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Activist group calls on city to 'desegregate' Foothills Park

Teenagers, Raging Grannies paint message outside open space on Sunday night

The message "Desegregate," painted by activists on the night of July 5, is seen in large, yellow letters in front of the Foothills Park entrance on July 6. Courtesy Vigil for Democracy.

Palo Alto's newest public mural came and went so quickly that you probably missed it.

One word, painted in large yellow letters on Page Mill Road, in front of the Foothills Park entrance: Desegregate.

About a dozen activists, some from Palo Alto (who, as such, can visit Foothills Park whenever they want under the city's "residents-only" policy at the open space) and some from other cities (and, as such, would be prohibited from entering the park, unless accompanying a Palo Alto resident), met under the full moon on Sunday night to paint the message along Page Mill Road. Most were teenagers; two were from the activist organization Raging Grannies, according to Vara Ramakrishnan, one of the organizers of the activity.

The group planned the act months in advance, waiting for a day when there would be little activity and a bright moon under which to work, obviating the need for lighting. They painted the message over about four hours, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Ramakrishnan said.

But the group's work proved to be a fleeting gesture in a decadeslong debate over Foothills Park access. By 7 a.m. on Monday, a city employee was on scene using a power hose to erase the message. Before long, it was gone.

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Ramakrishnan, who lives in Los Altos Hills and who often walks to the park, said she observed passersby asking the city employee what the message said. He told them he didn't know, she said.

"We wanted to look over the work in the daytime and touch it up," she said. "We never got a chance to do that."

Ramakrishnan's daughter, Anjali Ramanathan, a recent graduate of The Nueva School who briefly attended Gunn High and who was joined by her friends from Gunn and Palo Alto High School, said she was inspired to partake in the action by personal experiences and recent rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She cited a speech by East Palo Alto Mayor Regina Wallace Jones during a Juneteenth rally last month that addressed how race continues to affect the area.

At that time, the activist group drew the outline of "BLM" in front of Palo Alto City Hall. The city followed suit on June 30 with its own gesture of support for Black Lives Matter — a street mural painted by 16 artists.

Ramanathan, 17, believes the "residents only" policy at Foothills Park is closely tied to racist practices of the past — including redlining and blockbusting — that have made it historically difficult for Black and brown people to buy homes in Palo Alto. Even if the policy isn't explicitly racist, it has effectively kept non-white people from other communities from living in the community and visiting the park.

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"I wanted white folks to think about it, next time they go to Foothills Park and don't see any Black or brown faces around," Ramanathan said. "That does mean something. It's not an accident."

The issue of opening up Foothills Park to the greater public has been a point of contention in Palo Alto for decades, with the debate over the issue flickering on and off every few years. Opponents of removing the policy have consistently argued that limiting access to the park is necessary to protect the pristine natural landscape in the 1,400-acre preserve. They also note that in the late 1950s, when the family of Russel V. Lee offered to sell the land to the city, none of the surrounding cities were willing to chip in to buy the park.

The argument has reignited over the past month, with more than 100 civic and faith leaders and residents signing a letter in early June urging the council to "meet the moment" and abolish a policy that they argue "sends a terrible message to our neighboring communities" and "leaves a bad taste in the mouths of thousands of would-be visitors who are prohibited by uniformed City staff from entering a public park." The list of supporters includes U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo; state Assemblyman Marc Berman; former mayors Leland Levy, Peter Drekmeier and Pat Burt; the Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor at University AME Zion Church and chair of the city's Human Relations Commission; and NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley.

Palo Alto residents who oppose the policy change have argued that the law, which makes it a misdemeanor for a non-resident to visit (unless accompanied by a resident) has nothing to do with race and everything to do with protecting the environment.

Robert Roth, a member of the Friends of Foothills Park and a volunteer at the park, made that point at a June 2019 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, when he argued against expanding access.

"It seems to me it follows that if the park is overused, the magical experience of coming upon a flock of quail, or 30 or 40 young turkeys, or seeing a coyote or any of the experiences of the birds and the beasts and the flowers in the park could be lost," Roth said.

But according to city staff, the current number of visitors is relatively low, compared to historic trends. In the years after the park opened, it attracted more than 300,000 visitors annually, peaking at about 372,000 in the early 1970s over two consecutive years. According to a 2019 report, attendance had dropped by about 50% since then, with about 152,000 people visiting the park annually over the prior 17 years.

The Parks and Recreation Commission tried to address the issue of overcrowding by proposing a pilot program that allows non-residents to buy permits online for $6 each. It would cap the number of daily permits at 50.

Activists modified a "Do Not Enter" sign in front of the Foothills Park entrance between July 5 and July 6. Courtesy Vigil for Democracy.

The City Council, however, has delayed taking up the politically sensitive subject. After months of inaction, the council scheduled a discussion of the proposal for June 23. But on June 22, the council voted to take the item off the agenda and postpone it until after the council's summer recess, which concludes on Aug. 2. The latest delay prompted the resignation of Ryan McCauley, a leading proponent of expanding access to Foothills Park who served on the Parks and Recreation Commission. It also spurred retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a former City Council member, to issue a letter to the city, threatening a lawsuit if it doesn't immediately stop enforcing the law that bars non-residents from the park.

Ramakrishnan said her family has been seeing people turned away from the park for years.

"There are routinely Black and brown families that, I imagine, excitedly packed a picnic and drove from wherever, and then were told to turn around," she said.

The group had hoped that their message would celebrate the city's change in policy. Before the council voted to delay its discussion, the group was considering painting "All are welcome" in capital letters near Foothills Park. After the vote, it settled on "Desegregate," a message that Ramanathan said was chosen to reflect the policy's impact.

"The policy that makes it a misdemeanor to enter the park doesn't say anything racial in it," Ramanathan said. "But I believe we live in a society that is structured such a way that a policy doesn't need to be explicitly racist to be racist in practice."

She said that when the group finished painting the message, she "took it in for a second."

"I had a sense it would be the last I saw of it," she said.

She was hoping a friend of hers would take a photo of the message with a drone later in the day. But she also had a sense that this wish was a "pipe dream."

"In my short time on this Earth, I've seen enough to see that bureaucracy moves fast on some things and not on others," Ramanathan said.

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Activist group calls on city to 'desegregate' Foothills Park

Teenagers, Raging Grannies paint message outside open space on Sunday night

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jul 8, 2020, 1:01 pm

Palo Alto's newest public mural came and went so quickly that you probably missed it.

One word, painted in large yellow letters on Page Mill Road, in front of the Foothills Park entrance: Desegregate.

About a dozen activists, some from Palo Alto (who, as such, can visit Foothills Park whenever they want under the city's "residents-only" policy at the open space) and some from other cities (and, as such, would be prohibited from entering the park, unless accompanying a Palo Alto resident), met under the full moon on Sunday night to paint the message along Page Mill Road. Most were teenagers; two were from the activist organization Raging Grannies, according to Vara Ramakrishnan, one of the organizers of the activity.

The group planned the act months in advance, waiting for a day when there would be little activity and a bright moon under which to work, obviating the need for lighting. They painted the message over about four hours, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Ramakrishnan said.

But the group's work proved to be a fleeting gesture in a decadeslong debate over Foothills Park access. By 7 a.m. on Monday, a city employee was on scene using a power hose to erase the message. Before long, it was gone.

Ramakrishnan, who lives in Los Altos Hills and who often walks to the park, said she observed passersby asking the city employee what the message said. He told them he didn't know, she said.

"We wanted to look over the work in the daytime and touch it up," she said. "We never got a chance to do that."

Ramakrishnan's daughter, Anjali Ramanathan, a recent graduate of The Nueva School who briefly attended Gunn High and who was joined by her friends from Gunn and Palo Alto High School, said she was inspired to partake in the action by personal experiences and recent rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She cited a speech by East Palo Alto Mayor Regina Wallace Jones during a Juneteenth rally last month that addressed how race continues to affect the area.

At that time, the activist group drew the outline of "BLM" in front of Palo Alto City Hall. The city followed suit on June 30 with its own gesture of support for Black Lives Matter — a street mural painted by 16 artists.

Ramanathan, 17, believes the "residents only" policy at Foothills Park is closely tied to racist practices of the past — including redlining and blockbusting — that have made it historically difficult for Black and brown people to buy homes in Palo Alto. Even if the policy isn't explicitly racist, it has effectively kept non-white people from other communities from living in the community and visiting the park.

"I wanted white folks to think about it, next time they go to Foothills Park and don't see any Black or brown faces around," Ramanathan said. "That does mean something. It's not an accident."

The issue of opening up Foothills Park to the greater public has been a point of contention in Palo Alto for decades, with the debate over the issue flickering on and off every few years. Opponents of removing the policy have consistently argued that limiting access to the park is necessary to protect the pristine natural landscape in the 1,400-acre preserve. They also note that in the late 1950s, when the family of Russel V. Lee offered to sell the land to the city, none of the surrounding cities were willing to chip in to buy the park.

The argument has reignited over the past month, with more than 100 civic and faith leaders and residents signing a letter in early June urging the council to "meet the moment" and abolish a policy that they argue "sends a terrible message to our neighboring communities" and "leaves a bad taste in the mouths of thousands of would-be visitors who are prohibited by uniformed City staff from entering a public park." The list of supporters includes U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo; state Assemblyman Marc Berman; former mayors Leland Levy, Peter Drekmeier and Pat Burt; the Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor at University AME Zion Church and chair of the city's Human Relations Commission; and NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley.

Palo Alto residents who oppose the policy change have argued that the law, which makes it a misdemeanor for a non-resident to visit (unless accompanied by a resident) has nothing to do with race and everything to do with protecting the environment.

Robert Roth, a member of the Friends of Foothills Park and a volunteer at the park, made that point at a June 2019 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, when he argued against expanding access.

"It seems to me it follows that if the park is overused, the magical experience of coming upon a flock of quail, or 30 or 40 young turkeys, or seeing a coyote or any of the experiences of the birds and the beasts and the flowers in the park could be lost," Roth said.

But according to city staff, the current number of visitors is relatively low, compared to historic trends. In the years after the park opened, it attracted more than 300,000 visitors annually, peaking at about 372,000 in the early 1970s over two consecutive years. According to a 2019 report, attendance had dropped by about 50% since then, with about 152,000 people visiting the park annually over the prior 17 years.

The Parks and Recreation Commission tried to address the issue of overcrowding by proposing a pilot program that allows non-residents to buy permits online for $6 each. It would cap the number of daily permits at 50.

The City Council, however, has delayed taking up the politically sensitive subject. After months of inaction, the council scheduled a discussion of the proposal for June 23. But on June 22, the council voted to take the item off the agenda and postpone it until after the council's summer recess, which concludes on Aug. 2. The latest delay prompted the resignation of Ryan McCauley, a leading proponent of expanding access to Foothills Park who served on the Parks and Recreation Commission. It also spurred retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a former City Council member, to issue a letter to the city, threatening a lawsuit if it doesn't immediately stop enforcing the law that bars non-residents from the park.

Ramakrishnan said her family has been seeing people turned away from the park for years.

"There are routinely Black and brown families that, I imagine, excitedly packed a picnic and drove from wherever, and then were told to turn around," she said.

The group had hoped that their message would celebrate the city's change in policy. Before the council voted to delay its discussion, the group was considering painting "All are welcome" in capital letters near Foothills Park. After the vote, it settled on "Desegregate," a message that Ramanathan said was chosen to reflect the policy's impact.

"The policy that makes it a misdemeanor to enter the park doesn't say anything racial in it," Ramanathan said. "But I believe we live in a society that is structured such a way that a policy doesn't need to be explicitly racist to be racist in practice."

She said that when the group finished painting the message, she "took it in for a second."

"I had a sense it would be the last I saw of it," she said.

She was hoping a friend of hers would take a photo of the message with a drone later in the day. But she also had a sense that this wish was a "pipe dream."

"In my short time on this Earth, I've seen enough to see that bureaucracy moves fast on some things and not on others," Ramanathan said.

Comments

Dan Waylonis
Jackson Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 3:40 pm
Dan Waylonis, Jackson Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 3:40 pm
24 people like this

Vandalism is never okay. How about following the laws and working with officials to produce the desired change?


never?
Jackson Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 4:06 pm
never?, Jackson Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 4:06 pm
20 people like this

Come on, Dan, I'm sure you can come up with at least one circumstance where vandalism would be OK. Be a little imaginative.


Jake O.
Rengstorff Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 4:44 pm
Jake O., Rengstorff Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 4:44 pm
9 people like this

"I wanted white folks to think about it, next time they go to Foothills Park and don't see any Black or brown faces around," Ramanathan said.

I don't know if it was the mother or daughter quoted here but perhaps they are the one judging others by their skin. Assuming there are no "black or brown faces" living in Palo Alto.


Ron MV
Waverly Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 4:56 pm
Ron MV, Waverly Park
on Jul 8, 2020 at 4:56 pm
16 people like this

There is so much wrong with the statements in this article. Basically it comes down to Ramanathan saying "I think it is racist, but even if it is not based on racist decisions, I have decided it is racist anyway".

Originally the reason was that no other local city wanted to pay for the park, so since Palo Alto was fitting the whole bill, they decided to limit access to their residents. Later it evolved into keeping down crowds . NEVER has it been "Let's keep the black and brown people out". And we don't need to make up imaginary people who show up with picnic baskets only to be turned away. Nor do we need to make mental gymnastics to tie it to "redlining" and "block busting" which the park has never had anything to do with. Foothills Park is essentially private property made available to the residents who's local taxes pay for its upkeep. No one is making use of Levis Stadium's field right now, but they won't let me picnic there either, regardless of my skin color.

I am not even a Palo Alto resident myself (although I have been to the park a few times as a guest). I am also "brown" by Ramanathan's terminology. I don't feel PA is targeting me or anyone else.


Runner Mark
Shoreline West
on Jul 8, 2020 at 5:17 pm
Runner Mark, Shoreline West
on Jul 8, 2020 at 5:17 pm
14 people like this

I love Foothills Park. As a Los Altos resident, I used to run up there in high school (our cross country team had a PA resident's driver's license to get us in).
Now, years later, living in Mountain View, it seems strange to have a park open only to city residents. MV allows anyone to use the city parks - including Shoreline Park. I can't imagine excluding residents from other cities just because they didn't help pay for these parks.


BDBD
Cuesta Park
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:17 am
BDBD, Cuesta Park
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:17 am
10 people like this

Don't cities all over the bay area acquire land for parks at their own expense? I know Mountain View does. None except Palo Alto check ID at the gate. This is definitely ripe for a lawsuit. And to the commenter above, "It is racist, even if it is not based on racist decisions," is literally the definition of systemic racism - you were so close to recognizing it as such!


Jay Ess
another community
on Jul 9, 2020 at 11:55 am
Jay Ess, another community
on Jul 9, 2020 at 11:55 am
10 people like this

The argument for saving the pristine environment is a bit hokey since the highly used Rancho SanAntonio open space has many wild turkeys, bobcats, owls and a few mountain lions . I cant buy that for Foothills Park. The only animals I have seen are deer. Most of the park is pretty highly groomed....an artificial lake and lawn. just don't seem pristine open space.


gretchen
Monta Loma
on Jul 9, 2020 at 2:46 pm
gretchen, Monta Loma
on Jul 9, 2020 at 2:46 pm
4 people like this

Palo Alto racial ethic mix 55.6% White, 31% Asian 5.5 percent Hispanic and 1.2% Black/African American
East Palo Alto racial ethnic mix 6.2% White, 16.7% African American, 3.8% Asian, 7.5% Pacific Islander and 38% other races

While the intention and history may or may not be raciest, today having a park opened to one city and not the other sure looks that way to me.



Steven
another community
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:24 pm
Steven, another community
on Jul 9, 2020 at 10:24 pm
3 people like this

The plan to allow Palo Alto residents in free, but charge non-residents a nominal fee, sounded like a good plan.


Steve Kelem
another community
on Jul 10, 2020 at 7:14 pm
Steve Kelem, another community
on Jul 10, 2020 at 7:14 pm
6 people like this

I live in Los Altos Hills. They won't let me in, unless I'm a guest of a resident. It's Taxism, not racism. I don't pay Palo Alto City taxes. Palo Alto residents do. They don't discriminate on the basis of anything other than whether you're in the tax base that pays for their city land.


Golden Catamount
another community
on Jul 11, 2020 at 2:23 am
Golden Catamount, another community
on Jul 11, 2020 at 2:23 am
6 people like this

Protesting for BLM I understand - it's a matter of life and death. Protesting to have more people trample our natural, rural grounds... completely uncalled for. Especially during a worldwide pandemic!

The wildlife and natural landscape of the area is going to suffer greatly. This is a semi-rural area that should not be considered a city for people to just flock to when they need a little getaway. I live in Los Altos Hills (very close to Foothills Park) and have plenty of areas in my neighborhood to visit.

It seems like no one really cares about the environmental impact this will have on the natural inhabitants of this area. If anything, we should close this park and let the wildlife flourish before they truly have no where else to go. I have seen so many people struggle to drive on Page Mill and I usually am 99% correct in guessing they're going to foothills park.

If this park opens to the rest of the public, a strict rule of how many people are in the park should absolutely be implemented.


Vigil for Democracy
another community
on Jul 11, 2020 at 7:10 am
Vigil for Democracy, another community
on Jul 11, 2020 at 7:10 am
Like this comment

Steve Kelem, do you know that Palo Alto has renters? What city taxes do they pay?

The residents only policy is unconstitutional and de facto racist. Palo Alto has under 2% Black residents, and that’s by longterm design and practice. Look up Judge LaDoris Cordell - Palo Alto resident, ex-City Council member and advocate for opening the park to the public.


Vigil for Democracy
another community
on Jul 11, 2020 at 7:17 am
Vigil for Democracy , another community
on Jul 11, 2020 at 7:17 am
Like this comment

Dan Waylonis ... What some call vandalism, activists call free speech, especially when messages are painted in expensive washable paint.

The unconstitutional ordinance has been in effect 55 years. The city council tabled a vote and went on recess, presumably to keep “riffraff” out of the park yet another summer. Following unconstitutional laws and working with protectionist officials gets old after a while.


xor
another community
on Jul 12, 2020 at 2:46 pm
xor, another community
on Jul 12, 2020 at 2:46 pm
3 people like this

When I lived in Mtn. View in the '70s during the tennis boom Mtn. View invested heavily in courts with the crown jewel being the glorious Cuesta center (this was when it was difficult to get court time). I played and know for a fact that Mtn. View allowed people from other communities to use the courts. There are other examples I could cite. I know other communities didn't chip in when they could have for Foothills park, but it was a long, long time ago. Palo Alto needs to lighten up on this.


Member
Shoreline West
on Jul 12, 2020 at 10:43 pm
Member, Shoreline West
on Jul 12, 2020 at 10:43 pm
Like this comment

Shoreline Golf Links in Shoreline Park charges a higher fee to nonresidents then it does to Mountain View residents. These examples are everywhere and reflect that residents pay taxes that support these areas and should enjoy a different level of access for that cost.


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