What do three engineering students, a history seminar class and spreading awareness about tenant rights in East Palo Alto have in common? Don’t worry—before this quarter I would not have known how to answer this question either.
This spring, I enrolled in the class History 260: California’s Minority-Majority Cities taught by Professor Carol McKibben. Joel Dominguez, Juan Jimenez and I, as engineers, found ourselves quite out of our comfort zones. I discovered that I could replace writing the final essay if I chose to participate in a Haas Center service-learning project, and, to be honest, I will do pretty much anything to get out of writing a paper. I decided this option was for me.
The service-learning project paired us with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA), a non-profit legal services provider specializing in housing, immigration and civil litigation. Our project was to knock on residents’ doors in East Palo Alto (EPA) to spread awareness about the need to pay rent when it is due, on the 1st of every month. While this may seem like a trivial detail, it is actually quite important in EPA.
Equity Residential, an apartment-rental company, owns the Woodland Park residential complexes in EPA and has begun to aggressively evict tenants on the basis of late rent payments—despite their message that it is acceptable to delay a rent payment until the 5th of the month. Woodland Park is doing so because, once tenants are evicted, owners can remodel the apartments, increase the rent and then market the apartments to wealthier, more profitable tenants. While we discuss the issue of Google buses in San Francisco, gentrification is occurring right in Stanford’s backyard.
Explaining that process first requires some context. East Palo Alto is considered a minority-majority city; census data from 2010 reports that EPA is 64.5 percent Latino/a. Meanwhile, the surrounding areas of Palo Alto and Menlo Park are majority-white spaces. While those cities have high-achieving public high schools such as Gunn, Palo Alto and Menlo-Atherton, EPA has no public high school at all; students must be bused to Atherton, Belmont or Woodside.
When it comes to housing in particular, while the affluent areas that define Silicon Valley have mostly single-family homes, EPA contains mostly affordable housing in the form of apartment complexes. And while those cities in Silicon Valley are considered some of the “most desirable” places to live in the U.S., EPA is frequently referred to as an “undesirable” city because of the predominance of minority groups and the associations with high crime and poverty.
Talking to the residents of East Palo Alto, however, challenged my opinion of the situation. While I have been conditioned to look down upon EPA and even fear it, the service learning I participated in changed my entire outlook. I began to recognize that EPA is not just some run-down area, but rather a city that people connect with personally and value deeply. This realization also profoundly altered my view of CLSEPA. It is not simply a non-profit; it is organization that is making tangible differences in this nearby community and fighting for what they—as well as I—believe is just.
My big takeaway from this class and the corresponding service learning? This urban development was intentional. A free market did not cause this racial and economic divide.
In class, the readings primarily focused on the development of the minority-majority cities of Los Angeles, Oakland, Stockton and Seaside. The readings demonstrated that the development of these minority-majority cities was not by chance, but instead was supported by federally-backed legislation during a time in our nation’s history when being outwardly racist was acceptable. One such example is President Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), which provided long-term, low-interest loans to urban homeowners in the 1930s based explicitly on the race of the homeowner.
The synergy of information gained in the history class and the service learning in East Palo Alto has created a learning experience in which I have not only learned the history of California urbanization, but through which I have come to recognize the lasting implications in today’s society. I am an environmental engineer, not a history major, but I can tell you this: Understanding history and its role in the present is important! Before I enrolled in this class, I thought history was the memorization of events that have little-to-no effect on my current life. (After all, that is what my high school history classes showed me.) Clearly, I was misinformed.
If I can be so bold, I will end this article with some advice. Take a history class. Participate in service learning. Venture beyond our comfortable Stanford bubble and engage in the surrounding communities. Attempt to understand what problems exist and more importantly, why they exist. Challenge these problems.
I don’t mean to sound like I am on a high horse. I don’t mean to claim understanding of the history of this area or its complex issues—I realize I have taken only one history class. I simply want to encourage others to engage in conversations about this topic and to awaken to its relevance and importance in today’s society.
Aileen Lerch ’15
Thank you to Professor McKibben, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, Joel, Juan and my History 260 class for this unique and eye-opening experience.
Contact Aileen Lerch at [email protected]