Building a community in East Palo Alto

By Mohamed Yassine

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I have been living in Palo Alto for eight months since I arrived from Lebanon, and during that time I have travelled to Texas, Washington D.C., and even as far as Sierra Leone. But I have never been to Palo Alto’s closest neighboring city. East Palo Alto was never on any of my friends’ recommendations for places to visit in the US. This past weekend, however, EPA was my destination of choice.

My classmates and I would spend a significant amount of time learning about the city and its community. In collaboration with the City Manager, our challenge was to design a way to build a shared sense of community identity and responsibility. We started off our journey in the development project harboring Mi Pueblo, the sole grocery store in the whole city. At first, finding people who were willing to engage in a conversation was a bit hard. We approached two women at a local café: one of them admitted that she was not from the city and that she was teaching English to the second woman; the latter preferred not to be interviewed as she struggled to express herself in English. We spent the rest of our time in the development project checking out the different shops, but much of the clientele seemed to be white, affluent, and from elsewhere. One couple coming from Mountain View stated that they shop periodically at Mi Pueblo since “it has cheap but good food”.

We decided to visit Jack Farrell Park with the hope to engage actual residents of the city. The park had a baseball field and a playground with many children playing and riding their bikes. We approached an African-American family who referred to us a young 14-year-old boy named Marques. He shook our hand with determination, demonstrating a strong and assertive personality. He told us that, next year, he will be going to high-school in Atherton and that he was feeling very confident about it. He related to us how the vice-principal at his current school was helping him academically through tutoring.  When we asked him about his hometown, Marques insisted that East Palo Alto was a good place because he cherishes his many childhood memories here, but he said that it “has too many murders”. He explained to us that sometimes, “people kill others by accident” and that “they are just mad at the world.” Marques recounted the story of his friend, who takes his anger on other people because he has a family that sometimes “gets out of hand.” Marques tried to help his friend by referring him to the anger management sessions organized by the library. We asked the young boy where he would see himself in 10 years. He said he sees himself either as a lawyer or a sports manager but he would like to live in Los Angeles since he doesn’t “want to get caught up” in East Palo Alto’s violence. Marques’ mother was involved in helping the community by assisting the baseball team. She operates a snack shop in the park where the revenues go to the city.

While interviewing Marques’ mother, another woman named Scarlett came to us to share her involvement in helping the city. Scarlett, a 33-year-old Hispanic woman, had created a program in the community to prepare children for preschool.  A single mother of a 3-year-old boy, she had moved from San Francisco, where she grew up, to settle in the west side of East Palo Alto. Scarlett confessed to us that she moved because of the growing gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission district.  She said she preferred to live in East Palo Alto, the only city, according to her, that has rent control. She said that while growing up, her family had to move constantly and that she did not want the same experience for her son. She wanted him to “have a home.” She attended many council meetings seeking to secure “the pools, the doors, and the locks” of her residential complex. “I had to find a spot that is safe for my son,” she said. Scarlett expressed appreciation for the community in EPA, for the library, and the few community centers that provided her legal and financial assistance. She tried to work in Palo Alto and Los Altos, but she did not feel comfortable, and ended up seeking employment in East Palo Alto: “Here, I am more accepted the way I am,” she said. Scarlett is a performance artist who is struggling to “find a spot” for herself. Luckily, she has recently joined a group of four women who are planning to pursue a Master’s degree at San Jose State University in performance arts in order to “reestablish their roots and their culture.” By the end of the interview, we noticed that Scarlett’s little boy had been missing for a short while. Scarlett immediately started looking for him, while crying and yelling his name. We frantically engaged in the search as we held ourselves responsible for the situation. The park was suddenly mobilized and people were ready to look for the little boy. Fortunately, the episode was brief and Ty, Scarlett’s son, was found. The event demonstrated a strong sense of solidarity among the residents in the park and underscored Scarlett’s concern for her son’s safety.

As we move forward with the empathy process, some of the insights that will guide our future interviews are Marques’ attachment to the memories he has from the city, Scarlett’s conviction that East Palo Alto would provide stability for her child, and the residents’ feeling of alienation from neighboring cities.

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