A Tale of Two Cities: How racism in housing deeds, redlining and gentrification led to the stark divide between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto
November 23, 2020
The bumpy potholes and ridges lining the floor of Highway 101, the historic highway traversing California’s west coast, don’t make for a smooth ride. Despite unpleasant rush hour traffic and rough paving, countless Palo Alto residents drive the lengths of 101 daily, and unofficial landmarks are recognizable to many: the all-too-familiar blue and yellow of the East Palo Alto IKEA, the temporary white construction barriers and the sporadic billboards advertising a plethora of services.
In many regards, the rushing highway traffic represents affluence and comfortable middle-class life: the fleet of sedans and SUVs making their way up and down Highway 101 boast passengers working in the world’s most affluent tech companies and high-end San Francisco businesses. Indeed, Palo Alto, the common destination of such travelers, is itself a hotbed of wealth—in 2018, city residents’ median household income was more than double the national median.
Yet less noticeably, Highway 101 remains the de facto divide between affluent Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, a city with an estimated poverty rate of 12.6% and a place known as the per-capita murder leader of the U.S. in 1992. Although East Palo Alto has made encouraging progress in safety and decreasing the city’s poverty level, such vast disparity is far from a coincidence. In fact, this artificial divide is caused by an extensive history of racial segregation that has long infiltrated the community.
A multitude of discriminatory housing practices, such as restrictive deeds and redlining, have contributed to vast educational and socioeconomic inequalities—and the implications of such practices, far from being relics of a bygone era, threaten to rear their heads once more in the current debate over who should have access to Foothills Park.
A history of housing segregation
Despite spurring quintessential Silicon Valley innovation and laying claim to a seemingly progressive community, the Bay Area was not—and still is not—immune to the gentrification and racial segregation that plagued cities all over the country.
During the economic boom following World War II, minority families began flooding into the Bay Area to look for a place to settle. However, they were met with widespread resistance: in Palo Alto, certain properties in multiple neighborhoods subdivided from 1925 to 1950 had deed restrictions specifying that “no person not wholly of the white caucasian race shall use or occupy such property unless such person or persons are employed as servants of the occupants,” according to the website Palo Alto History.org.
Social studies teacher Laurel Howard, a Palo Alto resident since childhood, recalls that bylaws embedded in the deeds of nearby houses were surprisingly commonplace. “My parents own a house in Palo Alto,” she said. “When they bought the house, [it was] actually written into their deed that they can’t sell the house to a person of color.”
A similar practice of barring property sales to people of color was in place near Stanford University’s campus. During World War II, the Peninsula Housing Association of Palo Alto purchased a large amount of land to build 400 houses in response to the housing shortages at the time. In their bylaws and deeds, the association incorporated a quota system promising that the proportion of Black homeowners on their land would not exceed the proportion of Black individuals in all of California. Later, they sold their land to a private developer with a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) agreement detailing that no properties could be sold to any Black individuals.
As a result, people of color were prohibited from settling in most Palo Alto neighborhoods. Left with no other options, minority families turned to a nearby area, the soon-to-be called East Palo Alto, where housing prices were lower and housing restrictions were less frequent.
Although these types of racial restrictions were outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, de facto restrictions nevertheless persisted through bylaws and deeds. The effects have cascaded to from the modern-day divide: houses were often passed through generations, creating the segregated community seen today.
Discrimination and FHA redlining
Of course, these practices of racial segregation weren’t just limited to Palo Alto. In 1934, the FHA was established on a nationwide scale. Originally, the agency was created to improve housing standards and increase employment in the midst of the Great Depression; in order to do so, the FHA worked with real estate companies to provide loans to potential homeowners.
Real estate companies, however, wanted a guarantee that potential homeowners would actually pay back their loans; thus, the federal government marked out neighborhoods to provide “risk ratings” that would judge which neighborhoods would pay back loans on time, resulting in a process marred by racism. “The neighborhoods that tended to be the most safe investments [for real estate companies] tended to be neighborhoods with that very strict, stereotypical cookie-cutter white family, because those were socially seen as more respectable and safer,” Howard said. Neighborhoods seen as “high risk” were outlined in red lines, leading to the term of “redlining.” Neighborhoods of color were outlined in red more often than not, leaving such areas deeply segregated for years to come.
In nearby San Francisco, for example, 87% of previously redlined neighborhoods are still classified today as low-income, according to the Urban Displacement Project. Other nearby cities subjected to redlining policies in the past include San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley.
Some neighborhoods in Palo Alto, however, were less segregated than others. “The Greenmeadow neighborhood was more integrated,” Howard said. “However, just because they would sell the house [to people of color], doesn’t mean that [they] had equal access to it.”
Setbacks faced by minority families, such as the lack of access to loans, still played an influential role in housing settlement; even if families were allowed to live in a neighborhood, they often could not afford to do so.
Redlining was ultimately made illegal with the Federal Fair Housing Act in 1968, a ban that was later reinforced by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975, which required banks to report their public loan data. Yet the damage was done: only 1.6% of Palo Alto residents are Black, according to the 2019 U.S. Census estimate.
East Palo Alto gentrification
Through both discriminatory deeds and illegal redlining practices, the divide between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto widened in the years following World War II. During the 1960s and 1970s, Palo Alto began to thrive. The technology industry was booming and Stanford University became a premier institution, attracting professors, students and innovators alike. However, housing prices remained steep, and the discriminatory practices kept many from settling in Palo Alto. “East Palo Alto, right next door, became the space where people who are coming to this region, either to work as domestic servants or even people who are coming to be graduate students at Stanford, [lived],” Howard said.
Yet East Palo Alto was not incorporated as a city until 1983, denying it the money and resources that would have helped it advance. Former Stanford Dean of Freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims argued the decision it left East Palo Alto free to be preyed on by developers. “[Developers thought,] ‘There’s no land left on the Peninsula, so we better start buying up East Palo Alto,’” Lythcott-Haims said. “And then East Palo Alto got gentrified.”
Gentrification is the practice of reforming an area or neighborhood to conform to the current taste of society; in other words, developers change the character of the neighborhood in response to an influx of affluent residents or businesses and make it more appealing to those with power and money.
As tech powerhouses began settling in the Bay Area, especially along the southwest border of East Palo Alto, the community began to change accordingly. “[Facebook] employees [were] like, ‘Oh, we’re in East Palo Alto. This is a sketchy area,” social studies teacher Haley Perkins said, illustrating a common viewpoint held by nearby tech corporations.
As such, companies longed to make the community “safer” for their new employees to live in; for instance, Facebook–whose headquarters lie on the Menlo Park and East Palo Alto border–currently funds a branch of the Menlo Park Police Department specifically for policing the area surrounding their headquarters.
The consequence of gentrification was a rise in already expensive housing prices. Some East Palo Alto residents, especially those who settled in the city after being denied housing elsewhere, were displaced. One University of California at Berkeley study found that East Palo Alto “lost thousands of low-income black households” from 2010 to 2015, with no similar effects reported in predominantly white neighborhoods in the same time period.
Yet gentrification does not inherently have to create a negative impact, according to Perkins. “I think that, philosophically, when people are removed from their homes because they can no longer afford to live there or because of other governmental policies, that’s a moral wrong,” she said. “Gentrification isn’t necessarily a bad thing if what it’s doing is investing in communities for [those] that exist there, and making the community better for existing [individuals living there]. But what gentrification tends to do is invest in communities so that other communities can thrive in that community.”
Lythcott-Haims echoed Perkins. “We ought to be able to bring opportunity and look after the needs of those who are already there,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just another form of colonization.”
Impact on the education system
The effects of Palo Alto’s extensive history of racial segregation has compounded to form clear disparities in the quality of education offered by East Palo Alto’s Ravenwood School District and the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). In 1986, the Tinsleys, an East Palo Alto family, filed a class action lawsuit against eight local school districts. “East Palo Alto schools were so incredibly underfunded that a lot of people sued, saying that their children were not getting adequate education,” Howard said.
The lawsuit also cited the discriminatory practices that prevented the Tinsleys from settling in more affluent areas in the first place. PAUSD pled no contest. In response, the district created the Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), also known as the Tinsley Program, which allows 60 East Palo Alto students to take a bus into the city and attend Palo Alto schools.
According to Assistant Principal Pier Angeli La Place, the reason behind the program’s founding is largely—and unfortunately–unknown to the community. “It’s more viewed like it’s just this benevolent, kind thing that Palo Alto is doing to allow these kids from East Palo Alto to come over,” she said. “Whereas, in fact, the history of it is that it was a very racially motivated decision to create this boundary that would prevent those students from being a part of [PAUSD]. And as a result, that is why we have that program.”
According to La Place, historically underrepresented students are still not receiving the attention they deserve and are often overlooked in favor of the majority of PAUSD students. “85% of our students are doing fantastic,” she said. “[People then think,] ‘That’s good enough; we’re clearly a successful district because we have a high performing record for most of our kids.’ And so it becomes easier to sweep aside the 15 to 20% [of students] who, on every statistic you could possibly name, are not successful academically.”
Special Education teacher Courtney Carlomagno adds that the socioeconomic status of students’ families often determines the voice they have in decision-making. “The parents who have more capital and live nearer to the school are going to be the ones who are making the demands on the educational system,” she said. “They’re going to be the ones speaking at the school board, and so they’re going to gain a lot more access and rights that’s in line with what they want for their students, from their white homes.”
Similarly, there seems to be a lack of community acknowledgement toward these socioeconomic disparities, according to Perkins, making any efforts to resolve them more difficult. “This kind of divide between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto is so known to the community but so unspoken,” Perkins said.
Even as diverse groups of students are brought together in educational environment around the Bay Area, the social and cultural divide deepens, according to Carlomagno. “A lot of our Black and Brown students don’t see themselves in the school community or see themselves in the teachers they have, or they just don’t feel like they’re represented,” she said. “I’ve had students tell me that the only way it’s going to change is if we find a way to increase our enrollment of Latino and African-American students, or to increase the staff we have that are people of color, specifically [those who identify as] Latino and African-American.”
Howard cited the distance between the two communities as yet another factor dividing students. “If you are living in East Palo Alto, you have to take this really long bus ride,” she said. “You’re not close to any of your school peers, because you’re coming from this other region.”
Perkins believes focusing on creating resources is key to lessening the education gap between students from low-income families, including those from East Palo Alto, and students from affluent Palo Alto homes. “One of the big solutions would be to pay attention to and where they’re going to,” she said. “Are the resources being allotted to the students who need them the most? Or are the resources being allotted to the students who already have the most?”
A nature preserve for a select few
Educational inequalities aren’t the only modern-day remnants of Palo Alto’s history with racial segregation. Even today, a debate is raging over who exactly should access Palo Alto’s Foothills Park. Foothills Park, a large nature preserve owned by the city of Palo Alto, has limited park access to Palo Alto residents ever since it was purchased in 1965. A recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other plaintiffs has threatened this policy.
According to Palo Alto City Council candidate Greer Stone, the plaintiffs’ rationale is that the current policy violates non-residents’ rights to freedom of speech, travel, protest and assembly. “If you’re a non- resident, you can’t go into the park to protest the park being closed [or say] that it should be a public space and the public should have the right to be able to enter the vehicle to enter the park,” he said.
While there is no direct evidence that the decision to close off the park was made with racist intent, the ACLU also cites Palo Alto’s history of racial segregation in their lawsuit.
Indeed, the stated intent behind the residents-only policy, according to Palo Alto, is associated with the park’s purchase. In 1965, when the city was making plans to buy the land, Palo Alto reached out to neighboring cities to see if they were interested in splitting the cost. No one cared to chip in. Since then, Foothills Park has been open to Palo Alto residents only—in other words, only to those who pay taxes to keep the park open.
In that vein, some Palo Alto residents argue that opening the park up to non-residents would sharply increase maintenance costs due to the required presence of a full-time ranger and the potential increase of garbage collection needed.
Yet this past summer, the City Council approved a pilot program to open the park to select non-residents willing to purchase a permit. Lythcott-Haims hopes that Palo Alto will ultimately open up the park. “I’m ashamed to live in a city that restricts access to this open space that was never originally belonging to Palo Alto,” she said.
Despite numerous efforts to bridge the gap between the two cities, especially in light of recent nationwide equality movements, much work remains. “It’s clear that we do have the vestiges of the systemic inequities within this community from these various housing policies in the 1950s and 1960s,” Stone said.