A Tale of a Silicon Valley City

Days In The Life In East Palo Alto

Nick Fischer, Opinion Editor

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“If you from the G, the Mid, or the Vill… you grew up with a hard life–you just trying to make it out the ghetto.” – Josiah Johnson (a Woodside high school student-athlete from EPA)

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The smell of marsh and ocean hovers over the cracked suburban streets. The air of the marshes and ocean might sound poetic, but truthfully it’s not a pleasant scent. Imagine muddy pond water throwing its pungent sulfur smell into the humid air. Veining sea-level streets and a rainbow of cookie-cutter houses create the golf course-sized city of East Palo Alto. Here, in East Palo Alto (EPA for short), the peace of night brings frequent pops and crackles of guns or fireworks. Eventually, car engines become silent during the night and enter a slumber along with their owners. Overnight muddy dew condenses atop old and new cars. In the morning, the residents wake up to find their cars blanketed in a watery dust. Sure, it sounds pretty, but really everyone’s car gets tarnished in dirt from the water that rises from the surrounding marshes. Along with the rising sun, comes the mass influx of cars from far and wide. The foreign cars flood the main and back streets of the city causing a plethora of traffic jams, which then produces a spur of angry, rushing drivers. This rush hour traffic is a root cause for students to be late to school and employees late to work.

Students ranging from Kindergarten to high school, to avoid the traffic, may end up walking miles along the edge of the marshland that barely separates EPA from the San Francisco Bay to a nearby charter school. However, for most, this is not the case; most students catch a public or school bus to a public high school that transports the EPA students to an entirely different city with an environment that, for the most part, is also entirely foreign. The unfortunate fact is that there are too many EPA students for EPA located schools to take in with the amount of funding they have, as a result few kids from EPA actually attend charter schools like East Palo Alto Academy or East Palo ALto Phoenix Academy relative to the amount of EPA students that attend a traditional high school like those in the Sequoia Union High School District, including Woodside, Menlo-Atherton, Carlmont, and Sequoia.

“The Sequoia Union High School District annually serves 8,900 9th to 12th grade students through its four distinguished comprehensive high schools,” as stated by the Sequoia Union High School District website.

Among the diverse population of Woodside High School, are students that embark on a daily exodus from EPA to Redwood City. The journey to Woodside High School is approximately nine miles depending on where exactly in East Palo Alto one resides. The theoretical time it should take to get to Woodside from EPA and Woodside to EPA is not much, but account for the heavy traffic that occupies the roads to EPA day in and day out and soon the actual time shatters what is should be.

“It is a complex situation. I think students should have the opportunity to attend the school in their area. It makes it easier for students and parents to get involved in the school and their education,” said Mr. Negri, a seasoned counselor at Woodside with over ten years working for the Sequoia Union District.

EPA students predominantly take the bus because, despite the fact that bus rides can last up to two hours depending on traffic, it is the only plausible means of transportation in terms of distance and money. The yellow school bus leaves early in the morning to avoid the everyday heavy traffic. Three students are often fit into two-person seats while the bus snakes throughout the different stops of East Palo Alto. The route seems like a pattern of random turns for someone who wouldn’t take the bus regularly, but for someone who relies on the district-provided bus, the route becomes monotonous. The ride or the bus itself is not nearly important as the students that take it. Sure, all students have to wake up early but not all students spend, at the very least, 45 minutes to an hour cramped on busses with constant jolty stops and starts caused by unruly drivers in order to get to a school where they become a misunderstood faction of people that are no longer defined as a student or as a kid or gender, but instead a kid from EPA.

Alex Torres, a Woodside High School student-athlete involved with student Leadership bodies, had her own opinion: “No one should be stereotyped because of where they’re from.” Alex is one of the unique students that drives herself from the weathered streets of EPA to Woodside High School.

If the students in EPA didn’t catch the Early Bus that the school provides, they catch the second school bus that enters EPA a little before 8 A.M., which typically arrives at school just as the first bell rings, signaling students to head to their classrooms. Of course there is public transit such as Samtrans–but the accumulating cost of these frequent public bus rides coupled with the longer ride in terms of time, establishes using public transit predominantly unpractical. Once the bus arrives at school, the students enter their classrooms and go through the motions of school, constantly fighting against the forces dragging them back into the turbulence of their complications.

At the end of school, they return to the yellow bus that leaves within five to ten minutes after the last bell rings so as to avoid traffic. The attempt, however, is futile, and by the time every student reaches their stop, the sky is orange and the not-so-peaceful night begins to bring the marsh and ocean dew that settles over the tops of cars, stray cats and dogs, and homeless citizens resting their feet from the constant plight of financial disadvantage.

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EPA students are restricted by many inherited disadvantages–the most prominent being that, the place they live, East Palo Alto, has traditionally been known as a low-income residential area that lacks feasible financial opportunities besides dealing drugs or affiliating with gangs. This reality and stigma has plagued EPA since the pre-Civil Rights Era when racism and the financial oppression of minorities was rampant; Many Black Americans were systematically forced into poverty and low-cost housing. EPA is still known for affordable housing, however, then it was simply a place where one could find financial refuge. Now many young, tech-affiliated workers come to EPA as a low-cost way to be near tech business like Google, Facebook, or Amazon (etc.).

This relative affordability has created a habitually dangerous environment that, logically, does not yield much school funding or city investment compared to neighboring cities. This isn’t because residents of EPA dislike each other or simply don’t care about their city; quite the contrary. EPA harbors a close-knit community of individuals that work together with the common goal of improving daily life in EPA. Many residents work with each other and directly with city council to provide feasible opportunities for younger generations to achieve this goal. However, the fact remains: compared to most cities in Silicon Valley, EPA residents normally do not possess vast amounts of funds to donate and invest; most residents are using their money to ensure food is on the table during the week. Therefore, even with the welcoming community, the young generations of students who live in EPA are ultimately placed on an island away from the rest of Silicon Valley, which predominantly flourishes and prospers.

However, very recently, EPA has begun experiencing the spread of the Silicon Valley buzz with regards to real estate investors. Young tech-based companies have started to gravitate towards the vast, low-cost real estates in EPA. Such companies have contributed to the housing influx currently occurring in EPA; as a result, the percentage of white, tech-affiliated EPA residents has increased, expanding diversity among a traditionally minority community. But there’s a catch; the cost of housing in the Bay Area has drastically increased in the past decades, resulting in economically segregated neighborhoods. Many EPA residents, student and non-students, new and old, alike are being pushed out of their city by the rising prices that young, tech-based company employees can afford. This gentrification, brought on by companies, such as Facebook and Google, that own property around the East Palo Alto area, has created a region-wide housing price influx that disrupts the community of EPA.

This gentrification has caused long-time EPA residents to feel overlooked by the upper class and large corporations. An example of this disruption is the recent protest on March 30, 2017, when approximately 50 people stood in protest to Amazon’s new building at the corner of University Avenue and Donohoe Street. The protest exemplifies the tensions long-time EPA residents feel over gentrification and corporate “bullying” (as one protester’s sign stated). Normally, a company that sets up shop in a city is required by a good faith rule to employ 30% of its employees from city residents, but the city council and Amazon did not apply this rule. This comes across as an invasion of a mostly white, elite tech-affiliated bourgeoisie stepping over an institutionally oppressed minority working class because of a convenient location.

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Kim-Mai Cutler, a journalist with TechCrunch, took an extensive historical look into EPA. In her article “East of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race And The Formation of Silicon Valley,” Cutler frequently returned to the idea of covert segregation and geographic racism.

“California was never as overt or horrific as the Jim Crow South. But the Californian way worked tacitly through housing, jobs and education policies. On top of racially restrictive covenants, realtors around the San Francisco Bay Area were engaged in a practice called blockbusting,” Kim-Mai Cutler wrote.

Back then, EPA was a symbol for covert, institutional racism. Today, while EPA is home to thousands of people of all descents and heritage, EPA illustrates the extreme, growing divide between the rich and poor in California caused by the Silicon Valley tech boom.

 

East Palo Alto 101, The Basics

East Palo Alto is a comparatively small city, 2.5 square miles of incorporated area, located along Highway 101 and squeezed in between East Menlo Park and Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay. Even with its size, EPA contains approximately 30,000 residents that widely vary in ethnic origins. The city was incorporated into San Mateo County on July 1, 1983, and before then, when it was initially founded, it was abysmally shrouded in poverty. The city’s development was virtually abandoned relative to the rest of the bay area; in its early stages EPA was used as the county’s “dump, hazardous materials recycler, pesticide plant, smattering of shops and not much else — except the McDonald’s” as Dara Kerr from CNET puts it in an article she wrote discussing the conditions of EPA.

Eventually, EPA’s infrastructure was developed, and soon after, a luxury hotel (Four Seasons) was erected along with various office buildings; this became University Circle. Stores like IKEA and Home Depot helped establish EPA’s economic feasibility. Overtime, larger corporations like Facebook and Google set up shop very close by. However, the financial viability that was achieved in part because of major companies that invested in EPA Real estate, did so at the cost of disrupting the community. Today, because of its location (neck deep in Silicon Valley), EPA has strategic geographic value.

Even today, as involved in the Silicon Valley tech-rush as EPA is, the small city is still a place of hardship and plight. It is actually frightening how different East Palo Alto in contrast to nearby cities with regards to monetary value, ethnic diversity, and crime; the reality is EPA seems neglected when it is compared to neighboring cities such as Menlo Park or Palo Alto. For example, Neighborhoodscout analyzed the FBI reported crime data; the data interpreted denotes that one’s chance of falling victim to crimes like rape, murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, armed robbery, and aggravated assault, including assault with a deadly weapon, is one in 164 in East Palo Alto. By contrast, Menlo Park is statistically only applicable to four of six of the crimes statistically found in EPA (4 of the six that are relatively the less serious crimes) and harbors a “one in one thousand” chance of being a victim of crime. Everyone who reads this should follow this link, https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ca/east-palo-alto/crime, and research for yourself the differences in environment but the miniscule difference in location–the facts are staggering; as Dara Kerr, a journalist from CNet, accurately puts it (the reality about East Palo Alto and its Silicon Valley counterparts): “How great is the divide between rich and poor in Silicon Valley? Fifty feet.” Although a ferocious pattern of violence and inequality has trailed EPA, the city can be cooperatively improved–similar to when it became the murder capital of the entire U.S. in 1992, but it gradually faded from this reality because of a community of people who wished to improve their environment.

 

At Woodside High School and the Sequoia Union High School District

The schools are spread out through San Mateo county–some close to EPA, some not. For example Menlo-Atherton, or M-A, is located in Menlo Park only three miles away from East Palo Alto. Whereas Carlmont in Belmont is around 11 miles away from East Palo Alto.

At Woodside High School, students from EPA attend a range of core and elective classes that Woodside offers, play on the various Woodside High School sports teams, and participate in extracurricular activities. As the Sequoia Union High School District website explains:

“As part of the District’s vision of engaging and preparing all students to excel in a global society, the District offers a rigorous college prep curriculum and support to all students who aspire to higher education, including students in the middle and first-generation college students.”

Despite the district’s vision for equitable involvement, EPA students don’t typically play dominant roles in extracurricular activities, namely Woodside’s student council. Furthermore, EPA students are not well-represented in advanced classes. Yet, the reason students from EPA are now districted to attend one of the Sequoia Union High School District schools is to close the gap between students who have the resources to flourish in the academic world as opposed to students who traditionally do not (predominantly in terms of money). Mr. Velschow, Woodside’s athletic director and an advanced placement U.S. History teacher, was able to clear up a lot of the history behind the relationship between East Palo Alto and Sequoia Union High School District.

“In the 1970’s Ravenswood was closed down and a number of schools were closed down and the district sold off the land. Conditions were pretty rough at Ravenswood High School; there had been attempts to integrate it. The district even went as far as to have a ski club at Ravenswood as an incentive for white kids,”  Mr. Velschow explained.

Ravenswood High School was closed in 1976, and in its place, a shopping center was built. Prior to the school’s closure, Ravenswood primarily served to educate the children of East Palo Alto, but it did so with miniscule funding. However, Ravenswood’s miniscule funding wasn’t because the Sequoia Union wasn’t able to provide for the schools under its jurisdiction, it was primarily due to its location in a low-income area. Even with attempts to integrate Ravenswood, there were many concerns that Ravenswood remained a segregated school; as sequoiaalumni.net elaborates:

“Almost a decade after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education Ravenswood’s African American/Black majority population gained the attention of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Both organizations expressed concerns that Ravenswood’s population was becoming all African American/Black.”

As one could expect, results and strategies to integrate and diversify schools in the Sequoia Union High School District began.

Mr. Velschow explained, “So in the 1970’s you had force bussing and that was that students [from low-income and predominantly minority neighborhoods]–after a supreme court decision that said schools had to desegregate.”

Mr. Velschow says the schools had to “desegregate”; desegregation was achieved by bussing students who live in EPA to various schools to increase diversity. An impact of this strategy (“force[sic] bussing”) was that EPA students began to attend the various schools in the southern section of San Mateo county under the Sequoia Union High School District.

“What happened for a long time [is] you had to take kids from EPA and sprinkle them around the district,” Mr. Velschow stated.

Still a question remained: “How can somebody who has had so fewer resources be expected to be on the same level as somebody who has?”

Velschow’s explanation: “The idea was that these kids have now had exposure to equitable funding” because they were attending schools in more affluent areas.

However the bussing posed a flaw: distance and feasibility.

“The reality,” as Mr. Velschow explained, “[is that] children being bussed from EPA were spending two to three hours on a bus because of traffic and they weren’t going to a local school.”

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“All students new to the district must complete address verification, in person, at the district office located at 480 James Avenue in Redwood City,” states the Sequoia Union High School District website.

Students are, as of a decision by the district, able to choose the school they want to attend–this policy is called open enrollment. Open enrollment is important because it can act as a beacon to young students not yet in high school.

“You always want to know where you’re going to school,” Mr. Velschow said.

Children from East Palo Alto are now zoned for Menlo-Atherton High school, the closest public school in the Sequoia Union High School District to EPA. In past years, students living in EPA were often zoned to attend a school up to ten miles away since Ravenswood High School no longer existed.

The situation was this: students who lived in EPA didn’t have access to large sums of money, various means of transportation, and overall possessed less ability to traverse the social, economic, and academic ladder in comparison to neighboring cities such as Menlo Park and Palo Alto which tended to have an abundance of wealth.

Despite the obstacles, “California compulsory education law requires everyone between the ages of six and eighteen years of age to attend school, except sixteen and seventeen year-olds who have graduated from high school or passed the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE) and obtained parental permission to leave.Sep 30, 2016,” as explained by the California Department of Education.

This situation sparked controversy and debate over how to get students with little resources at the same level as students residing in wealthier cities.

“In 1978/1979 there was also a local court decision called the Tinsley case. The Tinsley case was a lawsuit against san mateo county schools by parents of EPA because kids from epa were having to compete with kids from the sequoia union high school district,” Mr. Velschow elaborated.

Fortunately, because of different instrumental court decisions (one of which: Brown vs. Board of Education), EPA students theoretically gained equal access as well as equal rights. Nevertheless achievements gained from integral court cases are not always effective at breaking long-thought stigmas and stereotypes.

“I do not think there is an easy way to equalize things for families that come from means and those that don’t,” Mr. Negri said.

Although it’s “in our current educational model”, “I think there needs to be resources allocated to the school and students that are need of the most. Resources and student/family commitment are key for this road towards equity. Without the ability to equalize common necessity students will have a difficult time putting all there[sic] energy towards school,” Mr. Negri elaborated.

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East Palo Alto is a city just like any other city–there are dangers–there is a variety of people–there’s a community–there’s a struggle. The thing that people have to remember is that people from EPA aren’t the same–they’re unique just as everybody else is. There is a student who chooses to bike from their house in EPA, there are some that are able to catch rides with their parents, and there are some who drive themselves.

Alex Torres is known face at Woodside High School. She frequently appears on stage and behind the curtain, in manner of speaking; Alex is a member of a leadership program Woodside offers that helps plan various school event ranging from in-school rallies to upcoming school dances. On the morning announcements commonly feature Alex as she discussing recent and new developments with regards to Woodside High School’s daily life. In middle school Alex moved to East Palo Alto and resides there still, in the morning she confronts the claustrophobic traffic and the long ride but instead of taking the bus Alex drives herself. After a usual day at school, Alex competes in Varsity Softball and is casually referred to as a key player. However, the practice and the long ride home usually inhibits an early arrival to her house. Her late return home is an additional obstacle to completing homework, spending time with family, and having free-time. Yet Alex manages her time and continues to be sole contributor to Woodside’s positive environment.

Danielle Daniels is a cheerleader for Woodside High School and, like Alex Torres, appears on Woodside’s daily announcements where she can be scene happily informing the school about various upcoming events. The names and faces of EPA are endlessly diverse, so grouping all EPA students at Woodside High School into a stereotype usually does not accurately reflect the truth of who that student is.

These are only two of the many more EPA students who attend Woodside High School. It is important to remember that Woodside also only holds a fraction of the students living in EPA that get bussed around the Sequoia Union District. EPA students are not a charity case for Woodside High School nor the rest of the district, instead EPA students are an integral part of the Sequoia Union High School District’s community as well as the the Silicon Valley area. The plights of students and residents of EPA should be understood and thoroughly addressed.

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East Palo Alto’s crime is above California’s average percentage and even surpasses the national median–but this is true not by much. EPA is home to many students and people who just try to succeed in life similar to many people in neighboring affluent cities in Silicon Valley. Problems in EPA as well as other places can be fixed no matter their extent, but first one has to ask: what brings people together and how can one see both sides? The answers are endless but a common answer is knowledge–knowledge is what this exploration into East Palo Alto and its residents is meant to spread in hopes of bringing about change. Change starts with bringing people together.

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