Publication Date: Friday Nov 17, 2000
Tree-lined streets, few sidewalks, lend rural feel to this eclectic community
by Sarah Heim
Shel Silverstein could well have had the Palo Alto neighborhood of Barron Park on his mind when he wrote his popular book, "Where the Sidewalk Ends." Barron Park's sidewalk-less roads, some straight and others winding, help preserve the rural atmosphere of this historic neighborhood.
Barron Park residents have come up with various names for describing their uniquely eclectic community. Six-year resident Maryanne Welton, who lives on Kendall Avenue, said she's heard the phrase "virtual rurality" used. Will Beckett, who has lived on Baker Avenue since 1972, classified parts of his neighborhood as "swanky rural."
Both characterizations are apt.
But it's not just the lack of sidewalks that gives Barron Park its distinctly pastoral feel. It's also the tree-lined streets, two meandering creeks and open spaces like Cornelis Bol Park, which was once a part of the Bol family farm, that make this neighborhood feel generations away from the fast-paced lifestyle around the corner on El Camino Real.
Bounded by El Camino, Page Mill Road, Arastradero Road and Foothill Expressway, Barron Park was an unincorporated island surrounded by Palo Alto until residents voted to be annexed to the city in 1975. Since then, longtime residents like Beckett have watched as the southern Palo Alto neighborhood has grown and changed mirroring the economic boom that has taken place on all its sides. Currently, there are approximately 2,000 family units in Barron Park, including 1,600 single-family homes.
"The socio-economic spread in this area is staggering," Beckett remarked. Along Matadero Avenue, a mobile home development is situated only a few blocks from estates selling in the $6-8 million range, he said. Pre-fab homes brought down on trucks from Redwood City after World War II sit on 1/16 acre lots just around the corner from one of the early Eichler developments. High- and low-rise apartment complexes stand alongside small summer cottages built in the 1920s for San Franciscans trying to escape the foggy weather in the big city.
Doug Moran bought one of these 1920s cottages on Matadero Avenue in 1986. He's been happy living in an area where folks are frequently seen walking out on the street in the evenings or along the bike path that runs through Bol Park connecting Barron Park to both the foothills and Stanford.
Although Moran also mentioned the fragmentation of the neighborhood, he spoke of this division not so much in terms of the economic status of residents, but more in how the lots within the neighborhood have been broken up and shaped over the years.
"This area has developed in drips and drops," Moran said. Because of Barron Park's rural roots, parcels of land were often sold off in a haphazard fashion. As a result, one lot may be 56 to 100 feet deep, as is common in other parts of Palo Alto, whereas a neighboring lot may be as large as a couple of acres. "Near the creek, there are a lot of deep lots and small triangular lots," Moran added. Indeed, not being a cookie-cutter community is what distinguishes it from other parts of Palo Alto and is something that Barron Park residents are most proud of.
Residents like Welton also pride themselves on living in what she deems "the least pretentious part of Palo Alto." From the moment Welton and her husband moved into their home with their two sons, who are now 8 and 11, they knew they'd found a friendly and welcoming neighborhood. Kids would play in the streets after dinner and everyone would be out and meeting the other neighbors, she said. "There has always been a real sense of connection and community here."
The fact that Barron Park is the home of two neighborhood elementary schools, borders Gunn High School and will soon border the new Terman Middle School also helps neighbors, especially those with children, establish a sense of community.
However, even with a strong sense of community, the neighborhood still has to battle with many of the growing pains that are straining resources throughout the Peninsula. Traffic is at an all-time high and new neighborhood development means that architectural review issues have to be addressed. The neighborhood grocery store recently shut down and a new Blockbuster chain opened up, drawing more people to the outskirts of the neighborhood. Clearly, preserving Barron Park as a rural enclave, still convenient to the amenities on El Camino, is no easy task.
To deal with the issues within Barron Park and its surrounding environs, the community developed a neighborhood association. The association's roots date back to 1926, when the area was still inhabited by strawberry and dairy farms. Now known as the Barron Park Association, this group of nearly 350 dues-paying residents works to address and amend neighborhood problems.
"Barron Park has a unique history that allows our association to be a little more savvy than most neighborhood's," said Beckett, who is the president of the group. Because the community had to deal with being unincorporated for so many years, they became quite good at making plans and maneuvering within a bureaucracy, he added.
Beckett can quickly rattle off a number of city, county, state and federal bureaucracies that the association must deal with. This is in part because of the wide diversity of ownership within the neighborhood's boundaries. Gunn High School is on Stanford land. The Veteran's Administration Hospital is on federal land. The Stanford Research Park also belongs to Stanford, but each individual company has limited control over its property. El Camino Real is governed by Caltrans, and the Santa Clara County Water District is responsible for the creeks.
Life may be more complicated in Barron Park today than it was when donkeys and cattle were more prevalent than homeowners, but residents are doing all they can to keep the roots of their oasis firmly intact.
Welton cheerfully recounted her family's attendance at their first neighborhood block party. "It was a warm summer evening," she reminisced. "The moon was rising and everyone brought out a musical instrument and played in the street."
Growth and development concerns aside, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to decree that where the sidewalk ends, many happy lives begin.
Sarah Heim is a local free-lance writer.
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Barron Park facts:
Closest fire station: 600 Arastradero Road
Barron Park Elementary School
Juana Briones Elementary School
J.L. Stanford Middle School
Henry M. Gunn Senior High School
Closest post office: Cambridge Station, 265 Cambridge Ave.
Closest library: Terman Park, 661 Arastradero Road
Closest park: Bol Park, Laguna Avenue between Barron and Matadero avenues. This 3-acre park was named for Dr. Cornelius Bol, a Stanford professor who invented the high-intensity mercury vapor lamp. Includes playground, open lawn areas, benches, long bicycle path.