|It’s nice to know that in this country where war is always imminent with Bush at the helm, and a sniper is loose and terrorizing people, and racial fighting and digression goes on in schools from children’s earliest years — well, it’s heart-warming to know that there are rays of sunshine amidst the bleak background we somehow seem to focus on too har. Like one of those computer generated pictures with all of the dots that come together and make a beautiful drawing once you stare at it long enough. Sometimes I miss the beauty and just focus on the thousands of dots that never make a clear image. I have to say that for the last few weeks I’ve been focusing on the big picture because focusing on the pieces had really gotten me thinking that even a little change takes tremendous work on everyone’s behalf. Guess what? It is true one person’s efforts can still make a difference.
For whatever circumstance, I’ve been finding myself in East Palo Alto, an area I know a lot of history about, but have never spent much time in. Last I knew the area in total is only 2.5 square miles in total, but that hardly seems accurate. It seems so much bigger. The difference between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto? I guess I never thought about it much, but there it was — it was never so apparent to me about what a difference a digit can make, a zip code more precisely. East Palo Alto is like land that technology forgot, an island where a sea of wealth surrounds it, but never quite touches its shores. I am pleased to see a group www.pluggedin.org reaching out to the community with technology. I paid a visit to the group and found it set back from University Avenue on the east side of the freeway. Located in a trailer, I went in and saw people of all ages learning how to use computers. All of a sudden I felt hopeful for the future of the city of East Palo Alto.
This city was passed up for the major shipping harbor in the 1800s that transformed Redwood City into a major city of industry. East Palo Alto has always lost the bids, and had been instead known for its cheap motels, bars and it’s highest per-capita murder rate in the country during bits and pieces of the ’80s. As I left the building I was invigorated about what this place (that had been so depressed for so long) could actually become – had actually become. With the Home Depot and other large chain stores moved it, it’s tax base is expanding and becoming strong — it is definitely the Pheonix rising from the flames. See below for my quick (somewhat) history of East Palo Alto.
I left the trailer and decided to drive around for a place to eat dinner. It was early and I had an appointment in Palo Alto, so I had about two hours to kill. It was still too early for some places to be open so I could sit down and have some coffee and read the Palo Alto to when I was 16 where we would dismantle parts from a 69 Mustang to build up my car. I had no idea how to get to thank junkyard, and all of a sudden – there it was. Oddly enough, it felt like home. I went driving around the neighborhoods and found myself in tough-looking neighborhoods with a lot of teenaged men of color hanging out around cars, probably wondering what a white girl in a suit, in a white car was doing cruising around. Or maybe that was just me, I was definitely being stared at, but having come from LA, where diversity is a good thing, and having lived in a Peninsula city for way too long — a city where young black men walking on the street are often pulled over and asked what they are doing, I guess I felt a bit apprehensive. I got over it quickly. I noticed the cute houses, and although there were a lot of dead lawns, I could see that many people had pride in their Weekly I had picked up, but I did find — lo’ and behold — the car junkyard my dad used to take me homes. I started to drive toward Palo Alto where I found a restaurant closer by where I had to be, Cantor Museum at Stanford for the Advanced Technology Ventures annual cocktail party www.atvcapital.com . I started reading the paper and found that the best deals on houses just about anywhere in the Bay Area were indeed in East Palo Alto. Houses under $350k for a 3 bedroom in a neighborhood with a guaranteed growing tax base. What’s wrong with this picture. I began talking with a few of my friends who were looing to buy houses, when I even mentioned that they go look — well, my suggestion was met with a, “Are you crazy?” Hmmmm, maybe we still have a long way to go. Anyway I’d tell you to go to Palo Weekly online, but their classifieds section and all of their damn popup windows have crashed my system twice. It’s the suckiest website I’ve ever seen, and one that’s trying to sell your information via cookies and popups — don’t go there. Go to www.sanjosemercury.com instead.
The ATV cocktail party was such a contrast to East Palo Alto. There was a string quartet, a warm night, fine food and wine, men wearing Armani suits. All this amid beautiful art in the courtyard of the museum that holds some of the finest collections in the country. It was all so surreal; I thought about it — here I was mingling with people who had billions to spend on new companies (other VCs were well represented) and entrepreneurs who had received some really lucky breaks in good times — and there I was only two miles away from East Palo Alto…noshing on some delectable salmon crumpet on some kind. It was so strange, in my time at Stanford I had really never thought about East Palo Alto. Now, it’s weighing heavy on my mind. Life deals its cards out in mysterious ways.
A few days later, angel investor Carol Sands, www.angelsforum.com, invited me to a meeting at the home of a woman who is hosting an event that she doesn’t give me too much information, just that it’s right in line with one of the educational startups I’m working on. Carol is one of the most active people I know not only in her communities, but those in other counties. So, I drive down into this area that used to be called Mayfield, right on the boarder of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto that had been annexed by the city to expand its boarder to the freeway on that side of PA. The streets are filled with manicured lawns, Halloween decorations are already out, it smells like jasmine. These are easily $2M homes, only a quarter of a mile away (and over one freeway) from those $300k homes I mentioned earlier. Anyhow, all this is going through my mind when I see the address. It’s a gorgeous suburban home, its warm lights glowing through the windows like a Thomas Kinkade painting www.ThomasKinkade.com.. I am late, but I am greeted warmly at the door and offered food and drink before I settle into a sofa with about a dozen other people. Carol is giving a talk. It’s a lovely home, very warm and woody, there’s a pool table in the next room and I sense that somewhere there are children.
So, I begin listening and really tuning into what’s being said. It’s a group called Facing History and Ourselves, www.facinghistory.org, and I really like what I’m hearing. Apparently this nonprofit group organizes training for all grades and all schools to teach diversity appreciation through the horrible lessons we’ve learned from our past. We were shown a short video where two Dutch women were interviewed about hiding Jews during the war — the whole town was known as a sanctuary. In the end they were all taken, but the old woman just said, “We didn’t think about ourselves, how can you when someone comes to your door and says they are going to be killed if you don’t hide them.” I’m paraphrasing, but I thought it was so beautiful, and there are many people who would not have hidden them, War Time Germany was filled with them. Having been to the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam, this video was hitting all the right buttons for me. But, I thought, how will these generations that have come after ever relate?
. The program is wrapped around whatever subject a teacher is teacher. A teacher named Stacey Miller, a teacher at a high school in Pleasanton, had the most amazing presentation. She teaches Societal Justice based on literature. She receives her teaching materials from the org and integrates them into her teaching, where students read such books as The Sunflower, by Simon Weisenthal www.wiesenthal.com. She spoke of how the videos and books open the class up for discussion about diversity. She had the kids (juniors in high school) write up quotes about the program (which often involves art projects and poetry). These are a few:
“I felt that many people just want to know their place in the world. Many people just find it hard not to follow the trends. I am one myself. I have to be wearing something cute, flattering or even sexy. I feel that people that do not stand out are the ones that know who and or what they are and who they want to be. People who have to be the same as everyone else are weak in my mind. Which means I am also weak because I am also guilty of this.”
“I try hardest to be nice to people. Yet sometimes, when we are all together, we tend to judge other people. Maybe not everybody in the senior class is invited to our parties. Maybe we exclude people on Friday nights when we when we sit together at football games. I watch myself now and don’t stoop to such a petty level, but not everyone is perfect and I’m sure I’m guilty of hurting someone’s feelings. And I’m remorseful of it and hope that I’m a better person today than I was yesterday.”
“I never knew there was so much pain. I never knew how deeply people are hurting. I mean, I knew, but I didn’t KNOW…. To the girl who says she’s an outsider on the inside: Thank you. There is imperfection, there is unhappiness. She has just endeared herself to me.”
“At times students are overwhelmed with this completely absurd idea that you have to be smart to live a happy and rewarding life. Well, what’s smart? I’m just glad I’m not alone.”
“We are different because that’s what makes the world beautiful. It is through recognizing our differences that we all come to realize that we are so much the same.”
“I feel bad for people when they get picked on like every day. I want to say something, but then what if they started picking on me? I know that I should stand up for them, but it’s hard sometimes.”
And this is what I sat in Barbara Streng’s front room and listened to for a few hours. We even broke off into threes and did some of the exercises the classes are asked to do. We talked about the video we saw. It was incredible. I tell you, I’ve been having some serious doubts when I see how self-centered and uncaring teenagers can be who’ve been raised with love and caring, whew! It was a great exercise that made my heart feel so light. Yes, more rays of sunshine in this overwhelmingly bleak world.
It reminds me of my friend Lakshmi Pratury, former VC, who is involved with www.schoolsonline.org a group that brings the Internet and computers to schools in India. What I found amazing was that children in India know how to code in many languages, but many of them have never even used a computer – the code on paper! Her hope is to bring connectivity to children so they will learn that they can befriend people across boarders where only hate has been before.
“My hope is that if the children from the region start communicating with one another, if they understand that the children from the other country have the same hopes, aspirations, fears, and doubts that they themselves have, maybe, just maybe there is a chance that they will think twice before wishing death upon an imagined enemy,” says Lakshmi. “My belief is that it’s not what we know that makes us believe that we have enemies, but rather what we do not know that makes us create an enemy. My dream is that one of these children who takes the time and has been given the opportunity to know their neighbor will grow up to lead their country. Then, he, or she, may be willing to remove the smoke of gunfire that distorts clear vision and walk across the borders to hold their long lost sibling in a tight embrace. Once we befriend our neighbor, we are able to lift our heads and see that the whole world can be encircled in that embrace. Then the freedom of cyberspace will truly be instrumental in creating a global village.”
Excerpt taken from my book FutureNet.
As I look around this world where teenagers with bombs strapped to themselves are throwing themselves into crowds, and children join armies way too early in life — I see hope. I see hope for kids here in America to stop being so tied up with themselves, and raise their heads and look around at the rest of the word. The three organizations could really use some cash, so you might want to think about them when you’re making your end of year donations.
Sally’s History of East Palo Alto
As an excavator of history, and one who tries to tie it in neatly with the present day and those who live in it, I see East Palo Alto weaving together a stronger fabric that includes a rich past, children, education and technology to bring a better life to the people of this community. East Palo Alto seems to be torn apart every era, and it deserves the opportunity to blossom like it’s neighbors to the North, West and South. East Palo Alto has a very rich history, but has never been given the break it really deserved. Originally called Ravenswood, its also been known as Cooley's Landing, Runnymede, Weeks Poultry Colony, Mayfield, Palo Alto, and then, finally, as a separate entity named East Palo Alto in 1983 when it was annexed. In all of that time, and even before, it was known for its people of diversity. Its original inhabitants were Ohlone/Costanoan Native Americans, and then Ranchers from Spain. Caucasian settlers from the Gold Rush Era gave way to Chinese laborers who worked at the East Palo Alto brick foundry that built some of the finest hotels in San Francisco.
Many of the Chinese immigrants lived with their families (about 40) either in East Palo Alto, or very nearby (transportation was very difficult in those days, although there could be an argument made that walking is faster at times than driving the 101). After the foundry closed, many of the families moved out of the area to find work, but some stayed and their descendents as well as the newcomer Italian immigrant families would see the agricultural success of the cities to the South and started flower growing companies. After agriculture became too competitive with the land costs (the populations of cities were growing and it was more affective to sell land than make money growing crops on it), the city’s population would became primarily African American with people moving from the East Bay after the shipyards began closing down after WWII. Samoans and Hispanics also joined the burgeoning community to bring yet more cultural richness to the city. East Palo Alto is like a beautiful quilt made from the memories and traditions of many different cultures.
Along with the opportunity to learn from other cultures and grow with them, also came the turbulence of the land’s ownership. No other part of the Bay Area has had such controversy – except the South San Jose Almaden Quicksilver Mine (the second most richest mercury mine in the world, that produced more money for its owners than all of the gold mines of the 49er era put together — one needs mercury to sort gold from rock) that was the primary reason for Spain and Mexico’s last foothold on California property. The Spanish missionaries claimed the land from it’s original Native American inhabitants via slavery perpetuated by the missionary system (one of the little talked about facts was that there was a very high abortion rate of Native American women because they would rather see their children dead than come into a tribe that was staving because the missionaries would not allow hunting, or traditions that assured their continued existence) and the vulnerability of an entire people brought down by diseases carried by the missionaries. The missionaries decimated the tribes of thousands of people that once dotted the hills and shores of the Peninsula. Once those residents were “dealt with,” by the Spanish missionaries the land was claimed by Spain, the Catholic Church, Mexico, and the Arguello family who owned most of the area on the Peninsula, San Jose and into the mountain areas. After California was annexed as part of the United States, the land was once again in turmoil when the United States laid claim to it, and had to go to the Supreme Court where the Arguello family was given title, but lost much of it after having given most of it in lieu of fees to their attorney, and had to sell much of it to pay the new taxes. It was the first trend in the area where the attorneys would make out like bandits as the infrastructure around them crumbled; a time not so different from today as the bubble took everyone but the attorneys down — you even need an attorney to file bankruptcy.
What was then and now called East Palo Alto and neighboring Mayfield had many whisky houses to service the lumberjacks that would come down off of the Woodside and Santa Cruz mountains. Something that would have changed East Palo Alto forever occurred and the East Palo Alto pier was passed up and Redwood City won out the contract for the San Francisco shipping route. Redwood City and San Carlos were the cities that won the bids for the tanneries that were built on the Bay. What is now the Bay used to go down nearly to the base of Mt. Hamilton and was one of the richest oyster beds in the country and home to many sea otters. Native Americans once rode their reed canoes on fishing expeditions to feed their tribes. Once the tanneries were built toxic chemicals were completely dumped directly into the Bay and the oyster beds died out, leaving tons of oyster shells that were eventually crushed, mixed with cement and made into what is today the San Mateo Bridge.
The city of Palo Alto became the disapproving “older sister,” of the underdeveloped East Palo Alto, as the town seemed to mostly attract bars, gambling houses and cheap hotels. After the Bayshore Freeway was built, it was known for its hotels and cheap diners and became a city based more on transient business than corporations such as the rest of the Peninsula. After the cloverleaf exit was built, it forever physically divided the two cities, and put nearly 50 local businesses under that were supporting the city’s tax base. Many years later, the town would also face extreme crime issues, especially murders. After lobbying and much hard work by the community, it attracted state and federal grants that would lead it on a road of recovery. Just as things were moving that direction, the dot-com era hit and developers saw the little town’s value soar. Many people who were renters could no longer afford to live in their community, and the city that had been hanging on for all of its life began to see its communal thread unravel as homeowners sold their houses to retire to more affordable areas. One thing the small community has seen is an increase in its tax base, which has given more of an opportunity to this small city that has been overlooked since its inception.