Confronting a troubled history
How Menlo Park is grappling with more than a century of race-based housing inequality
The high-ceilinged Sequoia room at Menlo Park’s Arrillaga Family Recreation Center hummed as about a hundred people in small groups of four or five sat and discussed the racial history of zoning and housing policy in Menlo Park and other communities on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 17.
The event, called “The Color of Law: Menlo Park Edition,” was organized by Menlo Together, a community organization that, according to its website, is made up of “Menlo Park and Peninsula residents who envision a city that is integrated and diverse, multi-generational, and environmentally sustainable.” Members, it states, “advocate for an accessible and inviting downtown Menlo Park with housing at all affordability levels, and with pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces, developed to be carbon free.”
Before breaking into discussion groups, attendees were first given a quiz. Answers could be found by walking around the room and reading a set of posted sheets of paper making up a timeline, running from the late 1800s to today, going over historic events and practices that have shaped some of the racial inequalities that exist on the Peninsula today.
With permission from Menlo Together, The Almanac has converted the timeline, with some minor modifications, into an online interactive timeline, below.
Heather Hopkins, an event organizer, said she spent somewhere between 40 and 60 hours digging through archives in the basement of the Menlo Park Library to find details and photographs of the area’s civil rights history to incorporate into the timeline.
Among the facts that the quiz revealed were that:
- The neighborhoods of Linfield Oaks, Ladera and the Willows prohibited people of African, Japanese or Chinese descent from living in their community through homeowner covenants in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Menlo Park increased the minimum single-family lot size to 7,000 square feet from 5,000 square feet in 1953 to “protect” the city from multifamily “slums.”
- In the 1950s, real estate agents profited from buying homes from white families in Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood at low prices and selling them to black families at higher rates, a process known as blockbusting.
The Almanac also explored how the history of this and other discriminatory practices has shaped environmental health inequities in southern San Mateo County in a recent series titled “Uneven Ground.”
Read it here:
Participants were asked to talk through their responses to the information they were presented with, then reflect on it and consider whether there were connections between Menlo Park’s history and its current challenges.
Several shared some of the main points of their discussions with the group of attendees afterward.
Dayna Chung, executive director of the Community Equity Collaborative, a group that co-sponsored the event, said that a person in her discussion group argued that “it is obscene for there to be such great wealth so proximate to such great need.”
In concluding remarks, Menlo Together member Karen Grove, who also sits on the Menlo Park Housing Commission, argued that while the area’s racially-based residential history can be uncomfortable, “When we act to improve racial equity, all people benefit.”
Additional supporting organizations of the event were the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, the Community Equity Collaborative, Tech Equity Collaborative, Peninsula for Everyone, Palo Alto Forward, Menlo Spark, Nuestra Casa, Youth United for Community Action, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County, the Menlo Park Historical Association, Palo Alto Housing, and NAACP San Mateo County.
Among the attendees were four of five City Council members (Mayor Ray Mueller, Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor, Betsy Nash and Drew Combs), state Senate candidate Josh Becker, Silicon Valley Community Foundation President and CEO Nicole Taylor, and City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson.