Our Neighbors Have Lost Their Color!

A tale about the lost identity of a small town.

As Ken Simmons walks through the neighborhood of his childhood and adolescence, in the small town of East Palo Alto, CA, about 15 miles up the Peninsula from San Jose, he recognizes many of the old houses and corner stores he would walk by everyday in his youth. Now 32, Ken moved away from the city around the time of the 2008 economic recession. Moving across the Bay into the more suburban surroundings of Newark, CA. While Ken makes an attempt to visit his much adored hometown as frequently as possible, he’s continuously finding that as more time passes, the less motivated he is to come back. “I come back now, and…it’s just not what it was. Before, I would turn every corner and recognize someone, an aunt, uncle, friend…now I come back and I feel like a stranger.” In fact, all of Ken’s family that once inhabited the city, which formerly numbered in the dozens, have since moved away; leaving only a continuously dwindling number of friends left to see.

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Sadly, Ken’s chapter in the greater story of today’s East Palo Alto (EPA) is not unique. Ken, like many other African-American East Palo Alto natives, has fallen victim to the rising housing costs, supplanting of low-income families, shifting demographics, and overall cultural displacement brought on by the social phenomena known as gentrification. Gentrification has taken hold of many communities throughout not only the San Francisco Bay Area, but throughout the country. The benefits of gentrification are evident. In 1992, the city of East Palo Alto was infamously dubbed as the “murder capital of the US”, leading the nation in murders per-capita. Eventually inspiring a Michelle Pfeiffer led major motion picture about the challenges of assimilating East Palo Alto youth into suburban institutions.

Flash forward to today and East Palo Alto has experienced a renaissance… of sorts. While the influx of jobs and resources through the recent technology boom has brought great prosperity to its surrounding area, few of the same perks have overflowed into East Palo Alto city limits. Much of the native population still lacks post-secondary degrees, meaning only a select few long time residents possess the required skills to occupy any of the new jobs. While witnessing few of the benefits of the boom, the city and its residents have now been stricken with the burden of housing its share of the thousands of tech workers flooding the area. The neighboring Santa Clara county, the epicenter of Silicon Valley, is home to some of the highest housing costs in the country. Right across Highway 101 lies its more fancied name sake, Palo Alto, which can proudly claim to have a higher median home price than the average college graduate will earn in a lifetime. With housing at such a premium, many “tech-ies”, even those with highly fancied positions, get squeezed out these exclusive neighborhoods and head slightly north to comfy confines of East Palo Alto. Leaving long-time EPA residents reeling and at the mercy of exploding housing costs. Quite the “opportunity cost”, no?

You see, up until the early 00’s, East Palo Alto was one of only a handful of cities in the S.F. Bay Area with a historically proud African-American majority population. Rich in both culture and diversity, the city long stood as an oasis of vibrant color in the midst of the otherwise bland palette known as San Mateo and Santa Clara County. Furthermore, the ominous gentrification tide shows no signs of letting up. With Facebook currently constructing an elaborate, four-level office complex in the heart of East Palo Alto, fear is abound that housing prices will only further increase; leaving the remaining surviving residents at great risk of unwanted displacing. The next decade could continue to see the city morph at an even greater rate. Long-time East Palo Alto residents are fighting back. But public displays of protest hardly move the needle when millions, if not billions, of dollars are behind the shift to a “new” East Palo Alto.

“I used to head down to Rainer’s (former local Afro-centric barbershop) and you could get a real feel for what was going on around the city just talking to everyone there…now that same place is what, an office building?”, asked Ken. (It is in fact, now a realtor’s office, a realtor perhaps cashing in on the misfortune of people just like Ken.)As the greater Bay Area continues to experience this great economic boom, its people must pose themselves the quintessential question when that same economic growth is gentrifying its most vibrant communities: at what cost?