Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 16, 2012

Mayor's Challenge: Connecting neighborhoods, neighbors

Initiative begins with pingpong tournament; winner will be team with most participants

by Yiaway Yeh

Growing up in Palo Alto, I enjoyed the tradition of neighbors supporting neighbors. During my freshman year at Gunn, the Class of 1996 built the class float for Homecoming Week in my parents' backyard. Not being expert float-builders, the shark we constructed easily grew in magnitude. Once we had finished hammering and creating our chicken-wire artwork, a dilemma arose: How would we get the shark out of the backyard?

Our neighbor advised us. He showed us how to raise the entire structure over the backyard shed and use rooftop rollers to smoothly move the structure in one piece. Any passerby would have witnessed a group of teenagers cheering that our weeks-long project was now ready for the big time and didn't need to be reassembled.

Late in 2011, 20 years later, the leaders of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods group approached me as vice mayor and let me know that the relationships between neighbors has shifted to one characterized by less discourse and less interaction. Consequently, in my State of the City address last month, I provided more details on the Year of Infrastructure and Renewal, promising it would cultivate our community's human assets through the Mayor's Challenge, a year-long effort to create and renew neighbor-to-neighbor relationships.

The benefit of new or rekindled relationships with neighbors can be understood from a city perspective. Anecdotally, the police department has received more complaints about barking dogs that in the past would have been resolved at the neighbor level. For example, if you have a newborn baby who can't get to sleep because of your neighbor's dog barking, rather than call the police, you would have the existing relationship with your neighbor to ask if the dog could be kept inside for the night. Jim Keene, our city manager, shared a report with me from a colleague in another city who said that 80 percent of calls received by the police department didn't need a uniformed officer. They needed a neighbor. More neighborliness will enhance the quality of life for all of us in Palo Alto.

Strong neighborhoods have been a long tradition in the City of Palo Alto. When a Palo Altan meets another Palo Altan, often one of the first questions asked is which neighborhood they live in. It reflects a sense of community and identity within the city. It's also a tradition that benefits from renewal in Palo Alto. Over 65,000 people call Palo Alto home. Many have been here for decades with families that have lived here for generations. Some have just moved into the community from nearby. Some have recently immigrated from another country and are creating roots here in Palo Alto.

Looking at 2010 Census data shows that over the last two decades Palo Alto has experienced significant demographic shifts in its population. Two trends stand out. First, the graying of our population: 17 percent of Palo Altans are now over 65 years old. Second, the growing Asian population: Nearly 30 percent of Palo Altans now identify themselves as Asian or Asian-American.

As a community, the relationships we have as neighbors are always in need of renewal and are built through pro-active efforts.

What is the Mayor's Challenge?

The Mayor's Challenge is an initiative designed to bring neighbors together. As the community changes when people move in or away, the Mayor's Challenge aims to bring people of different life experiences and backgrounds together through a series of athletic events. New relationships created by meeting neighbors through social, active ways benefit the strong tradition of engaged neighborhoods and maintains the sense of community that Palo Alto has long enjoyed.

The first community-wide athletic event is table tennis (pingpong) and will be held Sunday, March 25, from 2 to 5 p.m. at five locations: Palo Alto Family YMCA, Cubberley Community Center, Jordan and Terman middle schools, and the Campus for Jewish Life.

The Palo Alto Family YMCA has agreed to head up the Mayor's Challenge for the year. For this first event, the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club, the table-tennis company Joola and the Palo Alto Unified School District are the event's co-sponsors.

Three additional athletic events will be held during the year. Each will pit neighborhood against neighborhood. The winning neighborhood will be determined by having the greatest number of residents participating. The goal of the Mayor's Challenge is that by the end of the year, many Palo Altans will feel the foundation for the tradition of neighborhood identity and activism has been strengthened.

To register for the Mayor's Challenge and to select your preferred site for table tennis, visit the website: ymcamayorschallenge.org.

Yiaway Yeh is the Mayor of Palo Alto, and is a graduate of JLS Middle School and Gunn High School. He grew up in the Green Acres II neighborhood, now lives in the Evergreen Park neighborhood, and can be reached at yiawayyeh@yahoo.com.

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