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Not all neighborhoods were created equal in Palo Alto

A look at how real estate policies undermined Black homeownership

When Palo Alto's Southgate neighborhood was subdivided in 1923, all properties carried deed restrictions specifying that no persons of African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent were to use or occupy the houses, according to "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," published in 1993 by Ward Winslow and the Palo Alto Historical Association. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Jerry Harrison, an African American man, arrived in Palo Alto from North Carolina in 1922 in search of a better life, according to his grandson Michael Harrison.

He found work as a railroad porter as well as shining shoes at the Hotel President on University Avenue. His wife, Ruth Odessa, cleaned houses and washed clothes, said Michael Harrison, who grew up in Palo Alto and still lives here at age 69.

"They were very frugal," he recalled. "My grandmother used to serve us milk with water added to it."

The Harrisons saved enough to buy a small house in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood, but because it was illegal to sell to Black residents, Jerry Harrison asked a Jewish friend to buy the property "and they transferred it into my grandfather's name," Michael Harrison said. "That's how he was able to buy the property."

The Harrison family's story wasn't uncommon. Housing restrictions existed in neighborhoods throughout Palo Alto. When the Southgate neighborhood was subdivided in 1923, for example, all properties carried deed restrictions specifying that no persons of African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent were to use or occupy the houses, according to "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," published in 1993 by Ward Winslow and the Palo Alto Historical Association.

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These types of restrictions existed in Palo Alto neighborhoods for decades until the U.S. Supreme Court voided racial restrictions in 1948. Despite the high court's ruling, many restrictions lingered in deeds and bylaws.

There were groups in Palo Alto that condemned such practices, such as the Palo Alto Fair Play Committee, which in the 1950s began pushing for open housing. Members lobbied the government to adopt new laws and created an interracial housing development near the intersection of Greer Road and Colorado Avenue with Black, Asian and white residents. The development became a quiet success, Winslow wrote. But a local survey around that time indicated that most still said they "would rent to Caucasians only."

Lakiba Pittman stands outside her home in Palo Alto's Ventura neighborhood. Her parents bought in the 1960s when the neighborhood had about seven African-American families living on the block. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Developer Joseph Eichler was the first local builder to proclaim, in the 1950s, that he favored selling houses to minorities, according to Matt Bowling's PaloAltoHistory.org.

In 1958, when the trade group Associated Home Builders Inc. refused to support his position of selling to everyone, Eichler resigned from the group. By the time Eichler died in 1974, he had built roughly 11,000 homes in California, including 2,700 in Palo Alto. His subdivisions opened the door for Black and Asian buyers in Palo Alto.

In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the nonprofit Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing also worked to promote equal opportunity by investigating local complaints of housing discrimination and providing legal education to tenants and landlords.

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But those who lived in Palo Alto during that time said that discrimination persisted.

Longtime Palo Alto resident LaDoris Cordell said that while house hunting in the late 1980s with her partner — a white woman — she encountered so many irritating stereotypes that she took to waiting in the car instead of entering open houses.

"We went into this one open house in Palo Alto and a white female Realtor said to me,'This house is for sale, not for rent,'" Cordell recalled. "At this time, I was a judge. When I told her I already owned a house in Palo Alto she said, 'Oh, you've come a long way.'

"I was stunned," Cordell said. "Then she followed me all through the open house. The next week I wrote a letter to the head of her company and said I was so insulted."

The response, Cordell said, was "'She's one of our best Realtors. We can't believe she did that — we're so sorry.' I decided I couldn't do it anymore — I stopped going to open houses. But we did find a house.

Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing no longer exists, but the problem of housing discrimination has not disappeared, said Harrison, who lives in a house close to the one his grandparents purchased.

"(Housing discrimination) is going to be an issue as long as there are Black and white people in Palo Alto, and everywhere in the country," he said. "I'm happy things are changing some, but it's a long way from where it should be."

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Not all neighborhoods were created equal in Palo Alto

A look at how real estate policies undermined Black homeownership

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jul 3, 2020, 6:58 am
Updated: Thu, Jul 9, 2020, 8:56 am

Jerry Harrison, an African American man, arrived in Palo Alto from North Carolina in 1922 in search of a better life, according to his grandson Michael Harrison.

He found work as a railroad porter as well as shining shoes at the Hotel President on University Avenue. His wife, Ruth Odessa, cleaned houses and washed clothes, said Michael Harrison, who grew up in Palo Alto and still lives here at age 69.

"They were very frugal," he recalled. "My grandmother used to serve us milk with water added to it."

The Harrisons saved enough to buy a small house in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood, but because it was illegal to sell to Black residents, Jerry Harrison asked a Jewish friend to buy the property "and they transferred it into my grandfather's name," Michael Harrison said. "That's how he was able to buy the property."

The Harrison family's story wasn't uncommon. Housing restrictions existed in neighborhoods throughout Palo Alto. When the Southgate neighborhood was subdivided in 1923, for example, all properties carried deed restrictions specifying that no persons of African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent were to use or occupy the houses, according to "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," published in 1993 by Ward Winslow and the Palo Alto Historical Association.

These types of restrictions existed in Palo Alto neighborhoods for decades until the U.S. Supreme Court voided racial restrictions in 1948. Despite the high court's ruling, many restrictions lingered in deeds and bylaws.

There were groups in Palo Alto that condemned such practices, such as the Palo Alto Fair Play Committee, which in the 1950s began pushing for open housing. Members lobbied the government to adopt new laws and created an interracial housing development near the intersection of Greer Road and Colorado Avenue with Black, Asian and white residents. The development became a quiet success, Winslow wrote. But a local survey around that time indicated that most still said they "would rent to Caucasians only."

Developer Joseph Eichler was the first local builder to proclaim, in the 1950s, that he favored selling houses to minorities, according to Matt Bowling's PaloAltoHistory.org.

In 1958, when the trade group Associated Home Builders Inc. refused to support his position of selling to everyone, Eichler resigned from the group. By the time Eichler died in 1974, he had built roughly 11,000 homes in California, including 2,700 in Palo Alto. His subdivisions opened the door for Black and Asian buyers in Palo Alto.

In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the nonprofit Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing also worked to promote equal opportunity by investigating local complaints of housing discrimination and providing legal education to tenants and landlords.

But those who lived in Palo Alto during that time said that discrimination persisted.

Longtime Palo Alto resident LaDoris Cordell said that while house hunting in the late 1980s with her partner — a white woman — she encountered so many irritating stereotypes that she took to waiting in the car instead of entering open houses.

"We went into this one open house in Palo Alto and a white female Realtor said to me,'This house is for sale, not for rent,'" Cordell recalled. "At this time, I was a judge. When I told her I already owned a house in Palo Alto she said, 'Oh, you've come a long way.'

"I was stunned," Cordell said. "Then she followed me all through the open house. The next week I wrote a letter to the head of her company and said I was so insulted."

The response, Cordell said, was "'She's one of our best Realtors. We can't believe she did that — we're so sorry.' I decided I couldn't do it anymore — I stopped going to open houses. But we did find a house.

Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing no longer exists, but the problem of housing discrimination has not disappeared, said Harrison, who lives in a house close to the one his grandparents purchased.

"(Housing discrimination) is going to be an issue as long as there are Black and white people in Palo Alto, and everywhere in the country," he said. "I'm happy things are changing some, but it's a long way from where it should be."

Comments

JimCrowInLosAltos
Los Altos
on Jul 3, 2020 at 7:45 am
JimCrowInLosAltos, Los Altos
on Jul 3, 2020 at 7:45 am
12 people like this

The experiences recounted by black residents of Palo Alto in this article should shock one's conscience and stir them to act to correct the abuses by (none other than) servants of the public (PD, etc.) The actual problem is: these "Jim Crow" era practices continue to be the norm and in none other than our own and our surrounding communities.

Would Chris Kenrick/Palo Alto Weekly and locals be interested in learning about how Jim Crow is alive and well in Los Altos? Evidence for that as recent and current (2013-2020)? where the City enforces its Municipal Code differently for whites than for the non-whites? where whites are granted privileges, including the right to violate the Municipal Code, Fire Code, etc? where non-whites are required to "strict compliance with the Codes" and even asked to comply with extraordinary requirements NOT in the code "or else..."? and the City's entire apparatus (City staff from the City Manager and PD Chief on down to the lower echelons) would act in concert to protect the whites, target the non-whites, violate the laws, lie to the Courts in their retaliation, intimidation, obstruction of justice?

All this happening not in the distant past but today.
Detailed in two pending lawsuits in Federal Court.
Defendants include the City of Los Altos, senior City staff, etc.
Allegations include RICO and Conspiracy violations (for the City, PD, white homeowners and their attorneys acted in concert, not any differently than the Mafia).

All of that timely, relevant, and significant and goes to show these violations by those meant to "protect and serve" the public are more extensive and troubling than what we are now coming to know.


Jeff Dauber
Ventura
on Jul 3, 2020 at 8:00 am
Jeff Dauber, Ventura
on Jul 3, 2020 at 8:00 am
16 people like this

As a resident of Ventura neighborhood, I can say with certainty that the history of racial inequality, underinvestment, and general neglect is not just remnants of history, but in fact is still felt today.

I recently requested some basic and affordable traffic speed hump control at the intersection of Margarita and Orinda, which is a 4-way stop sign I live on the corner of.

This is a residential neighborhood with tons of young families, and it’s also unfortunately a “cut through” boulevard for traffic attempting to bypass the Park Boulevard traffic controls and to skip the traffic lights along El Camino.

Virtually none of the vehicles stop at this sign and I have witnessed accidents and near misses at this intersection at an alarming rate.

I messaged the city and city manager and made a request on the cities “311” website for the installation of the cheap, bolt-down style speed bumps to force people to slow for the intersection.

The City replied that they would send officers to control the intersection, “as resources permit,” which is quite ripe considering they recently laid off the traffic enforcement group.

South Palo Alto doesn’t get the kind of attention that North Palo Alto gets. We don’t get full cobblestone streets and rumble strips and pedestrian traffic arming reflectors and speed bumps and pedestrian crosswalks with light up signage.

We get the short end of the stick because Ventura is a redlined district, where the City and University used to house their African American workers.

I guess we will need Zuckerberg to come buy 12 lots and combine them into another billionaire compound before we will see any real attention from the city.

It’s sad, but I now feel like I must be and advocate for my community. These speed bumps would cost at most a few thousand dollars, probably less than the City spent responding to my request if City Hall salaries are anything to go by.


Facts
Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2020 at 9:01 am
Facts, Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2020 at 9:01 am
6 people like this

This issue--certain neighborhoods and homeowners and properties privileged over others--is endemic to the Bay Area.

A more extensive investigation and reporting would reveal it certainly exists in Palo Alto and continues to be the norm, if not as pervasive as in prior times, in cities across the Bay Area. The lawsuits referenced in a prior comment shows what is going on in Los Altos. Would Palo Alto or Saratoga or Menlo Park be any or that different? I'd not be any surprised if what we are learning is the mere tip of the iceberg.


Stronger Together
another community
on Jul 3, 2020 at 12:00 pm
Stronger Together, another community
on Jul 3, 2020 at 12:00 pm
8 people like this

Nice to see the Palo Alto Fair Play Committee mentioned, this was the group that Josephine Duveneck and others created to purchase and develop the sixteen lots on Lawrence Lane in Palo Alto. To make things change, we have to have more representation in the decision making process. How many council seats and commission seats are up for election in your area - the deadline for filing is within the next two weeks. To have a seat at a table when no one is inviting you to be part of the discussion changes when you have an elected spot or in a position to effect the laws to make the changes. Register to vote, read what issues are being brought up in your town commission or council meetings and if you can't physically attend - send a letter and it will be part of the public record. We are stronger together.


Tk
Barron Park
on Jul 4, 2020 at 10:24 am
Tk, Barron Park
on Jul 4, 2020 at 10:24 am
2 people like this

I grew up here in the late 60’s father went 2 standford, grew up on the campus, we have 2 black families in Barron park!! 2? 2? That’s it? What a bunch of crap! It’s all about money!


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 4, 2020 at 3:25 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 4, 2020 at 3:25 pm
Like this comment

A link to some more of the history:

Web Link


Tk
Barron Park
on Jul 4, 2020 at 10:28 pm
Tk, Barron Park
on Jul 4, 2020 at 10:28 pm
2 people like this

Anon don’t school me on the past? I’m white! And I’ve lived here! It’s all about who has the biggest suitcase full of cash now! And always will be!


Fairmeadow
Midtown
on Jul 5, 2020 at 2:26 am
Fairmeadow, Midtown
on Jul 5, 2020 at 2:26 am
11 people like this

The government has repeatedly failed to legislate solutions to racial housing issues. [Portion removed.] Please limit government to the role of enforcing fair housing laws rather than determining racial composition of areas.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2020 at 12:46 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2020 at 12:46 pm
2 people like this

Posted by Fairmeadow, a resident of Midtown

>> The government has repeatedly failed to legislate solutions to racial housing issues.

Just to be clear: it was *governments* (national, state) (in the South) and quasi-governmental bodies (FHA, VA), and, national organizations like the Realtors, that encouraged (entire country) and mandated (in the South) segregation, prior to 1948-1968.

We now don't have laws that directly and explicitly *mandate* segregation.
Is that what you don't like? Otherwise, I don't understand your point.


Jessica
Palo Verde
on Jul 6, 2020 at 9:32 am
Jessica, Palo Verde
on Jul 6, 2020 at 9:32 am
9 people like this

Here we go with the false narrative of systematic racism! Unbelievable, disgusting and very toxic! Mark my wrongs in 4-5 years Palo Alto a beautiful city, is going down the drain in the name of a “woke” culture and diversity.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2020 at 10:39 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2020 at 10:39 am
10 people like this

Posted by Jessica, a resident of Palo Verde

>> Here we go with the false narrative of systematic racism!

"false"? You have documented history and personal experience that matches the history. I guess "false" to you just means something you don't like?

>> Mark my wrongs

Yer tighping two faast.

>> in 4-5 years Palo Alto a beautiful city, is going down the drain

You are correct. It is going down the drain due to excessive office space development and job growth. Hyper-gentrification is going to make Palo Alto unaffordable to everyone who isn't rich.

>> in the name of a “woke” culture and diversity.

Too late. Palo Alto is already too diverse for you. Have you considered Coeur d'Alene, Idaho? Check out the demographics: Web Link


Jessica
Palo Verde
on Jul 6, 2020 at 11:58 am
Jessica, Palo Verde
on Jul 6, 2020 at 11:58 am
17 people like this

Dear Anon post: Yes sorry to burst ur woke ideology but yes systematic racism in America is a lie! Does racism exist, yes! It exists all around the world and it will never cease. As a minority I have been discriminated, but that has not stop me from achieving my goals and becoming successful. Why because I live in America! I’ve been discriminated more by minorities than Whites, and so what. Does it mean I should hate a particular race or group? No! Life is not about what I like or dislike, it’s about truth, personal responsibility, family, respect, abiding by law & order, and hard work. Please stop praising the victim mentality, its destructive!

Oh no, I am typing too fast! I thought you believed in diversity? Shouldn’t you accept my typing as it is? It brings diversity to the platform. Why are you trying to bring me down? Why are you calling me out of my typing? Aren’t you not woke enough? Are you stereotyping me?! Wait are you racists?!??? Oh no call the cancel culture?! My feelings are hurt!!!

Seriously diversity, this country is more diverse than any other country! More than 1 million immigrants come to the USA every year?! And this does not include illegal immigrants. Hmm, I wonder why would minorities would want to come to America if it’s a systematic racism?? Wait didn’t we have a black President for 8yrs!?

I’m not rich, and I live in Palo Alto. But I’ve worked hard to earn what I have.

Everything you “woke” individuals touch, you destroy. Including, a once beautiful Palo Alto City.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 6, 2020 at 1:33 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 6, 2020 at 1:33 pm
11 people like this

I always read the Real Estate Section of the paper to check up on the houses sold section - it gives the address, purchase price, previous owner and new owner. That is a public record. If you all would take the time to check out the transactions that are taking place you will note the names - Asian, Indian, etc. And lots of trusts to trust transactions. You then can judge what the current situation is and where the high price and lower price homes are selling and to whom. We do not have any lower price homes so that race is on for the higher price homes. We are a fair market for who ever can pay the price.


Alice Schaffer Smith
Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:51 am
Alice Schaffer Smith, Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:51 am
6 people like this

While in private practice in Palo Alto and active with Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing, I had a client who had been told the apartment had been let, so I sent in MPCFH black couple and white couple. We found the apartment available for one and not the other. My client (a) obtained her apartment (b) $5000 in damages (this was in 1978, so that was hefty) and a written apology. That was hardly compensation for the humiliation but it opened a dialogue.

In West Hartford CT the restrictive covenants surrounding the house my parents bought prevented Jews from buying. On the southwest side of West Hartford there were 4 Jewish families and on the north side of town huge numbers because there were no restrictive covenants. This was in the 1940s. Not a proud history.


Sad memories
Crescent Park
on Jul 9, 2020 at 11:56 am
Sad memories, Crescent Park
on Jul 9, 2020 at 11:56 am
4 people like this

I can believe the discrimination described based on some of my parents' experiences when we moved to the US in the early 80's.  We are white (as was the neighborhood), though my parents' accent and (at the time) broken English was impossible to conceal. When my parents were visiting houses to rent in Philadelphia my mother felt insulted whenever an agent would try to instruct her on how to flush the toilet.  Some of the discrimination experienced was less subtle however.  For instance, after multiple slashed tires, we had to stop parking our car in the alley behind our house.  


Thank you, Joe Eichler.
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2020 at 12:08 pm
Thank you, Joe Eichler., Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2020 at 12:08 pm
8 people like this

As a resident of an Eichler neighborhood, it's important to point out that the presence of black families in Eichler neighborhoods had no negative effects whatsoever. They've have been great neighbors. I'm glad Joe Eichler stood his ground.

In the late 80's I (a young white female executive then) was dating an accomplished, well-educated, and very sweet black man, also an executive. I had to move for a promotion, and we took turns traveling between cities on the weekends to see each other.

The company I worked for hired a realtor to help me find an apartment in Pittsburgh, PA. She sent me a long sheet of listings to visit one weekend when he happened to be with me, When she arrived to show us the apartments and saw him, she pulled me aside and said, "Does he live with you?" I explained the situation, and she disappeared for a few minutes to make some phone calls. She cancelled more than half of our appointments. I was completely floored. My partner, by comparison, was completely unsurprised. I spoke with my supervisor (who appeared surprised that I would date a black man when I shared the experience) and explained I wanted to work with another realtor. My employer would not comply because they had a contract with her to handle their relocations, so I opted to search on my own.

The experience was an eye opener for me. At some level I understood that these things happened, but I had never understood how hidden and pervasive the problem was and is--nor how difficult and painful it is to be on the receiving end of such behavior. It was an inauspicious beginning to my tenure in that city. I left the company to find an organization that was more aligned with my values after one year, going back to my hometown. My landlord was sorry to see me go. We'd been great tenants.

I'm no longer with Mark, but we are still good friends. I want the world to be better for him and his family. It makes me sad that in 2020 this is STILL a problem. We can do better. We must.


Green Gables
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 9, 2020 at 12:15 pm
Green Gables, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 9, 2020 at 12:15 pm
Like this comment

Jeff Dauber - e-mail the City Council and copy the City Manager about Ventura. You may get some action from the City Council.


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