Vigor of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto community meeting surprises some

by ninameetscafe

Melanie and I were very surprised. We were surprised by a town hall meeting far more intense and dramatic than we expected.

The meeting was held by the City of Palo Alto to present solutions for the recent flooding at the Newell Road/San Francisquito bridge, shown below from the PA side.

The San Francisquito Creek runs through Palo Alto and East Palo Alto into the SF Bay, and floods at various points along the way, including the downstream bridge at Newell Road. This bridge connects Palo Alto and East Palo Alto at their borderline, a fact made obvious by the fact that one side (guess which) displays tree-lined sidewalks and sprawling houses, and the other side (guess which) has hardly any sidewalk along a remarkably potholed street. With such differences, the bridge is also a figurative connection between two highly disparate cities.

A couple of weeks ago, a flyer in our mailbox publicized a town hall meeting regarding future plans with that bridge. My housemates and I drive across that bridge all the time; Melanie and I also run across it, and planned on attending the meeting. We expected to see, like, a dozen people, because we couldn’t imagine how controversial a little bridge could be, especially given its dilapidated condition.

Surprise #1: Due to overflowing number of attendees, meeting holders move meeting to the theatre next door. Melanie and I ended up sitting among 150 to 200 people (though we scored seats in the first row, avid student style). There were clearly numerous parties invested in the fate of this bridge. I immediately wondered what proportion of them were from EPA.

Surprise #2: Before meeting begins, man sitting several rows behind us stands up to declare indignantly that “There is something very wrong with the agenda because there are a lot of people in the audience with important things to say [and there was no space for them to say it].” Cue solid bloc of applause from audience. I looked down at the agenda, and item no. 7 said “Questions and Comments,” but I guess the man did not approve of item nos. 1-6 being dedicated to the city officials’ presentations.

Surprise #3: Some of the city officials’ presentations of options regarding the bridge incite extremely vehement responses: outburst of applause for removing the bridge completely, “booo” and “hissssss” sounds for spending money to improve the bridge, and occasional disgruntled snorts from the man and his wife sitting to my right. For some reason, I remembered learning in middle school that some of the U.S.’ Founding Fathers opposed implementation of a direct presidential vote because they feared the masses and mob mentality. Two hundred years later, at this meeting, the raucous cheers, jeers and outcries also felt contagious. It was strange to witness. Also, Melanie and I were both shocked to hear that a. the destruction of that bridge was an option at all, and b. it was received so well.

Surprise #4: It becomes rapidly clear that, for some, the bridge’s flooding problem is hardly as important as the traffic it commands, the demographic of said traffic (i.e. people commuting from EPA vs PA), the related safety of children traveling daily to school, and how money designated to this project will or will not be diverted from the other bridges in the other neighborhoods. All of a sudden, it became apparent that this single 40-by-22-foot structure was more than just a piece of road or bridge; it was a conduit for so many other issues amongst families and commuters in both PA and EPA. Actually, as it progressed, the town hall meeting recalled memories of the archaeology course Melanie and I coincidentally both took freshman year – a class that explored the unlikely intersections of different stakeholders involved in a single, physical site. We were gawking at the deep relevance of our freshman coursework, over four years later.

Surprise #5: The undertone of comments from EPA residents are overwhelmingly about community and the importance of communication between PA and EPA. Most of the EPA residents who speak also admit apologies that EPA “had a long way to go,” a historical approach to the bridge not reflected in comments by PA residents. Granted, there were a lot more residents from PA speaking up than from EPA, which means there were likely more of the former present at the meeting. Still, the contrast was stark. It hinted at the deep way long-term EPA residents view the PA-EPA relationship… vs. the potentially nonexistent way PA residents view the same “relationship.” In fact, I think it’s safe to presume most or all of the people supporting total destruction of that bridge were from PA.

… I recently read a book called “Hector and the Secrets of Love” by Francois Lelord that mentioned how easily we assume smaller communities have smaller issues, as if separation from metropolitan life also means no social mayhem. Hector, the novel’s protagonist, made this realization in village in Southeast Asia. I, however, realized it for myself at that meeting last week. I had assumed that Palo Alto, for being a mid-sized wealthy suburb whose main downtown closes up shop around 10:30 p.m., was somehow less socially complex than, say, San Francisco. I was gradually corrected over the span of two-plus hours (Mel and I had expected a maximum of one) as discussion of the bridge’s engineering was abandoned for more prescient issues of relations between PA and EPA residents, rapidly changing traffic flows in this growing hub of the Bay Area, and safety concerns of parents whose children walk or bike to school every day.

The drive back home after the meeting definitely felt different than the drive before it. I think the meeting attendees altogether helped check Melanie and I back in the reality of where we live, and an infrastructure of people much larger than we had thought. It was weird to think we had lived unaware of it all for four years at Stanford, just outside (or inside? or next to?), and even weirder to think we were just getting a glimpse of it now. I also felt surprised at, well, how surprised I felt. People are people, right? I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s not Stepford, after all.