Packard. It would house 12,000 people in millions of square feet of space all contained in one building. Orchards would be replanted on some of the rest of the site. The only building that it resembles is the headquarters of the GCHQ, the British version of the NSA.

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Apple estimates that the project has created almost 10,000 construction jobs directly, and bumped up county-wide employment by 12,600 total jobs.

Drone video captured from above this past summer showed the gigantic ring taking shape. “The approval of the Apple Campus 2 is a no brainer, but the devils are in the details, as they say,” Wong said. I ask him what the main sticking points of the negotiation were, and he demurs.

“Let’s just say that a company like Apple has more cash on hand than the US government, and for a company like that to argue over little small things was very frustrating,” he said. “But the deal that we negotiated on behalf of the city and residents of Cupertino was the best deal that we could get for our residents.”

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Apple did not return several requests for comment for this story. The company remains as secretive as ever. Several current employees I asked for the most innocuous details were terrified to talk with me. One former employee told me he could only ever talk to me about Apple in person.

As I approach the new campus, crossing over the 280 freeway, I can see nothing of the grandeur of the spaceship building. All 150 acres Apple owns are surrounded by an enormous green wall. The wall is so unbroken and so tall that it resembles a 19th-century fort, some kind of outpost of an empire. It calls to mind the green monster at Fenway or the Green Zone in Baghdad. If zombies were to attack, I am making for Apple Campus 2, as it is known in the planning documentation.

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With its new campus, set even further from what passes for a downtown, Apple seems unlikely to become more integrated with Cupertino. Like so many tech companies, it will function increasingly like a semi-autonomous city-state, self-contained and self-satisfied, its leaders controlling a global empire from whatever patch of ground they have acquired. Apple has created an environment for brilliant, creative people to come together and change the world, but they’ve sealed themselves off from their local environments. They are the corporate person, staring at a screen, while the rest of the world passes by, forgotten and less important than whatever is in the glass.

Standing outside the great green wall, the only pedestrian around, staring up at the cranes and construction vehicles, dozens and dozens of trucks pass by me on Tantau. The entire site seems set on a hill. From the street level, one looks up to see the top of a cement mixer or truck filled with aggregate rumbling by. These views, and the inhalation of the dust, are the only experiences available to those outside the wall.