I solved this challenge by first finding the name of the place. That’s usually a good place to start—so I went with:
[ trailer park El Camino Real palo alto CA ]
Finding out quickly that it’s called the “Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.” Notice that I’d called it a “trailer park” in my question, but that the name of the place is “mobile home.” The knowledge panel on the right hand side gives me a good set of data, including the address at 3980 El Camino Real Palo Alto, CA 94306
Armed with a name and an address, it’s pretty simple to look up the history:
[ Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Palo Alto ]
And that leads to many historical articles (e.g., ones in the NYTimes or the local online newspaper, Palo Alto Online) where you’ll find that it began as a roadside stop between downtown Palo Alto and Mountain View. It started up in 1926 as a tourist camp, with simple, small cabins arriving later, along with a café (“Chat and Chew”).
|Image from "Polk's Palo Alto Directory (1930)" R. L. Polk & Co. )
In these articles you can also read about the redevelopmentplan by the Prometheus Company which mention that “…Buena Vista residents pay about $800 to $1,300 per month for their spaces.”
Now, to find the ages / ethnicities of the residents of the BVMHP.
If you do a query for this kind of information, say:
[ demographics El Camino Real Palo Alto CA ]
you can find a number of different demographics data suppliers. But after poking around for a while, I found that most of them just provide aggregate data for the entire city. What I really wanted was the ability to drill down into that particular neighborhood.
I found that I could use City-Data.com to get pretty close. If you look at the map of the park area for a while and zoom out just a bit, you’ll see the names of individual neighborhoods appear. (I’ve circled them in the map below.)
By following the link to City-Data.com for Palo Alto http://www.city-data.com/city/Palo-Alto-California.html – you’ll find a link to the Barron Park neighborhood, which produces a ton of data that they’ve collected from a number of sources.
While this is neighborhood data set is a bit larger that what want (for example, it includes a few hundred homes in the $800K+ range), it starts to give you a sense for the place. Median rent is $1512. (A quick price comparison on Zillow.com in the neighborhoods nearby will show you this is WAY below market rates for this area.)
I also found that I could do a search on the street address of BVMHP at 411.com and get a pretty complete listing of people living in the park.
By just scrolling through the list of names and ages, you can quickly see that the trailer park is around 75% Hispanic (Martinez, Valdez, Montes, Robles, Ramirez, etc…) with a decidedly older tendency than for the rest of Palo Alto (I counted ~25% older residents). I could have dropped all the data into a spreadsheet and done a pretty accurate count, but this was sufficient for our purposes.
(FWIW, I also tried to use the census data at Census.gov but was frustrated by how slow it was and how difficult to use. Did anyone have success using that approach?)
What about those doughnuts?
At the bottom of that first article is a link to the historyof the place, which actually tells the story about the “Chat and Chew” and the cost of doughnuts. But suppose you didn’t see that. How would you search?
To find the price of doughnuts, I’d do a simple search using the wild card operator:
[buena vista palo alto "doughnuts for * dozen" ]
But note that if I’d spelled “doughnuts” as “donuts,” this approach wouldn’t have worked! If that had been my only strategy, I would have also tried:
[buena vista palo alto ~donuts for dozen ]
and left out the quotes for more generality. Here, the ~ in front of the word “donuts” looks for synonyms are other spellings (e.g., “doughnuts”)
Also notice that I did NOT use “per dozen.” Why not? I actually tried that first, and didn’t get anything. So I went for the more generic phrase, “for * dozen” thinking that would include any probable rewrite. And I was right.
In 1932 at the “Chat and Chew” you could get a dozen doughnuts for $0.35 / dozen, just under 3¢ each. Those were simpler, or at least cheaper, times.
Search lessons: As I mentioned in my 1MM last week, sometimes you really need another tool—in this case, a database that has the information you need within. By first finding the proper name of the place, then using that to reverse-find on the address with a special tool (in this case, 411.com and City-Data.com) we’re able to learn a lot of otherwise unfindable information. But now you know how!