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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

A long, hard climb A long, hard climb (September 10, 2003)

East Palo Alto built by Herculean efforts from residents, officials

by Don Kazak and Bill D'Agostino

It was supposed to be the 20-year-old city's brightest hour.

Even to the toughest long-time critics, IKEA is East Palo Alto's financial salvation, bringing tax dollars and jobs to the traditionally poor community. But on Aug. 27, the day of the Swedish furniture store's grand opening, memories of the city's violent past returned to haunt the community.

Six separate shootings occurred throughout the city that evening, injuring three people.

"That night scared me," said Police Chief Wes Bowling, who immediately sought help from other agencies and ordered extra patrols for the long Labor Day weekend. He stated his desire to avoid "a '92 on my watch."

By "a '92," Bowling referred to the year 1992, when violence spun out of control in East Palo Alto and 42 people were killed, the highest per capital murder rate in the nation.

The 42 murders destroyed family after family in 1992.

This weekend, the city is celebrating its 20th birthday amidst rising crime. However, there is also a sense of hope and unity promising greater things for the community's future.

Growing pains have abounded during the city's first 20 years. In the politically active community, bitter political battles have been fought over any and all changes. Redevelopment, vital for the city to afford its future, took a long time to take off. Now that long-delayed projects are coming to fruition, the city struggles to avoid gentrification. Political corruption and police scandals have shattered many people's trust in their government over the years.

"It's been 20 years of pain and suffering, finally leading to a good result," said Pete McCloskey, a former Republican congressman who represented East Palo Alto residents and business owners in numerous lawsuits against the city over the years.

On Aug. 27, more than 16,000 people from throughout the Bay Area ventured into East Palo Alto to do something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago: They came to shop.

Many of those shoppers, like Nivedita Khocho who drove from San Jose, wouldn't have dreamed of stepping foot in East Palo Alto before. "I used to think it was a shady place," she said.

The tale of East Palo Alto's transformation officially kicked off on a warm June night in 1983. A few hundred people packed into the basement of a Bell Street residence to await the returns from a contentious election to incorporate the community.

As the hour drew late, a man jumped up on a table and waved a piece of paper in the air, yelling, "We won!" to the cheers of others.

Like many issues, incorporation polarized the community -- the election was decided by just 15 votes.

Gertrude Wilks, a retired dressmaker whose influence is felt far and wide in the city, opposed the move because she felt the community didn't have enough of a tax base to support services. Representing Wilks, McCloskey argued some of the votes were obtained illegally, igniting an ensuing lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the election finally stood.

Others supported incorporation because of the promise of affordable housing and self-control. A few even believed San Mateo County sheriffs and officers were not hard enough on drug dealers, and argued the city needed its own police for protection.

Even the most prescient of residents, however, couldn't have predicted the struggle and work that was still ahead.

Bad feelings over incorporation lingered like a hangover through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, crippling the city politically and slowing any ideas of progress for years.

The city's first city manager, Fred Howell, even quit after complaining things were taking too long.

"If there is one thing I learned in this whole effort, it is patience and persistence and the importance of having community participation," said City Council member and former Mayor Duane Bay.

Meanwhile, drug dealers were slowly taking over.

Like many children who grew up on the city's tough streets, the city's pre-teen and teenage years were the toughest. Frequently exploding with anger and violence, East Palo Alto was shunned and ignored. Many of those who opposed incorporation bitterly argued -- and continue to do so today -- that those horrible years were proof the city didn't have the taxes to support itself.

In 1992, with the murder rate skyrocketing, the city was even called the "murder capital" of the country.

"You had this feeling that there was no civilization and you were on your own," recalled controversial community activist Dennis Scherzer. He was one of a group of citizens who patrolled the streets on Friday and Saturday nights during the worst days of violence. They videotaped drug deals, hoping to persuade buyers to no longer seek drugs in their community.

One night, drug dealers shot out the streetlights to give themselves more cover. Scherzer and others talked calmly, even jokingly about the incident, but the night didn't feel friendly with dealers operating in the shadows.

The darkest day was a 15-hour period that began the evening of Jan. 14, 1992. Eleven shootings, one fatal, all over town.

The next night, 53 officers from departments up and down the Peninsula heeded a call for help. The city was saturated with police cars slowly driving down the now-quiet streets. Few were outside, few others were driving.

It was like a cease-fire in a war zone.

During the next two years, a multi-city strike team of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto officers arrested more than 1,000 people.

"There was unbelievable cooperation from law enforcement," said then-Police Chief Burny Matthews, now the chief in Alameda. "All the egos were set aside. People (in other agencies) were calling me and asking, 'Burn, what do you need?' It made me very proud of my profession."

The cooperation of Palo Alto and Menlo Park was also a turning point. In 1992, then-Mayor Gary Fazzino of Palo Alto rode along with East Palo Alto police one evening. He remembers standing near an apartment building notorious for drug dealing, right near San Francisquito Creek. Across the way, he could see expensive Palo Alto homes.

"I was struck by the juxtaposition of wealth and need," Fazzino said. "It became clear to me that Palo Alto had a responsibility to help East Palo Alto address its problems. It was, in effect, immoral for us to sit by and let this juxtaposition continue."

Cooperation between the three cities increased in 1993, the year three women mayors -- Sharifa Wilson in East Palo Alto, Gail Slocum in Menlo Park, and Jean McCown in Palo Alto -- took office.

In time, the drug-related violence died down.

Now, some are concerned that violence has returned to the streets.

"Gang violence has recently surfaced again after going underground for some time," worried Kimberly Li, a volunteer for Bayshore Christian Ministries.

Li is excited -- but also nervous -- by the changes she's seeing. Although the YMCA is expanding at Bell Street Park, there still aren't enough services for the large youth population, she said.

The average age of an East Palo Altan is 25.8 years-old, according to the 2000 census. That's more than a decade younger than the rest of San Mateo County.

There is also no supermarket for the seniors and others to walk to, although city leaders have made it a top priority.

"As things continue to grow commercially and build up EPA, things also tend to remain the same," Li said.

The city's 20-year struggle for success and financial stability comes against the backdrop of being one of the most racially diverse communities in the state.

It was a mostly white community until the 1950s and 1960s, when it became an African-American community.

The racial equation continues to change. Between the 1990 and 2000 Census, the city shifted to a Latino majority. In 1990, the census showed 8,527 Latinos, or 36.3 percent of the city's residents. By 2000, that number more than doubled to 17,346, or 58.7 percent of the city's residents. African-Americans, on the other hand, declined from 41.1 percent of the city's population in 1990 to 22.5 percent in 2000.

Latinos, mostly Mexican immigrants , have yet to flex their political power. Three Latinos ran as a slate in the City Council election last year, and fared very poorly.

Many think the group's political fortunes will change in time. Evarado Luna, who ran for the City Council three years ago, said political representation "is already in the works. Groups are grooming candidates (to run) now."

Matias Varela, a 23-year resident, is running for the East Palo Alto Sanitary District Board this fall. The lack of political representation "has been a burning issue for a while," he said. "But the numbers are there, now."

The next City Council election will be in 2004. "I think that within the next four years, you'll see an all-Latino City Council," Varela said.

Growing pains remain. The price of housing is still higher than many residents can afford. There is also lingering bitterness about redevelopment projects that brought jobs to city residents and money to the city's coffers.

Most of the resentment arose from development plans on both sides of Bayshore Freeway. On one side of the road was Whiskey Gulch, where mom and pop stores sold liquor and rented videos. On the other side was Ravenswood High School and apartment buildings.

The high school would eventually be replaced by the current shopping center, while development plans for Whiskey Gulch, which go back to 1987, took five years to be approved before dying in a blizzard of lawsuits. Palo Alto developer Chop Keenan resurrected those plans in 1997, but eventually lost to Menlo Park developer Linda Law, who built what is now known as University Circle. Today, the office towers stand as landmarks for the city, along with the concrete pad for a much anticipated Four Seasons luxury hotel.

A bitterly divided City Council didn't help matters.

"We had to overcome the stigma of our community," said former Councilwoman Sharifa Wilson, "and we had to overcome the stigma of our (political) leadership," which had been hopelessly divided.

It took the gang-related street violence of 1992 to pull the council together. At a historic retreat on Feb. 6, 1993, the five council members vowed to put aside any political differences to work for the good of the city.

"The first thing we had to do was to get ourselves together and work in unity," said Rose Jacobs Gibson, then a council member and now a San Mateo County supervisor.

Redevelopment efforts were delayed for at least a year when a major tenant store set for the first phase of the shopping center, Sportmart, dropped out.

Home Depot's decision serve as an anchor for the center was seen as pivotal.

"We saw the potential there," said Home Depot spokesperson Kathryn Gallagher. "There was certainly growth and the ability to support us. We felt we could help the community grow through our business."

The community's resentment eventually boiled into efforts to recall some of the City Council members. One was led by former anti-drug crusader Scherzer, but it never reached the ballot.

Some politicians' own failings contributed to the lack of trust within the community. A former three-time mayor, R. B. Jones, was a forceful and charismatic leader until he became the subject of an FBI investigation and was convicted for offering bribes to companies that wanted to do business in East Palo Alto, among other offenses.

"They (the city leaders) were abusive to people with whom they disagreed," McCloskey said of Jones and others from the era.

Despite their flaws, the leaders still got redevelopment underway. Over time, Whiskey Gulch became replaced by tall office towers -- many currently vacant, some residents note resentfully -- while Home Depot, IKEA and other stores sit on the other side of the freeway.

The trade-off in human terms was as high as the trade-off politically. Around 600 people were displaced to make room for the stores that now make up the Ravenswood 101 Center.

For many, displacement was a mixed blessing -- they used their settlement money (often in the tens-of-thousands-of-dollars) to make down payments on first homes, but the new houses were located far away from their city.

Elizabeth Jackson was one of the few residents who didn't leave the city. Instead, she settled into another apartment complex. On Aug. 27, she also volunteered to help IKEA open -- ironically, on the site of her former home.

As she handed out paper maps to shoppers walking through the front door, Jackson laughed as she recalled (to the discomfort of a nearby PR representative) when opponents lifted a coffin into the City Hall to protest IKEA.

Like each of the city's dramatic changes, IKEA sparked a bitter fight. Residents debated whether there would be too much traffic. They questioned whether the new jobs would really go to East Palo alto residents as promised.

Watching shoppers travel from around the Bay Area to East Palo Alto reinforced the notion that adding the "Blue Box" to the city's meager skyline was a good trade-off for many of its supporters.

"Most of the people that came here are not from the community," Sani Wadunia said proudly during the grand opening. Sporting a yellow hat and blue apron, he also volunteered to help the day run smoothly.

During the election in 2002 to decide whether IKEA could move in, Wadunia drove around in his truck, colorful balloons bobbing on top, to rally voters to approve the project.

During the campaign, Jackson lost friends, but also felt it was worth the fight. "It's a start," she said. "It's a beginning but it's not the answer to everything."

The city has also worked attempted to keep its low income residents in town.

Rent control was one of the first laws passed after the city received its charter, and the community now boasts one of the most aggressive requirements in the state for developers to build low-income housing, or provide money for its creation.

On Thursday, Sept. 11, Nugent Square -- a 32-unit affordable housing project -- will break ground.

Despite working three jobs, Georgina Peraza -- one of those who have benefited from the city's housing efforts -- says she is living the American dream, East Palo Alto-style.

Peraza came from El Salvador more than 20 years ago with her husband and small child. She began working as a housecleaner, but after being "this close to being homeless," Peraza climbed her way up the ladder.

Today, she has three daughters, three jobs, no husband, and -- to her delight -- a practically brand-new two-story home on Gates Street, behind Home Depot.

"It still smells new," she said joyfully. "I clean it every weekend."

Like the city, there is work still to be done on Peraza's house. The next step is to purchase some blinds for the now-bare windows.

"I think my neighbor has seen me naked a couple of times," she said, a smile spreading widely across her face.

E-mail Bill D'Agostino at bdagostino@paweekly.com. E-mail Don Kazak at bdagostino@paweekly.com


 

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