By Imahn Daeenabi and Maria Sosa-Ramos: District 4 Intern, Summer 2019
The City of East Palo Alto was originally home to Ohlone and Costanoan Native Americans. Eventually, Spanish Ranchers took over, followed by an influx of speculators and settlers. During the mid-to-late 1800s, entrepreneur Isaiah Woods attempted to turn the area into a shipping town. Later, Lester Cooley built a brick factory in the area now known as Cooley's Landing that turned the town into a manufacturing region for some time. However, the area later became a farming community.
Many Japanese and Italian flower growers and farmers were engaged in agricultural production during this period. Before World War II, there was a large Japanese population that contributed to East Palo Alto's flower growing economy. Once the war began, they were forced out and sent to internment camps, paving the way for a 1950s flood of middle-class Caucasians and African Americans looking for housing.
Political Struggles: 1850s-1950s
East Palo Alto was first established as an unincorporated region in 1856 by a bill introduced in the State Senate outlining the boundary of the County of San Francisco. Then in 1857, another State Senate bill established the County of San Mateo and maintained East Palo Alto's status as an unincorporated region, albeit part of this new county.
Throughout the early 1900s, the area of present-day East Palo Alto also consisted of areas known as Ravenswood and North Palo Alto and was represented by the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber considered incorporation during the 1920s but ultimately decided against it. In the following decades, many residents called for incorporation, and several actions were taken that led to uphill legal battles.
The Issue of Incorporation: 1950s-1983
During the second half of the 1900s, Palo Alto and Menlo Park annexed land from East Palo Alto, decreasing the area to the city's current size of just 2.5 square miles. After several pro-incorporation campaigns, East Palo Alto held an election to decide whether to incorporate, after a ballot measure passed. Incorporation would not have been possible without efforts from Frank J. Omowale Satterwhite, Robert Hoover, and Ruben Abrica. Pete McCloskey, former U.S. Congress Member, attorney and real-estate broker mounted a legal challenge along with Gertrude Wilks to stop the ballot measure and the election to decide incorporation. However, McCloskey’s legal challenge was turned down by the California Supreme Court, allowing the city to pursue incorporation. East Palo Alto became one of California’s youngest cities when incorporation was approved by 15 in votes in 1983: 1,782 to 1,767. The first members of the East Palo Alto City Council were Ruben Abrica, James E. Blakey Jr., Mayor Barbara A. Mouton, Frank J. Omawale Satterwhite, and Gertrude Wilks.
Post-Incorporation Difficulties: 1983-2000
Following incorporation, East Palo Alto struggled to stay afloat financially. Before 1983, the unincorporated region relied on San Mateo County resources and the Sheriff's Office to fight crime. Post-incorporation presented its own set of struggles, as the city grappled with revenue issues. Shortages in funding coupled with a historically poor community hurt by blockbusting policies translated to high rates of violent crime and gang violence as the end of the millennium drew near. The area experienced erratic growth and frequent conflict, particularly between different ethnicities. The crack epidemic decimated the city, particularly the predominantly African American population. By 1992, the city had gained a reputation of being the U.S. "murder capital" and was the nation's leader in per capita murders that year with 42 for a population of just 24,000. The Police Department's well-documented cases of corruption and misconduct only diminished relations between residents and law enforcement, perpetuating violence.
Improvements in Law Enforcement and the Community: 2000-Present
By the beginning of the new millennium, the East Palo Alto Police Department had switched towards a community-based policing strategy. A succession of several successful mayors and chiefs of police encouraged community-police relations and strengthened bonds between faith-based groups, organizations, and law enforcement. These bonds helped re-instill public confidence in law enforcement and drove down violent crime. During the same period, several extensive federal gang crackdowns occurred that also contributed to the decrease in crime. Assisting with the crime reduction was a so-called "explosion" of development. Replacing old bars, liquor stores, and shops was a sprawling shopping center, a Four Seasons Hotel, and office buildings. The changes mentioned above played a significant role in considerable crime reduction in East Palo Alto. By 2017, violent crime had dropped more than 60% from 1990 levels and murders had fallen from 42 in 1992 to 1 in 2017 – a decrease of more than 97%.
New Challenges: 2000-Present
With several improvements in East Palo Alto there have also come new challenges. Property prices have increased to 800,000 and above, placing a strain on residents and causing many to leave the area. Developments set aside as low-income housing have been instrumental for the residents in East Palo Alto. Undoubtedly, East Palo Alto faces challenges such as gentrification, housing, and education. Nonetheless, with various changes in the community in the last two decades, the future is brighter. Despite new challenges, many things have remained constant, namely the characteristics that have always attracted people to the area: the price of land and housing in comparison to cities nearby; its centralized location; proximity to transportation and San Francisco Bay.
Among several improvements, Cooley Landing Educational Center has been one of the many successes in East Palo Alto. This location serves as a place for community meetings while helping preserve the areas cultural heritage, history and traditions. This was a product of collaboration with several partners including San Mateo County.
In the past East Palo Alto has been known for its criminal activity and has faced several challenges. However, there is a great number of non-profits partners who are there to improve the quality of life for all. One East Palo Alto has been instrumental in transforming East Palo Alto into a community where residents are celebrated for their diversity and empowered.
East Palo Alto witnessed a 25.8% growth in population between the years 1990-2000. African Americans, whose numbers previously composed a majority of the racial demographics during previous decades, comprise a much smaller share of the population now. The Hispanic community, on the other hand, witnessed a 103.42% increase. In the year 1990, the Hispanic population stood at roughly 8,527, and by 2002 it had reached 17,346.
According to the 2010 Census, Hispanics and African Americans remain as the two largest racial groups, with Hispanics making up 61.1% of the population and African Americans about 15.6%. There is also a large Pacific Islander population, comprising 10.9% of the population and contributing to the remarkable diversity of East Palo Alto. Asians and Caucasians each constitute 7.2% of the population, rounding out the rest of the various racial groups with a presence in the city. The primary language spoken by residents in East Palo Alto is very much reflective of the dominating group. Spanish stands as a primary language to approximately 64.8% of the population. English lays in second place with 21.3%, and small percentages of Pacific and Indo-European languages compose other languages spoken in the city.
Poverty in East Palo Alto has been in a slow but steady decline. In 2010, 21% of families lived below poverty levels. Six years later, that number lowered to 16.6% and a year later to 13.7%. Improvements in these numbers might partially be attributable to the non-profit and church organizations in the area whose efforts focus towards addressing poverty.
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