Reversal of Misfortune

Six years ago, East Palo Alto was dubbed the 'murder capital of the United States.' today, crime is down -- and rents are going up.

January/February 1998

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Reversal of Misfortune

Photo: Jason M. Grow

Almost exclusively white before the war, East Palo Alto became home to growing numbers of blacks, many of whom were victims of housing discrimination in San Francisco. In 1980, 60 percent of residents were African Americans.

The postwar period brought dramatic physical as well as demographic change. In 1949 and again a decade later, Menlo Park annexed key commercial and residential areas amounting to one-quarter of East Palo Alto's population and property value. In the 1950s, the widening of the Bayshore Freeway (Highway 101) forced 50 businesses to move, and only five reopened within current city limits. A Safeway supermarket opened in 1959 but closed in 1974, and the city's four banks shut their doors in the 1980s. By the time East Palo Alto was incorporated as a city in 1983, it lacked a sufficient tax base to provide basic services.

Since the 1950s, crime had grown as East Palo Alto's economy diminished. But it took the catastrophe of 1992 to spark a reversal. Aid from government agencies and neighboring municipalities was crucial, and outside volunteers, including many from the Stanford community (see sidebar, page 63) helped set up social and educational services. But the turnaround only took root when East Palo Alto residents banded together in block clubs and citizens' groups. More recently, economic development has become the city's top priority.

Press coverage of the mayhem, lurid though it was, actually worked to the city's advantage. "What we tried to do with the media attention was to really use it to our benefit," says Vice Mayor Sharifa Wilson, who served as mayor in 1992 and 1993. "We were able to get some resources from the state and then to really plumb regional cooperation based on that."

Within a year of taking office, Wilson had secured more than $2 million in grants for police equipment, recreation programs and city administration. She persuaded nearby cities to lend grant writers and police officers. In April 1993, Dianne Feinstein became the first U.S. senator to visit East Palo Alto, and Gov. Pete Wilson signed an executive order forming the East Palo Alto High Crime Response Team. He designated the city an enterprise zone in October 1993, giving tax incentives to firms that hire local residents and to new or expanding businesses. Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, whose district includes East Palo Alto, helped secure $1 million from the Department of Justice last August for police salaries.

The influx of resources helped beef up the police presence. In April 1992, the Regional Enforcement Detail­­the "RED Team"­­was launched. Nine officers from East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other agencies targeted known felons in separate investigations spearheaded by the FBI and the U.S. Marshal's Service, and 180 drug dealers were put behind bars.

In April 1993, Operation Safe Streets doubled the city's police force of 35. Palo Alto donated four men; Menlo Park, two. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) sent 12 officers, and 18 deputies arrived from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.

The rejuvenated force worked with block clubs and went into schools. They towed away 1,200 abandoned vehicles and boarded up empty houses. The city instituted a gun buy-back program that yielded 120 handguns, four semiautomatic weapons and two Uzis, according to East Palo Alto Police Chief Wesley Bowling. Gov. Wilson cited these successes in his 1994 State of the State Address and proposed training 500 new CHP officers to be sent into other high-crime neighborhoods, based on the East Palo Alto model.

While the police were regrouping, so were citizens. "Outrage was part of the impetus," says community activist Ed Becks. He and his 4-year-old daughter were just yards away from home one day in 1992 when they saw a man shot at point-blank range. Gunfire became so common that Beck's older daughter once found a whole pocketful of spent shells to take to school for show-and-tell. Becks joined a group of citizens who formed neighborhood block clubs to combat the drug dealing on their doorsteps. "Many of us were feeling the pressure," he says. "People got together and exercised their control over the territory."

In October 1992, activists formed a group called Just Us. Armed with two-way radios, cameras and notepads, they patrolled the streets 24 hours a day, recording drug deals and taking down license numbers of would-be buyers. Risking danger, they confronted the dealers, too, many of whom they had known since their school days.

Terri Vines, wife of council member William Vines, tried another tack. She persuaded seven drug dealers to attend weekly remedial classes at her home with the promise that she would get them to college. "I told them, 'You may be able to make money selling drugs, but you have a lousy benefits package'," says Vines. Two of her protégés graduated from college last summer.

Residents have turned to increasingly innovative tactics. Frustrated for years by a "crack house" on their street, five citizens sued the landlord of the house, hoping to get the tenants removed. In a precedent-setting decision, the plaintiffs were awarded $22,500 in compensation for years of sleepless nights and burglary-related costs, and the family in the crack house was evicted.

"We're a little more sophisticated about the drug problem now," says Gertrude Wilks, head of the homeowners' association and president of her block club. "The drugs came off the streets and into the homes. But rather than going after the little fella, we are now going after the owner of the house. That cleans things up."

As important as these community efforts are, the biggest challenge is to stimulate economic growth so that East Palo Alto has a tax base to sustain itself. With 350 acres of available land at the gateway of Silicon Valley, the city is working hard to attract businesses, jobs and training.

As crime subsided, developers with ambitious proposals for hotels and superstores zeroed in on some of the cheapest real estate in the Valley. (Retail space is as much as $2 per square foot cheaper than in Palo Alto.) Two big projects are slated to get under way in the near future. Home Depot, Office Depot and CompUSA Inc. will anchor a $29-million shopping center called Gateway 101, which is expected to generate up to $1.5 million a year in tax revenues. The city has promised relocation payments to the 800 residents who will be displaced. And two unsolicited proposals were received earlier this year to develop Whiskey Gulch, a strip of liquor stores and check-cashing storefronts along University Avenue. The successful bidder, Circle Partners of Menlo Park, has proposed a conference hotel, office space and a 10-story training center that promise up to $2.5 million in annual revenue from retail and hotel taxes.

These projects also promise job opportunities. In December, the Association of Bay Area Governments projected a 306 percent job growth rate for East Palo Alto by 2020 -- the highest in the region. Vice Mayor Wilson says the city council will mandate local hiring policies in any new development. She hopes the businesses will stimulate the city's consumers. "Over 70 percent of our dollars are spent in Palo Alto or Menlo Park," she says. "We want local people to work here so they spend money here, and then we can provide the services for them."

East Palo Alto has come a long way since 1992. But its recovery is still in an early phase. Although the community came together to drive drug dealers off the streets, the trade still goes on behind closed doors, residents say. The city's 17 block clubs remain vigilant. "We still need to build a stronger community," says activist Ed Becks. "We can't go back into the woodwork now.

Troubles persist in the police department. A San Mateo County civil grand jury recommended in December that the county take over policing duties. Its report documented low morale, internal strife and complaints from citizens of police abuse and incompetence.

While the overall crime rate in East Palo Alto has declined since 1992, assaults have risen, and the number of annual murders inched up to six by December 1 of this year, with another nine killed in a single arson incident. Alleged gang activity hit the headlines when five men from East Palo Alto were charged with beating NASA scientist Herbert Kay to death as he took an evening stroll through downtown Palo Alto.

The city remains an anomaly among the predominantly upper-income suburbs of San Mateo and Santa Clara County. More than 4,000 residents still live below the federal poverty level. The unemployment rate for men is three times what it is in the rest of San Mateo County.

At the same time, progress is bringing new problems. Rents in the Bay Area continue to rise, and people who work in surrounding Silicon Valley are taking advantage of East Palo Alto's lower rents, now that its streets are safer. As demand mounts, rents are escalating there, too.

William Webster is a member of the city's rent stabilization board. He maintains that the city council has no real incentive to ensure that the stock of low-income housing remains stable in East Palo Alto, now that the state's 1995 Costa-Hawkins law has forced strict limits on rent control.

"They do want people of higher incomes to come in because they think it will give the city more economic stability," Webster says. "There's no interest in preventing gentrification."

According to Webster, there are virtually no rental vacancies now, and families double and triple up to pay the skyrocketing prices. In 1992, he says, the houses on his street were half empty and "the place was a hellhole." Now he is praying for the end of the Bay Area's economic boom so that he can afford to stay.

And that's the irony. In the end, East Palo Alto's development plans may save the city -- but price out current residents. "We've had lots of promises," says Gertrude Wilks, who is 71. "At this stage of life, I want to see something actually happen. I've been through all the ups and downs and excitements." Things are looking up now. But residents know there's a long climb ahead.

Vicky Anning, MA '97, is a Bay Area writer.

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