Palo Alto's newest public mural came and went so quickly that you probably missed it.
One word, painted in large yellow letters on Page Mill Road, in front of the Foothills Park entrance: Desegregate.
About a dozen activists, some from Palo Alto (who, as such, can visit Foothills Park whenever they want under the city's "residents-only" policy at the open space) and some from other cities (and, as such, would be prohibited from entering the park, unless accompanying a Palo Alto resident), met under the full moon on Sunday night to paint the message along Page Mill Road. Most were teenagers; two were from the activist organization Raging Grannies, according to Vara Ramakrishnan, one of the organizers of the activity.
The group planned the act months in advance, waiting for a day when there would be little activity and a bright moon under which to work, obviating the need for lighting. They painted the message over about four hours, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Ramakrishnan said.
But the group's work proved to be a fleeting gesture in a decadeslong debate over Foothills Park access. By 7 a.m. on Monday, a city employee was on scene using a power hose to erase the message. Before long, it was gone.
Ramakrishnan, who lives in Los Altos Hills and who often walks to the park, said she observed passersby asking the city employee what the message said. He told them he didn't know, she said.
"We wanted to look over the work in the daytime and touch it up," she said. "We never got a chance to do that."
Ramakrishnan's daughter, Anjali Ramanathan, a recent graduate of The Nueva School who briefly attended Gunn High and who was joined by her friends from Gunn and Palo Alto High School, said she was inspired to partake in the action by personal experiences and recent rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She cited a speech by East Palo Alto Mayor Regina Wallace Jones during a Juneteenth rally last month that addressed how race continues to affect the area.
At that time, the activist group drew the outline of "BLM" in front of Palo Alto City Hall. The city followed suit on June 30 with its own gesture of support for Black Lives Matter — a street mural painted by 16 artists.
Ramanathan, 17, believes the "residents only" policy at Foothills Park is closely tied to racist practices of the past — including redlining and blockbusting — that have made it historically difficult for Black and brown people to buy homes in Palo Alto. Even if the policy isn't explicitly racist, it has effectively kept non-white people from other communities from living in the community and visiting the park.
"I wanted white folks to think about it, next time they go to Foothills Park and don't see any Black or brown faces around," Ramanathan said. "That does mean something. It's not an accident."
The issue of opening up Foothills Park to the greater public has been a point of contention in Palo Alto for decades, with the debate over the issue flickering on and off every few years. Opponents of removing the policy have consistently argued that limiting access to the park is necessary to protect the pristine natural landscape in the 1,400-acre preserve. They also note that in the late 1950s, when the family of Russel V. Lee offered to sell the land to the city, none of the surrounding cities were willing to chip in to buy the park.
The argument has reignited over the past month, with more than 100 civic and faith leaders and residents signing a letter in early June urging the council to "meet the moment" and abolish a policy that they argue "sends a terrible message to our neighboring communities" and "leaves a bad taste in the mouths of thousands of would-be visitors who are prohibited by uniformed City staff from entering a public park." The list of supporters includes U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo; state Assemblyman Marc Berman; former mayors Leland Levy, Peter Drekmeier and Pat Burt; the Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor at University AME Zion Church and chair of the city's Human Relations Commission; and NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley.
Palo Alto residents who oppose the policy change have argued that the law, which makes it a misdemeanor for a non-resident to visit (unless accompanied by a resident) has nothing to do with race and everything to do with protecting the environment.
Robert Roth, a member of the Friends of Foothills Park and a volunteer at the park, made that point at a June 2019 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, when he argued against expanding access.
"It seems to me it follows that if the park is overused, the magical experience of coming upon a flock of quail, or 30 or 40 young turkeys, or seeing a coyote or any of the experiences of the birds and the beasts and the flowers in the park could be lost," Roth said.
But according to city staff, the current number of visitors is relatively low, compared to historic trends. In the years after the park opened, it attracted more than 300,000 visitors annually, peaking at about 372,000 in the early 1970s over two consecutive years. According to a 2019 report, attendance had dropped by about 50% since then, with about 152,000 people visiting the park annually over the prior 17 years.
The Parks and Recreation Commission tried to address the issue of overcrowding by proposing a pilot program that allows non-residents to buy permits online for $6 each. It would cap the number of daily permits at 50.
The City Council, however, has delayed taking up the politically sensitive subject. After months of inaction, the council scheduled a discussion of the proposal for June 23. But on June 22, the council voted to take the item off the agenda and postpone it until after the council's summer recess, which concludes on Aug. 2. The latest delay prompted the resignation of Ryan McCauley, a leading proponent of expanding access to Foothills Park who served on the Parks and Recreation Commission. It also spurred retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a former City Council member, to issue a letter to the city, threatening a lawsuit if it doesn't immediately stop enforcing the law that bars non-residents from the park.
Ramakrishnan said her family has been seeing people turned away from the park for years.
"There are routinely Black and brown families that, I imagine, excitedly packed a picnic and drove from wherever, and then were told to turn around," she said.
The group had hoped that their message would celebrate the city's change in policy. Before the council voted to delay its discussion, the group was considering painting "All are welcome" in capital letters near Foothills Park. After the vote, it settled on "Desegregate," a message that Ramanathan said was chosen to reflect the policy's impact.
"The policy that makes it a misdemeanor to enter the park doesn't say anything racial in it," Ramanathan said. "But I believe we live in a society that is structured such a way that a policy doesn't need to be explicitly racist to be racist in practice."
She said that when the group finished painting the message, she "took it in for a second."
"I had a sense it would be the last I saw of it," she said.
She was hoping a friend of hers would take a photo of the message with a drone later in the day. But she also had a sense that this wish was a "pipe dream."
"In my short time on this Earth, I've seen enough to see that bureaucracy moves fast on some things and not on others," Ramanathan said.