Entering East Palo Alto, people are greeted by rising construction and a sterile sign announcing the future home of University Plaza, a four-story, 208,000-square-foot office complex with a pedestrian bridge, roof deck and two levels of underground parking.
A little more than a mile away, tucked in the southwest corner of the city, is a very different sign announcing a very different kind of project, one its organizers see as uniquely created by and for the community.
Colorful and bright, the sign's large, 3-D graffiti letters spell out "FUTURE" in front of a series of images -- a building, a music note, an artist's paint palette and a pencil. The 3 1/2 acres at the corner of Bay Road and Pulgas Avenue are the future home of the East Palo Alto Youth Arts and Music Center, a grassroots effort that will come to fruition in the next few years thanks to the San Francisco-based John & Marcia Goldman Foundation, which recently purchased the land.
The center will be an enormous boon for the community, a project organizer said, not only as a safe and peaceful space in a city known for its high crime rates, but one where residents struggling against a rising tide of external forces -- gentrification, climbing rents, new office buildings -- can celebrate and maintain their city's culture as it is today.
That sentiment is embodied in the sign at the empty lot -- actually a temporary art installation designed by East Palo Alto youth along with Scape Martinez, an urban artist who has worked in the community for more than a decade, including as artist in residence with the nonprofit Mural Music & Arts Project. (Martinez recently worked with youth artists to create two murals that were installed at crime "hot spots" in the city to promote peace and unity.)
Martinez said they organized workshops and "salons" in recent months to develop the new installation, and a sensibility emerged in reaction to developments that are created by and likely for "people (who) don't look like the folks in the community." He came up with the vision of the word "FUTURE" and symbols of creative activities that will take place in the new center.
"As opposed to 'Coming soon,' we wanted to change the language at every step of the way," Martinez said.
Local youth designed and created their own painted wooden panels that now hang below the "FUTURE" letters. On one, bright orange and blue triangles are overlaid with black and white text that reads: "I am the product of hard work and compassion. #dontletgoEPA" -- a hashtag version of the desire to keep East Palo Alto the way it is. In the second phase of the art project, Martinez and youth will go out into the city, to places like the senior center and YMCA, to create more panels with other community members.
The Goldman Foundation acquired the land at Bay and Pulgas for Youth Action Team, a growing group of dedicated youth activists -- mostly high school students and all East Palo Alto residents -- working to support, engage and preserve the local community through arts, music and events.
Youth Action Team was born several years ago out of a research project, initiated by the Goldman Foundation in partnership with Stanford University's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, to investigate whether or not East Palo Altans needed or wanted a community youth arts and music center. One of the youth recruited to assess this need, Isaiah Phillips, an East Palo Alto native who graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School in 2008, recognized the importance of getting his peers more actively involved in the community.
"We need to be doing things, showing the community that the arts are here and we are alive and positive," he said, standing in front of the colorful sign at Pulgas and Bay on a recent rainy afternoon.
So in 2012, Phillips -- himself an artist, a gregarious performer (both on and off the stage) and a clear leader -- formed Youth Action Team with the support of Stanford's Gardner Center; Live in Peace, a grassroots East Palo Alto organization committed to empowering youth through music lessons, academic support and mentoring; and the Mural Music & Arts Project, a nonprofit that connects disadvantaged East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park youth with mentors to create art.
In Youth Action Team's first year, its 10 members organized the first East Palo Alto Art and Music Fest, which is now mounted annually. The free event, to be held on May 28 this year, features musical performances (by acts including the East Palo Alto Hip Hop Orchestra and Polynesian dance groups), workshops (such as ones teaching how to do graffiti and decorate T-shirts), art displays, contests, food trucks, and even job and college resources. Attendance has grown from 91 in 2012 to 450 in 2015, Phillips said.
Youth Action Team leader Yvonne Hamel, a senior at Eastside College Preparatory School, helped put on the first-ever Arts and Music Fest. She loved seeing community members of all ages come together to enjoy each other and local culture in a safe, peaceful setting -- the "other side of East Palo Alto," she told the Weekly, sitting on a couch inside the living room at a home on Bell Street that houses Live in Peace.
"I just enjoy seeing youth, older people, everybody come out and enjoy themselves. It's kind of just, like, peaceful. You get to see the other side of East Palo Alto (that's) not in the news; it's not something negative," she said.
Youth Action Team also created Block the Bells, an annual block party on Bell Street; organized a photography series called "Into the Eyes of East Palo Alto: Audio and photo portraits of East Palo Alto artists," which was displayed at Cafe Zoe in Menlo Park and the East Palo Alto Library; and has continued to put one foot in front of the other to build a home for these and other efforts.
Five years in, Youth Action Team has about 20 members, including students from East Palo Alto Academy, Everest Public High School, Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, Menlo-Atherton High School, Redwood High School, Sierra School and Caada College, as well as working young adults up to age 22. Phillips is now the group's community arts liaison and works alongside Director Mary Hofstedt, who was previously the Gardner Center's senior community-engagement associate.
Youth Action Team is one of a growing web of youth programs in East Palo Alto, many of which overlap with Live in Peace. (Among them are StreetCode Academy, a nonprofit coding program for low-income and minority students; the Live in Peace College Initiative, which provides academic and emotional support for students who are typically not eligible for college-prep programs; the Live in Peace studio, where young musicians can nurture their talent; Students With Amazing Goals, or SWAG, which aims to combat truancy and boost graduation rates for East Palo Alto and Belle Haven youth; and the Mural Music & Arts Project.)
The Goldman Foundation, which focuses its grants on youth, health and the arts programs in the Bay Area, has provided about $70,000 annually to Youth Action Team since its inception in 2012, according to Amy Lyons, the Goldman Foundation's executive director. The grants have covered staffing, training and general support, as well as youth-led planning, research and analysis on opening a community arts center "to ensure that youth are full partners in the development of the center," Lyons said.
The foundation has also supported other local organizations with similar purposes, from a youth employment program at JobTrain in Menlo Park to an expansion of the Ravenswood Family Health Center's pediatric dental clinic, and has made donations to major arts facilities and programs throughout the Bay Area. The Goldman Foundation also donated $100,000 toward Palo Alto's inclusive Magical Bridge Playground and the same amount for a pilot program that screens adolescent Palo Alto Medical Foundation patients for behavioral health problems and helps them get treatment.
The Goldman Foundation recently purchased the Youth Arts and Music Center site for $3.5 million, according to Lyons. It sits kitty-corner to the new Ravenswood Family Health Center and is also down the street from nonprofit College Track, which guides underserved East Palo Alto students through high school and into college.
"There's just such a great need in that community," Lyons said. "There are not a lot of resources. There's so much wealth in the surrounding community that the Goldmans felt it was important those resources also be available in East Palo Alto."
Youth Action Team envisions that the center will not only be a place for music and art programs of all kinds, from theater and dance to digital media, but also a safe, inclusive gathering space with a cafe. Stan Logwood, Live in Peace's student adviser for college admissions, said he hopes it will also house critical mental-health support and services.
Phillips elaborated on the dual nature of the space: "The vision for the center is for it to be ... basically a community living room and a space where people can feel comfortable to come and be and work as themselves and then also a place where arts programming takes place on an entry level and a mastery level.
"What that means on any given day (is) you can see a teenager (or) young adult that doesn't really have any ambition towards some mastery of any instrument but does come to the cafe to buy a coffee and uses the facility to do some other work or pursue anything else (and) feels free to be himself there. And then also, you might see somebody that's gung ho about becoming a violinist and playing in a symphony and he's on a mastery track to become that -- and then everything in between," he said.
Youth Action Team members say this kind of environment is needed more than ever in East Palo Alto, which makes headlines now as the last pocket of the Bay Area yet to be totally transformed by tech-driven wealth.
"I feel like in the midst of all the building that's going on in East Palo Alto, all the new stuff, (the center is) the thing that's going to be for us, for East Palo Alto," Hamel said.
"There's a golf store; we don't have a golf course," she added, referring to the PGA Tour Superstore on East Bayshore Road. "There's a Nordstrom Rack; I don't shop there; I don't know anyone that works there, honestly. The Youth Arts and Music Center will be something that's for us. A lot of things that we talk about in our meetings is preserving East Palo Alto as it is now or as it was before gentrification and things started to happen. I feel like (the center) would be that safe haven for the East Palo Alto (community) and it will preserve that."
Hamel, an eloquent, self-possessed young woman who has hopes of attending the historically black Howard University next fall, grew up in East Palo Alto and has been involved with Youth Action Team for the past three years. Phillips got her involved (as he has with many of the other youth), and she refers to him as a mentor. Hamel said she was in a "bad place" with some "behavioral issues" when she came to Youth Action Team. She also participates in the Mural Music & Arts Project and credits both programs with helping her to turn her life around.
She said they helped her develop her skills and voice as an artist and a leader. She described herself as a "blacktivist" who performs spoken-word pieces on topics like gentrification and the Black Lives Matter movement.
This year, on her own initiative, Hamel is organizing a voter registration event. She's also put together public debates with other youth on topics they chose, like gentrification and racism. This year, there will also be the fifth annual Arts and Music Fest and another Block the Bells, among other Youth Action Team events.
"I have an idea of what my larger purpose is," Hamel said, "and I'm dedicated to helping my community and doing things as a leader in the community now, not (as) a nuisance, not a juvenile delinquent."
At a Live in Peace open-mic night last Friday, Hamel performed a piece called "America the Brave" that captured the struggle of African Americans, ending with a piercing line: "Please don't get me wrong, I know how much this world has changed / but a lot of y'all are blind to progress we have yet to make / in this great big United States there are people struggling every day / in these hoods it seems that peace is only found beside a grave / this America's been a hypocrite far more than it's been brave."
The open-mic night, though hosted through Live in Peace, featured and was attended by many Youth Action Team members. Earlier in the evening, another young woman, a senior at Palo Alto High School, sang in Samoan, accompanied by a live band. Phillips' talents were also on display throughout the night -- as he hosted the evening, he would jump in to freestyle, sing or play the drums.
For Casey Tupou, a softspoken 17-year-old Menlo-Atherton student who lives in East Palo Alto, Youth Action Team brings the community together in a rare way, and she wanted to be a part of that.
"I liked the fact that they're trying to gather the community together because you rarely see that in EPA," she said. "We wanted more of that to happen in East Palo Alto because we felt like our community was falling apart, so we wanted to put it back together."
To Tupou, "falling apart" translates into the negative ripple effects of gentrification felt throughout East Palo Alto. Last April, she participated in a march, dubbed "Stand Up EPA," to prevent displacement of the city's low-income residents through gentrification. She appreciates that Youth Action Team is looking to achieve similar goals but through different means.
Aiming to open the new facility by mid-2019, Youth Action Team is now in the midst of selecting an architecture firm to design the space.
Some might ask, Phillips noted, why pour money into an arts and music center, rather than, for example, an affordable housing project?
"Even if we solved gentrification -- because that's basically what this question is: 'Why this center, and not solve gentrification? Why put any large amount of money into an arts organization or an arts building when you should be trying to figure out how to stop this gentrifying force?' -- but even if that issue was taken care of, for lack of better words, there's still something that needs to be in East Palo Alto for the people to feel connected to East Palo Alto.
"I think through the youth art-music center, this can be something that the people can really put their hands in and own, and not just for art's sake but for community's sake," he said.