Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

The tumultuous '60s

The message was peace, but from the streets to the Council chambers, the result was turmoil

by Diane Sussman

The '50s were a decade of peace, growth and prosperity, as evidenced by the sleek new office buildings at Stanford Industrial Park, the look-alike Eichler houses in south Palo Alto, the new shopping center that Stanford built to rival the elegant stores of downtown San Francisco, and the ultra-modern Stanford University Hospital with its airy facade and decorative fountain. But by the early 1960s, the bubble of prosperity had begun to burst, giving way to new problems: traffic congestion, smog, parking shortages, industrial pollution and vanishing open space. By the end of the decade those problems would be overshadowed by even more pressing ones: drug abuse, racial tensions, an unpopular war, student demonstrations and a distressing rise in violence.

For Palo Alto, the decade began and ended in conflict. The earliest clash for Palo Alto arose over what the city was, and what it should become.

From the perspective of many residents who had moved to Palo Alto for its residential charm, the 15-member pro-growth City Council seemed determined to transform the city into a Manhattan West, with huge monolithic buildings and sprawling industrial complexes.

"They (the Council members) had so many plans to make this place great," recalls former Mayor Kirke Comstock. "They wanted to turn the baylands into a huge industrial park and build housing all the way to Skyline."

"Palo Alto was becoming the everything of the West--the financial center of the West, the technological center of the West, the medical center of the West," added Enid Pearson, a member of the City Council minority at the time. "You name it, they (the Council members) wanted to do it."

As opposition to the Council's pro-growth stance grew, the two factions broke down into sides: the "residentialists," who wanted to put the brakes on growth, and the "establishment," which had lofty ambitions for Palo Alto.

The 1965 election proved that residentialist sentiment was growing--six residentialist candidates were elected to a downsized 13-member Council. The result was a City Council whose votes consistently split 7-6, establishment versus residentialists, a situation that led to lengthy and often publicly acrimonious debate.

Residents soon tired of the bickering. A 1967 research report prepared by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce showed that 36 percent of residents polled felt "conflict on the City Council" was the most important issue facing Palo Alto.

That year, voters proved that by sweeping the entire Council out of office in a dramatic recall election. "I still consider the recall the blackest page in Palo Alto's history," said Pearson, who withstood the recall and was re-elected to the Council. "It was a shock and it ruined a lot of people's lives. There were 13 people recalled and 26 were running. It was complete confusion."

In Menlo Park, the extension of Willow Road had been an issue since the 1940s, at one point including grandiose plans to run a freeway from the Dumbarton Bridge all the way to the coast, possibly slicing a path through the headquarters of Sunset Publishing Co. in the process. Ultimately, the debate over extending Willow Road fractured the community.

Led by a committee called WilIow Road Never!, opposition to the mega-highway grew throughout the '60s, culminating in its defeat by voters in 1971.

The furor over growth on the Midpeninsula also led to the formation in 1962 in Ruth Spangenberg's Palo Alto living room of the Committee for Green Foothills, one of the most effective environmental lobbying groups in the Bay Area.

In the 1950s, Palo Alto and Menlo Park built 13 schools to accommodate the huge numbers of baby boomers. But by the middle of the '60s, school construction and enrollment were on the wane.

Voter attitudes also began to change. In 1967, three years after the new Gunn High School opened its doors, Palo Alto voters said no to a $10.7 million proposal to raze and rebuild Palo Alto High School to make it larger and safer. It was the first school bond election loss in Palo Alto in 28 years.

College was the next collective stop for the baby boomers. To accommodate them, Foothill College relocated from Mountain View to a new expanded campus in Los Altos Hills in 1961, and Canada College opened its doors to 2,000 students in 1968.

The race riots of the 1960s, which exploded in communities from Watts to Detroit, helped push the question of civil rights to the top of the national agenda. As a result, race became an issue in the public schools.

In 1967, Dr. Bernadene Allen, a counselor at Stanford University, warned educators and parents that Menlo-Atherton High School was a "time bomb" waiting to go off. A year later her words echoed that prophecy as racial incidents and demonstrations erupted at the school.

In Palo Alto, schools responded to civil rights issues by introducing a multicultural curriculum that would teach minority viewpoints. The move divided the community.

"The subject matter itself sparked controversy," said John Bracken, a Palo Alto elementary school principal at the time. "Many people didn't like the idea simply because it was new. But I felt it was necessary. It was a question of awareness that we are a world of different races and that we have to become sophisticated about our world."

Feelings ran high on both sides, and the editorial pages of the Palo Alto Times carried almost daily letters of citizens voicing their opinions on the value of multicultural education.

Many who were not threatened by the subject matter were offended by the district's newly hired director of multiculturalism, Sid Walton. Many viewed Walton, who voiced support for the Black Panther Party, as far too radical. "He once claimed his house was full of books and bullets," said one former teacher who asked not to be identified. In 1969, a frustrated and angry Walton resigned.

The year before, the district had upped the multicultural ante with a proposal to send Palo Alto elementary students to schools in East Palo Alto's Ravenswood School District and accept some Ravenswood students into Palo Alto schools. "We recognize that our kids are deprived of racial understanding if they have always lived in Palo Alto," said Dr. Harold T. Santee, superintendent of the district at the time.

But in the minds of many, "exchange" was just a fancy term for busing--and red flags went up. "We moved from the Ravenswood School District so we could avoid having our children attend the schools there," Menlo Park resident Glenna Violette wrote in a letter to the Palo Alto Times at the time.

By 1970 many of the multicultural programs were cancelled, not because of controversy, but due to a funding crisis.

In the meantime, students throughout the country were beginning to "do their thing"--and it wasn't just watching TV. To the dismay of their parents and elders, this generation's "thing" also included sex, drugs, rock and roll and thumbing their noses at the "establishment," which could mean anyone from an IBM executive to the local grocer.

"People's children were becoming flower children," said Pearson. "The drug issue seemed to permeate everything else, and the children were the antithesis of what straight Palo Alto wanted."

And there to inspire them with songs of drugs and love was Palo Altan Jerry Garcia, whose band the Grateful Dead made the rounds of St. Michael's Alley, Stanford's Tresidder Union, the Tangent coffeehouse on University Avenue and other locations where revelers congregated.

During this same time period, folk singer Joan Baez, a former Paly student, and her husband, political activist David Harris, bought property above Foothills Park in Palo Alto and named the community Struggle Mountain.

"We were totally swept up in the anti-war movement," said Rain Burns, who lived on Struggle Mountain in the late '60s. "It was an incredibly exciting time. I remember feeling like we were going to change the world. I have to laugh today. We didn't understand the system."

In Palo Alto, children as young as elementary school were suspected of smoking the "killer weed," also called Mary Jane, pot, grass or just plain marijuana.

"Drinking has disappeared. But I can't help thinking they have found a substitute," warned Dr. Robert McLean, principal of Gunn High School, at a panel given for educators and parents in 1968.

By 1966, the situation was considered severe enough to warrant a youth training program at Jordan, Wilbur and Terman junior high schools, according to Bruce Cumming, a veteran of the Palo Alto Police Department who would become chief of police in Menlo Park.

Crime emerged as a major theme of the '60s. Although the population in Palo Alto had stabilized, crime soared. From 1960 to 1970, serious crime rose 176 percent, according to Cumming. Stanford and Palo Alto also were frequent sites of large demonstrations, starting in 1965. The following year, the city saw two major demonstrations: an NAACP-sponsored freedom march in the summer and an anti-war demonstration in the fall.

As the decade progressed, demonstrations grew in frequency and ferocity. On Nov. 5, 1968, the night of the presidential election, more than 1,000 demonstrators turned out for an anti-Nixon "electoral wake." The event turned into a free-for-all, with rock-throwing, window-smashing and fires.

"I still remember the day I grew up," said Cumming, who was a young police officer back then. "I had just joined the force in San Carlos and they sent us over to a riot in Berkeley; some students had just taken over a building. These students started coming out, and I remember thinking 'These, are just little kids.' Then someone hit me with a piece of concrete. It was then I realized I was no longer just Bruce Cumming. I was a cop."

In 1968, events soured further with a series of bombings at Mid-Peninsula Free University at 424 Lytton Ave., Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, the Tangent coffeehouse on University Avenue and the home of Council member Kirke Comstock, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and a strong supporter of gun control.

The bomb that blew the door off Comstock's house was a homemade pipe bomb spiked with nails. "We were out of town that weekend, at the beach in Monterey," Comstock recalled. "We were very fortunate, because you can imagine what would have happened if anyone had answered the door. They would have been killed."

The most violent protest took place on May 16, 1969, when demonstrators brought traffic to a standstill at a Stanford Research Institute office on Page Mill Road, where scientists were conducting classified research. By the time the demonstration ended, more than $20,000 in damage had been done to buildings, one officer had been injured with a bat impregnated with nails, and 93 people had been arrested.

Among Palo Altans, opposition to the war became so strong that residents drafted a resolution to declare the entire city opposed to the war, said Pearson, but the Council never approved the resolution.

"I think we on the Council were as confused as everyone else," she said. "Of course, I thought we should have passed it. As a result, people accused me of being hand in glove with Venceremos (a radical left-wing organization), which of course I wasn't."

Like other universities across the nation, Stanford had its own newsmaking rabble-rouser, H. Bruce Franklin.

A self-proclaimed Maoist, the feisty, free-thinking English professor, science fiction expert and Menlo Park resident led demonstrations, taught classes in Marxism and became a leader in the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, a Marxist-Leninist organization that espoused the violent overthrow of the government.

On Feb. 12, 1971, Stanford University dismissed Franklin for inciting "occupation of the university computer center, urging defiance of a police order to disperse, and calling a nighttime rally for violent action."

After seven years of violence that included race riots, anti-war demonstrations and three painful assassinations, America was a society sickened, but not yet chastened, by violence. More years of turmoil were still to come.