East Palo Alto Looks to Its Past for a New Name
Located north--not east--of Palo Alto, and across a county line, this city has long lived the life of stepsister in status and name.
Where Palo Alto is moneyed and famous, East Palo Alto is poor and notorious. Palo Alto is known as the home of Stanford University. In 1992, East Palo Alto’s 42 homicides earned it the title of America’s murder capital. Palo Alto’s elegant downtown is packed with thriving businesses; East Palo Alto’s largest employer is a hazardous waste recycling plant.
Now, 15 years after it incorporated, this city of 27,000 mostly working-class residents is coming into its own, says Duane Bay, a longtime city resident and a member of the City Council. He wants the city’s name to reflect that, and is behind a push to change it.
His favorite: Ravenswood, the city’s original name.
“We’ve made enormous strides in East Palo Alto--we’ve got economic growth for the first time, stability on the council, and we’re moving forward,” Bay said. “We have achieved self-determination, and now we are going to have economic self-sufficiency.”
After 15 years of figuring out how to be a city, turmoil and high turnover on the City Council have ceased. Incumbents and new council members, with the help of a strong city manager, have attracted two major redevelopment projects, the first in the city’s history.
A $35-million regional retail center, with anchors including Good Guys, Office Depot, Comp USA and Home Depot, is projected to increase the city’s sales tax revenue fivefold. As the development grows, it is expected to include at least 400 new housing units.
A $170-million project that includes two office buildings and a hotel, though stalled by a lawsuit by neighboring Menlo Park, should transform a formerly run-down area of town.
“We are proud of our accomplishments, and the city’s name should reflect that,” Bay said.
East Palo Alto is no stranger to name changes. Ravenswood, established in 1849, was named for founder Elijah Woods and, it is believed, the crows that lived in the area.
It thrived for six years before Redwood City supplanted it as the peninsula’s major port. In 1868, it became known as Cooley’s Landing, after gold miner and dairyman Lester Cooley, who bought the Ravenswood wharf.
In 1916, reinvented as a series of one-acre poultry farms, the town was named Runnymede. In 1925, an influx of new residents dubbed it East Palo Alto. By 1968, the area had attracted a large African American population, which tried and failed to rename the city Nairobi. In 1993, citizens rejected a ballot initiative asking if they wanted to change the name of the city--but not offering any alternative names.
Bay believes that it’s time to try again.
“It was a suggestion I threw out to explore, and the response has been tremendous,” Bay said. “The underlying message I want to convey is that it’s important for us as a city, as a part of coming into our own economically and politically, to consciously decide what image we wish to project, what statement we wish to make about ourselves.”
Although the City Council could change the name with a simple vote, council members say they want to spend some time learning what residents think about it.
Councilwoman Rose Jacob-Gibson has joined Bay’s campaign to take the matter to the community.
“I was opposed to the name change the last time it was proposed, not necessarily because I didn’t like the idea, but because I thought it was the wrong time,” said Jacob-Gibson, a member of the City Council since 1992. “The city had just been identified as the murder capital of the nation, and the name change could have been viewed as trying to run away from our problems.”
A declining crime rate, combined with the first major economic development in the city’s history, is the kind of progress Jacob-Gibson wanted to see. The next step is to solicit community opinion, and give residents a history lesson about their town.
“It’s important that we inform the community of the history of the city, because many people who live here don’t know that Ravenswood was the original name,” she said.
For some, it’s not so simple.
“The name Ravenswood is historically correct, yes, but we think it’s rather frivolous to be concerned about whether we change the name or not,” said Stephenie Smith, director of the East Palo Alto Historical and Agricultural Society. “It doesn’t matter what they name East Palo Alto--they could name it Diddy Wah Diddy and it would be the same thing--a city where gentrification is going to be beating down our doors.”
Smith sees the city’s hard-won redevelopment projects as a prelude to the kind of economic growth that will gradually push out the city’s mostly low-income residents.
“We’re fighting for our survival here, and you’ve got clowns on the City Council selling us down the tubes,” she said.
Smith’s anger comes as no surprise to Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who was a supervisor across the bay in Contra Costa County when West Pittsburg changed its name to Bay Point. Changing a city’s name touches a deep chord in residents, he said.
In East Palo Alto, the question of a name change is still open for discussion--and one of many things on the minds of citizens.
“I don’t see it as being a big deal for me--it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, because changing the name wouldn’t make things better or worse,” said Betty Reid, owner of Betty’s Bouquets.
“One of the reasons people want to change the name is because of the city’s image, and I think that’s absurd. We have more important things to deal with and think about.”