East of Palo Alto’s Eden
January 10, 2015 5:42 PM   Subscribe

A history of East Palo Alto (SLTechCrunch) "a story of how two neighboring communities [Palo Alto and EPA] followed entirely different trajectories in post-war California — one of enormous wealth and power, and the other of resilience amid deprivation"
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles (19 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I lived in the area for many years - and I can tell you the differences between PA and EPA were jarring and of such an epic magnitude that was difficult to fathom. The invisible yet impenetrable wall between the neighbouring communities was something I had not come across living in Canada.
posted by helmutdog at 6:14 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

And yet people like me - white, cishet, tech workers - are slavering at the thought of buying a slice of the American pie over in EPA. I cannot deny the appeal of living in the SFBA and having a yard for only(!) $700k. And all it takes is money!
posted by TheNewWazoo at 6:26 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I lived in PA for 20 years from the early 90s. EPA used to be super scary and a radical transition from mansions along University Avenue in PA and then a little bridge over San Francisquito Creek and suddenly "The Gulch" with liquor stores and bars and scary swivel-head dealers on every corner. The Gulch is gone now and replaced with glass high rises (and amazingly, a Four Seasons hotel!). There's an IKEA right across 101 and a big shopping center.

EPA really changed over about a decade thanks to all of the input noted in the article...radical difference!
posted by CrowGoat at 6:32 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for posting this.
posted by Annabelle74 at 6:57 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I drive past Facebook's new office park, it often smells like arse. I assume that's from the sewage plant close by in the bay. Does a lot of nearby EPA often get clouds of fecal odour wafting over? I assume that a willingness to allow a redlined area to continue to be subjected to terrible environmental conditions played some part in the creation and maintenance of such a smelly anomaly, and also facilitated the conditions for its very creation. I expect with rising property prices and increasing numbers of well-healed and well-connected objectors, some sort of mitigation will be implemented. It's always seemed odd to me that so much of the South Bay shoreline has been allowed to smell so bad for so long.

One inner-city slum I lived in was notable for weeks of uncollected rubbish in the streets, and a well-below code abattoir that used to hose down its floors and literally push the run-off out on the streets, to run down the hill into the drains. It was also nearby Guinness, which used to discharge vast clouds of reeking fermentation effluent into the air and the Liffey. After 25 years of gentrification, that same street is now a pristine row of new apartments and shops, Guinness now treats its effluent better and the abattoir is long gone.
posted by meehawl at 8:50 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

EPA is another one of those BA communities that used to be where the po' folks and the messicans lived until property hit the zillion dollar range in SF/Oakland and now any piece of open/cheap land within an hours drive (pub transpo even better) of the Emerald City is just too valuable not to develop.
posted by telstar at 12:28 AM on January 11, 2015

Superb writing. I lived in this area for many years, watching EPA and its infamous "Whiskey Gulch" (a truly dangerous place to be in the evening, a few decades ago) slowly morph to a place where the "feel" of old EPA is slowly giving way to gentrification. There is still an "edge" in EPA - you can feel it. You don't walk around in the evening feeling safe or secure.

What's interesting is that crime spillover from EPA his one of the most tony parts of Palo Alto, EPA's bigger, richer, outrageously self-absorbed sister.
posted by Vibrissae at 3:42 AM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think it's interesting TechCrunch published this article. It's awfully high quality for TC, they mostly publish garbage. But also the tech industry is guilty of ignoring problems of gentrification, of disadvantaged folks, etc. We're all so busy getting rich no one has time to think of our neighbors who are not so privileged. Nice to see a thoughtful piece in my community. Even the people at Hacker News read it.

I used to work just a couple miles south of East Palo Alto and never once drove through it. A few years later I did, but only to look at the street where A Tesla employee's plane literally fell out of the sky and crashed in to houses and a daycare center. Talk about metaphor.

That redlining map of San Francisco from 1937 is amazing. Even 80 years later the specific details of the divisions it lists are accurate. Particularly struck by the division between C21 and D7. I u sed to live in C21 and never understood why the area three blocks east of me wasn't quite so nice. I still don't understand why, but apparently that division existed from just ten years after the area was developed.

The same author Kim-Mai Cutler wrote a piece about SF housing back in April 2014.
posted by Nelson at 7:32 AM on January 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

Close but not quite, meehawl. The area around Facebook's office park smells like marsh.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 9:53 AM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

"I lived in the area for many years - and I can tell you the differences between PA and EPA were jarring and of such an epic magnitude that was difficult to fathom."

So, in the 70s and early 80s, I grew up in a small town (12,000 people) in eastern New Mexico that is basically Texas (seriously, the rest of New Mexico calls this area "Little Texas" -- incidentally, I hate my hometown) and a cousin of mine that I was close to, a year younger than me, grew up in Palo Alto and Redwood City . In general it was a culture shock for me to visit, as you might imagine, but I especially boggled at the existence of East Palo Alto next to Palo Alto.

This took me a long time to read -- it's long, but I also followed quite a few links and ended up reading them, too. This piece covers a huge amount of ground. I don't even know what I might want to comment upon or talk about, there's so much. I need to digest it. I got angry reading it, over and over again. Especially with regard to the stuff at the intersection of housing, lending, real-estate investors, and property taxes -- it seems like there's a long and unbroken history of how black folk (poor folk in general, but black folk in particular) are systematically screwed right up to the present day.

† His mom was a single mother and they had public assistance, yet they did live in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and I think Redwood City while he was growing up. Most of his friends were quite well-off. He briefly attended Palo Alto High, then Sequoia. He was a popular jock and my memories of the parties we attended the night of his graduation are vivid and surprised me for living up to the stereotypes I had. I think it's interesting to contrast the scene of him and his friends doing cocaine around a pool against people doing crack in East Palo Alto and being killed over it and how those kids got arrested went to prison. It's not just the sudden stark socioeconomic divide between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, it's also very revealing how my white cousin, growing up with a single mom and on food stamps and rent assistence, lived in a very different context and had a very different life outcome than the black kids of single mothers only a few miles away.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:56 AM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I EAT TAPAS: "The area around Facebook's office park smells like marsh."

It does, and via CH4 and H2S literally does smell of arse. However, the issues with stagnation, and high input of de-oxygenising contaminants into the Palo Alto wetlands leading to runaway eutrophication kind of turns the stench up to 11, even though measures such as ground water recharge have been tried to speed things up and reverse contamination from the Bay. Much of the South Bay shoreline is basically a sacrificial landscape, (EPA and Bayshore/Hunter's Point were basically recognised as such in a 1980 EPA.gov report) and a lot of the wastewater plants are old, leaky, and over-burdened even when there are not rainfall overflows. The San Francisquito Creek, for example, encompasses the Palo Alto wetlands and it's pretty much always overloaded.
posted by meehawl at 10:49 AM on January 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I lived in Sunnyvale in the mid-80s and commuted to San Carlos daily. I had a motorcycle in those days and would often go on hour-or-two-long explorations of the wider area. I'll not soon forget the day I discovered East Palo Alto. It was as though I had ridden into a black and white movie with a production design favoring foreboding bleakness and decay.

A couple of years later when I was living in Europe, I had the opportunity to travel into East Germany by rail and the stark difference of the change between west and east was similar.
posted by bz at 12:57 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The article necessarily leaves out the enmity felt for EPA by Palo Alto city government. It might have been my imagination, but every time there was any major development in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto challenged it on the basis of traffic impact to Palo Alto. Every time I saw a cop hassling someone on Willow Road, it was always a Palo Alto cop hassling brown or black person (except that one time when it was me).

Palo Alto hated Whiskey Gulch, since Prohibition, but when you saw new cars with white people driving down Newbridge Street you knew that Stanford and Palo Alto needed white party supplies.

I miss the painting that used to be on the site of Kitty's Cleaners. The building's still there, but that whimsical cat is painted over.

>When I drive past Facebook's new office park, it often smells like arse.

Heh. That odor is almost always due to salt evaporator turnover when the wind is blowing strongly. If you see white foam tumbling across 84, you're smelling the evaporator bottoms.
For years I was a Dumbarton Bridge bicycle commuter through East Palo Alto on Willow Road, and the correlation between strong wind and hydrogen sulfide was literally inescapable. Arse is distinctly different (try Highway 237 toward the 880 interchange on a clear day).
posted by the Real Dan at 1:30 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

This was a great article. Weird, though, that the only implied solution to high property prices is "moar land!" and "fuck the owls!" Sort of a "drill baby drill" solution to a problem that requires a bit more human creativity and a bit less of the old invisible hand.
posted by klanawa at 1:54 PM on January 11, 2015

"Weird, though, that the only implied solution to high property prices is 'moar land!' and 'fuck the owls!'"

My impression is that the author spent much more time on and was emphatic about density than about undeveloped land. It's funny that you see it otherwise.

They talk about the undeveloped land in Palo Alto because that just makes it worse. In many areas where residents successfully fight density and so sparse, car-centric housing dominates, it's still the case that almost all of the available land is developed. In Palo Alto, not only is it sparse, but almost half the land is protected from development.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:08 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Arse is distinctly different (try Highway 237 toward the 880 interchange on a clear day).

aka the Milpitas Stink.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:49 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I remember growing up in Sunnyvale in the 1970s and my dad making jokes about Milpitas.

Punchline: "Second place wins *two* weeks in Milpitas!"

Forty years later, thanks to Metafilter, I know the source of that smell, but now my dad is in the ground so I can't tell him.

The smells that permeate Milpitas actually originate from outside the city. That whiff of sewage comes from the San Jose/Santa Clara Wastewater Treatment Plant, a nearly 60-year-old facility that sun-bakes solid sludge in open-air drying lagoons. The process saves energy, but reeks. Prevailing winds typically carry the odors eastward, into Milpitas, as anyone who's shopped at the Great Mall has no doubt noticed.
posted by craniac at 11:58 PM on January 11, 2015

This really reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates' discussions of how black Americans were systematically blocked from paths to move up in the world, for a century plus after the civil war. Accumulation of value in homes, blocked. Access to the new jobs, blocked.

The article mentions approvingly Joseph Eichler's reaction to people wanting to move out of his developments because Asian Americans brought in. It doesn't mention that when the head of the local NAACP wanted to buy in, Eichler was not so brave, and built him a house on a carefully isolated piece of land. People always feel like they need to acknowledge the racism against Asians and Hispanics in the US when discussing things like this, and god knows there was plenty, including lethal attacks (the Zoot Suit Riots, anti-Chinese pogroms in the 19th century, and on and on), but when you get down in the weeds, the discrimination against black Americans is just so god damn more pervasive, so much more long lasting, so much more overwhelmingly vicious. Other discriminated groups can 'become white', because race in the US is fundamentally determined by how much you are like the permanent racial other, African-Americans.
posted by tavella at 1:37 PM on January 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

the Real Dan: "Arse is distinctly different (try Highway 237 toward the 880 interchange on a clear day)."

You are clearly a connoisseur of such things. I must needs yield to your refined palate.
posted by meehawl at 2:25 PM on January 12, 2015

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