Reimagining East Palo Alto: Learning from the Past for a More Equitable Future

Every single day that I pass by University and Donohoe, I think about the endless possibilities of amazing development that could have happened there.

I imagine a plaza with neighborhood serving retail, like a nail shop, maybe a dry-cleaner, Chinese food, a Soul food joint, some local catering businesses. Imagine the exterior of the building painted with beautiful Tongan tribal design and murals that honor Nairobi College, the Mothers for Equal Education and the Black Panthers. In the center of this plaza there’s a fountain, benches, and a monument that pays tribute to the Ohlone Tribe and art installations that tell you bits of history about East Palo Alto’s long fight for self-determination and then for incorporation.

In the center of the plaza there are poles proudly waving the flags of El Salvador, Honduras, Fiji, Jamaica, Tonga, the Pan-African flag, Samoa, Mexico and all of the other countries from which our diverse population comes from. Picture high schoolers getting off from school and having the option to walk over and get some Boba tea and maybe the daily commuter passes by to pick up some take-out on their way home. That would enable commuters to treat our community less like a traffic corridor and more like a respectful transaction. At the same time, residents can make and spend money in local businesses while we comfortably use and take up the public space.

I would have loved to see a rooftop garden on one building and a brunch spot/cafe on the adjacent building….What do we have instead? A brick, fort-like office building and a big ass parking structure. What we want – and need for earth’s sake – are safe, walkable neighborhoods. Large office development by design has taken us in a backward direction to achieving that. I’m not saying all office development is inherently bad or always has bad design, but I am saying that the way it has happened in East Palo Alto does not contribute to the making of an equitable economy or a walkable city for our residents.

I know the increase of traffic at University x Donohoe potentially poses a threat to pedestrians but it could’ve been mitigated through design and I’m not even going to get into the transit problem just yet so bear with me.

Many of us who grew up here in the 90s and prior, got the pleasure of experiencing that intersection in a way that felt like the hood was ours. Like we belonged here. La Familia used to be there, Country Time used to be there, Hoodstarz store used to be there and there were about 10-12 apartments above those stores. There was Ravenswood Pharmacy, a fish and chips food spot, a taco spot, a hair salon, a church that provided resources for the homeless, and I’m sure many other things I simply don’t remember. Some of those businesses relocated to other parts of the city but the point is that they were no longer in a central location. What if we had improved the infrastructure and maybe even built more housing units on top? Because the facilities were old and surely needed to be adapted but some of the businesses truly thrived. Remember El Galope?

(Guillermina’s interview begins at around 1:52)


And while we’re here, let’s also look at how the office development of Whiskey Gulch rang the same bell back when that happened in the name of economic development:


Let me be very clear: I am not against office space development nor against development or density in general. But I certainly cannot stomach the kind of development that wipes out the culture that used to be there. Whiskey Gulch, University x Donohoe were cultural hubs of the city in one way or another. Families visited El Galope after church on Sundays. And I’m just old enough to remember how much of a central location Whiskey Gulch was. Sure they had their fair share of problems (in no small part due to the anti-Black war on poverty and war on drugs), but at least they were slightly more walkable neighborhoods and most importantly cultural hubs for people who make up the social fabric of this city. But once again, what did we get? University Circle enclosed by concrete walls, and a brick office building on University x Donohoe that is elevated off the ground on the sides that face the street. I will say, the building has some nice windows. I’m sure there’s great lighting in that Sobrato-Amazon building!

But look, my point is that moving forward, we can and must do things differently. We must do economic development differently. There is a whole downtown coming and the way we build it out will be pivotal for the future of our city. To do right by our residents, the transformation that is needed for our city’s political platform includes:

  • Moving from race-blind to race-conscious
  • From trickle down to “trickle-up” community wealth generation
  • From trophy projects to neighborhoods equitably connected to the regional economy
  • From costly business attraction to growing from within
  • From any jobs to quality jobs for workers without BAs
  • From GDP growth to rising living standards for lower-wealth residents
  • From closed-door dealmaking to public accountability

And we must apply these principles to 3 broad economic domains:

  • Neighborhood scale retail and services/ “lifestyle businesses”
  • Business-to-business transactions and markets, government and anchor institution procurement, hiring and contracting
  • The innovation economy, high growth sectors including BUT NOT LIMITED TO high-tech and tech-enabled enterprises

Source: East Bay Community Foundation, Learning + Action Series: Policies for an Inclusive Economy, July 10, 2018

I know. That seems like a lot but if we look around at East Palo Alto’s demographics, we are still predominantly a community of color and our largest age demographic is young people. And we have a rich legacy of visionary community activism to build off of. We ought to take it upon ourselves to shape what our downtown will look like for years to come.

P.S. If you have the privilege to do so, VOTE this November 6th because reform is only a problem when we see it as the end goal, and not as a means to get to the real end goal which is: community building, transformation of our society and liberation of all oppressed people.

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4 thoughts on “Reimagining East Palo Alto: Learning from the Past for a More Equitable Future”

  1. Another Awesomeness Article! I grade it with a triple AAA+.
    This is an important election! We need to know who is for the Original EPA residents and who’s not. Clearly we see it and hopefuly you can too. Vote for people that are for us little folks, Patricia Ape Finau Lopez.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your article reminds me very much of the early days of the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative in 1999-2000, that started OEPA.

    We were called together by Bob Hoover, Duane Bay, Luis Abelard and Dr. Omowale Satterwhite to build relationships that would respect and listen to each other. Then together we would design programming that would raise up our children and adults in the most healthy ways of our diverse traditions. Collard Green and Children’s Day festivals, Ballet Folklorico and royal visits from the King of Tonga.

    We are wise, strong and resilient. Your article inspires, let’s do this again.


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