top of page

East Palo Alto - One Story Amongst a Shifting Landscape

When you say East Palo Alto (EPA) depending on who you are talking to you get very differing but definitively strong reactions. These responses come from different perspectives. They run the gamut; love, admiration, pride, pain, hate, intolerance as well as ignorance. People can say what they want but when the views come from those who have never lived there, have no family there or have never worked there, their opinion is rooted in conjecture and doesn't carry much weight. In these instances - consider the source.

Until I lived there, I had never heard of East Palo Alto. My children and I first moved to EPA I remember thinking that I had moved in to a neighborhood just like any other. I had lived in other "East's" before. I had lived in East Boston, and much like EPA it was a small community where everybody knew each other.

This place didn't seem that different. But once I had enrolled my children in school and started to really explore the dynamic history of this new city that I now called home; I realized that I had a chance to raise them within a diverse and incredibly resilient community.

East Palo Alto: A Haven for Those Who Felt Marginalized -

East Palo Alto grew out of necessity as most communities do. And like most minority dominated communities, EPA it had been up a haven for minorities trying to escape the oppressive and sometimes blatantly racist housing restrictions of many Bay Area cities.

After World War II Black Americans moved into EPA looking to build lives without racial restrictions. They were able to thrive and grow their neighborhoods filled with hope and promise, far away from the hate and bigotry that dominated the late 40's and early 50's. By the '60's there was another influx of Black Americans to the neighborhood and it was through the combination of these families that generations came to call East Palo Alto home. Over time the demographics shifted somewhat and the city welcomed new faces. These faces were predominantly Latinx. Along with the Latinx population increase it also became home to many Polynesian families.

The beautiful blend of brown faces can be seen not only as you walk down the streets but also in the varying locally owned shops. The presence is also felt in the Sunday services of the local churches. When you step in to the church you feel the overpowering sense of home and community. Not only is it an inviting atmosphere, but each service caters to the different groups and makes it one of the most unique experiences I have ever felt.

A Brief History of East Palo Alto -

For those people that have viewed this city as nothing but a mere statistic what they failed to take into account is it's rich history. The cities timeline illustrates a group of people who worked hard to make a home and chose to prosper even when no one outside of their neighborhood cared. This growth consistently came up against resistance from it's affluent neighboring cities; Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Time and time again EPA's "issues" have been thrust in the face of it's residents and each time they have held their heads high and cherished what had made their community so beautiful.

A City Of Reslience -

 East Palo Alto remained an unincorporated area governed by San Mateo County. Its residents had a limited voice in policies that impacted them. The widening of Highway 101 in the 1950s, for example, eliminated 45 of the community’s leading businesses. Menlo Park and Palo Alto annexed 25 percent of the community in the 1960s, depriving it of both population and property tax revenue.  Residents were also heavily taxed for county services, such as sanitation, water, and recreation.
 By the year 2000, Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, and Pacific Islanders replaced African Americans as the major demographic group in the city.  By that year blacks comprised only 17% of the city’s 28,000 residents.


Rebooting History
  Rebooting History’s Summer Program for 2012 explore ones of the most dramatic and long-term aspects of East Palo Alto’s spatial narrative – the aftermath of the 1976 closure of Ravenswood High School that left the community without a public high school as a community anchor institution.
As a result, the majority (and till recently, all) East Palo Alto high school students go out from their community on a daily basis for their education to some 18 different schools.

*East Palo Alto gets first grocery store
There's no down time at Mi Pueblo's newest store in East Palo Alto. The city's only full-service grocery store opens on Saturday.
It promises to bring more than just food to a city that has an unemployment rate of nearly 18 percent. Mi pueblo is bringing jobs -- 200 of them. Forty percent of those hired are from East Palo Alto.
 "The majority of East Palo Alto residents have to leave the city to find their groceries, so they go to a number of cities around this area and they take their money with them," said Perla Rodriguez with Mi Pueblo.
* Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why I Fell In Love With East Palo Alto -

There is a specific kind of strength in a community that has refused to allow itself to be relegated to a statistic. For years those who have lived outside of East Palo Alto, have had a lot to say with very little knowledge.

The ability to make judgments about people and places you have never known is another poisonous example of privilege. I can't even call it white privilege because the bigotry that I have encountered came from a multitude of racial groups. But the one thing they had it common was an economically & xenophobically narrow viewpoint.

I'll never forget this man I encountered many years ago at a club in downtown Palo Alto. We briefly chatted about what we did for a living and then we turned to the obligatory discussion of "where do you live?". I have no memory of what he said when I asked him, but I clearly remember his reaction when I told him that I lived in EPA. He looked me in the eye and said...... "I'm sorry".

I immediately reacted in disgust and proceeded to read him the riot act. It was safe to say I had no interest in speaking to him again and I made sure to avoid him the rest of the night.I truly believe It's assumptions like that that have kept EPA a part of a one sided and darkly lit story. This city has been boiled down to statistics, a mere footnote in a tale of woe.

When I moved there it already had a small shopping area with Mi Pueblo, Starbucks, Nordstroms Rack, Home Depot, a few other stores and fast food restaurants. There was also the IKEA across the street. but as far as economic growth was concerned this small plaza was pretty much it. If you wanted to you could count the Four Seasons around the corner from my apartment, but honestly it seemed to hold itself apart from the rest of the city.

There seemed to be no interest in investing in this community because all they saw were statistics and the statistics weren't good. Over time a small Target moved in but growth had been slow and job opportunities were few. What companies and investors refused to believe in or see were the heart beat of the city; the residence.

I have gained some of my best friends, life long friends from EPA. Prior to moving there I had briefly lived in El Cerrito which by all accounts is a laid back, progressive and very welcoming place. It was as liberal as I was, it was diverse and had a definite feeling of community. But I never felt accepted the way I did when I moved to EPA.

I not only lived there but I had the privilege of working at an elementary/middle school there. This school and job hold some of my best memories, not only did I get to work amongst such a tight-knit community but I also got to know generations of families. Every person I encountered welcomed me with open arms. I kept their children safe and they invited me into their lives. They were not unaware of the reputation that their city had, in fact, they were so aware that they became wary of outsiders. They knew what these people said about them, and in response, they consistently closed ranks.

These families were built of strong and sturdy stock and they were survivors.  A perfect example was when my middle child was in middle school it came to light that one of the neighboring high schools our children were supposed to be funneled to (remember this city had no high school for our kids), was placing children from other affluent areas ahead of them for enrollment. Not only were they prioritizing these students over our kids they were lying about it. Once this came to light parents, activists, and school officials united. They pushed until there was change.

Keep in mind this wasn't a group of parents from a wealthy area that felt the system owed them something. These were hard-working parents. They were people who sometimes ran households alone, others had two or more jobs and many other challenges. These were people who at times felt as if they didn't have the ability or the right to stand up and demand justice. But I remember being with my daughter at the board hearing listening to her call out the Menlo-Atherton school officials. She was fearless; demanding that they be held responsible for the classist, racist and xenophobic undercover policy that they had created.

She was not alone, no one at these meetings were willing to take it lying down. This moment was what the community was made of not the cold statistics that had no face or heart.

The worst part about it was, this was the closest school for most of the parents in East Palo Alto. If their kids didn't get to go there they had to be bused to schools far away, with some children having to take multiple city buses in the early morning hours.

 PUSHING THE LINE Addressing Inequities in Sequoia Union High School District’s Student Assignment Plan
 Students residing in East Palo Alto (“EPA”), a predominantly low‐income, minority neighborhood in the South Bay, are assigned to neighborhood schools in the Ravenswood City School District through 8th grade.  But in high school, students are divided and assigned to three different high schools across non‐contiguous boundaries in the Sequoia Union High School District (“SUHSD”).  This means that unlike other students within SUHSD, many EPA students must travel long distances outside of their neighborhood, leaving their cohort for communities that differ starkly from their own both demographically and socioeconomically.

It was moments like the way the city fought back against an unjust and blatantly racist system that made me see the city for what it was; vibrant, alive and completely misunderstood. I felt as if things were getting better, the community was gaining its voice, learning to walk amongst its peers with confidence. I knew that change was on the horizon but........

I had no idea that the change that was coming wasn't good. -

Let's call it what it was, now whether you believe me or not is up to who you speak to. Facebook says it's great, Google says it's great, people looking to sell their houses think it's great and those looking to capitalize on the changing landscape think it's great but for those who's families; generations of families live there, they might tell you a different story.

And that story is.............

The Dirty Story - Gentrification -

In many of America’s cities, civic leaders have pinned hopes for urban revitalization on gentrification and efforts to attract immigrants. But facts on the ground show that they need to weigh the probability that these forms of urban change can further isolate poor blacks and Latinos and – contrary to media claims – actually increase racial segregation and inequality.

On the surface, gentrification can look like a wonderful thing. It brings prosperity and revitalizes struggling communities. When outsiders see communities like EPA going through an economic "growth" they see possibilities but they never seem to peek beneath the surface. Under all of that "wonderful" is a lot of pain. When you move people in, raise property values beyond what most people can afford to pay a mortgage or rent on - you also move people out.

Per the US census bureau as of July 1st, 2018 women make up 49.4% of the population with only 36% of the housing units are owner-occupied. This means that the rest of the population rents. These statistics tell a story and it's not a very happy one.

If you head over to Zillow right now, you'll see that most of these houses are selling for $800,000.00 or more with at least one house above the million dollar mark. Here's the thing the median income is $58,783 per the census bureau. Do you really think that the majority of people who have been living in East Palo Alto can afford to live there much longer?

Zillow Link|61550747727|kwd-372801312624|287025491405|&semQue=null&k_clickid=5f4cde97-4f06-489c-adcf-b0a54fb4b7ac&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI25_AoMfB4gIVGNtkCh0_UgvsEAAYBCAAEgLkxvD_BwE

Absolutely not, but they've got to go somewhere and to those that are buying and those that are selling it's not their problem. It never is for those who aren't being pushed out of their neighborhoods. I have personally seen families broken up and moved far apart from each other.

This happened to Harlem, this happens in the majority of minority neighborhoods that are gentrified and the native population is pushed out. Once the population shifts and it becomes a landscape of Starbucks, Whole Foods, Dog Parks and Pet Smarts you lose what made it amazing.

If you think that moving the brown faces out will fix the issues then you have no idea what those issues where in the first place and honestly you never cared to know. What the neighborhood needed was change to benefit them not change to remove them.

So, by all means, go ahead and feel good about the changes that are taking over this loving and warm home of a city and turning it into another cookie cutter suburb. But I truly hope that if you get a chance to look in the faces of the children that have been forced to leave you can feel good about what gentrification has done and will continue to do to the most vulnerable.

**We all live on this planet together, just because you move us out doesn't mean we truly go away**

0 views0 comments
bottom of page