East Palo Alto (EPA) has long been the poor relative of Silicon Valley. Despite sharing a border with Palo Alto and sitting alongside the Bayshore Freeway almost exactly midway between San Francisco and San Jose it had a reputation as undesirable when I moved to CA in 1996. Their tax base was small, there wasn’t much shopping, and the homes were in disrepair. I was told over the freeway was ‘scary’; this mostly meant that the population wasn’t very white. But there is a small strip of EPA on the nice side of the freeway, sandwiched between it and San Francisquito Creek. The area was still referred to as whiskey gulch, dating back to the days when Stanford had been a dry campus and this small area was just far enough away to legitimately sell liquor to students. It also had cheap apartments, a lot of young families and Stanford grad students lived there. For a few years, so did I.
Crossing the little bridge over the creek showed a stark difference between the two towns. On the south side was Palo Alto. The homes were lovely and large, with expansive lawns. Most had two car garages with fancy SUVs and Mercedes parked in the driveways. People walked the sidewalks and waved to their neighbors. But once you crossed the creek to EPA the sidewalks were ill-kept or disappeared entirely. There were few single family homes; it was almost all apartment complexes with no grass. The few blocks that still earned the whiskey gulch distinction housed a lot of disreputable looking bars and liquor stores with bars over the windows.
My apartment was great – nothing fancy but perfectly fine, especially given that anything of a similar size would have cost at least twice as much across the creek. There was a place to park off-street, and the neighbors were all quiet and mostly kept to themselves. About once a month there would be some police action over by the bars and we had one break in, but it certainly wasn’t the awful unlivable place I had been promised by the stories.
Then came the winter of 1997-8, it was an El Nino year, and it felt like it would never stop raining. In early February my boyfriend stopped by and said “Come on, we’re driving out to Nate and Heidi’s now.”
“There’s a flood warning for the creek. Woodland Ave and the frontage road could both have issues, if we don’t go now we might be stuck here for a few days.”
I packed some clothes quickly and followed his car out. It was eerie, the creek was roaring in a way it never had before and was higher than I had ever seen it. Low lying spots were already accumulating water, as we drove toward campus where our friends lived we saw a few cars stalled out at the bottom of underpasses, their drivers not realizing how high the water had gotten. We made it safely to higher ground and had a little storm party, lit candles, a lot of wine, and listening to the rain that kept falling down.
The next morning pictures of our area of town were all over the news. San Francisquito Creek had broken through the embankment near University Avenue at 1am and the water flowed down to the frontage road where a new creek formed held in by the walls designed to protect residents from freeway noise. Several cars had been washed down the road and were in a heap at the other end. The wonderful thing for me was that most of EPA that directly bordered the creek was okay, including my apartment. The land was naturally a small hill, so most of the homes were up above the water, and other than where the embankment had given way at the bend by University our ugly 4’ tall cement levee held.
But the Palo Alto side was a mess. Water was at a depth of 8-12” for a solid half-mile from the creek, homes with basements had flooded, and anything left outside was a total loss. Some folks had attempted to sandbag but most had started too late without enough supplies. Their land was flatter, but also the residents hadn’t wanted an ugly cement levee to be an eyesore along the creek. Each land owner had their own fencing bordering the creek, mostly redwood planking, though some had thin birch lattice work and at least one house had a simple chain link fence. So as the creek swelled and roared through town our side had a 4’ higher bank than theirs did, keeping us mostly dry.
It was a couple of days before I could safely drive back to my apartment and discover for certain that things were okay. The Palo Alto news was full of articles trying to figure out who was to blame,and I know lawsuits were eventually filed. Interestingly, no one ever proposed a 4' cement levee on the south side of the creek, though.
Functional is its own kind of pretty, I think.***LJ Idol week 11, topic 2. Read more about other creeks here.***