Escaping Sprawl and Facing History at Foothills Nature Preserve
When local politician Alyssa Cisneros took her daughter to Foothills Nature Preserve in Palo Alto on July 4th 2020, she was hoping to celebrate Independence Day from one of the region’s most beautiful overlooks. Instead, she was turned away by park officials for coming from the wrong town. This Saturday, as I rode my bicycle to the same overlook, I thought of Cisneros and her daughter.
How was it that I could experience an everyday miracle that Cisneros and so many others had been denied?
I’m a writer and academic who journeys through landscape, ideas, and histories on two wheels. And today I visited a once-forbidden part of our planet.
The City of Palo Alto purchased Foothills Park in 1959 to protect the landscape from property developers. Today, as I stood on a hill overlooking the nature preserve, I could see their point.
Looking north, I saw a grid of corporations with an unrelenting drive for more — Meta, Hewlett Packard, Tesla, Xerox, and Google. To the south, I saw live oak, a pond, rolling hills, and the winding ascent through redwood trees into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Breathing freely above the fumes of a million daily commuters, I started to see the logic in keeping things small.
As is often the case, the fear of scale was also a fear of black and brown people. As former Palo Alto City Councilwoman and Stanford Assistant Dean Ladoris Cordell later remarked, “I was getting emails from people and haters saying that ‘this was ours’ and ‘other people are just going to mess it up.’ I know what they meant by other people — people that didn’t look like Palo Altans, which at that time were mostly white.”
As is often the case, the fear of scale was a fear of black and brown people
Palo Alto’s Foothills Park is a compelling example of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls racism without racists — the park policy didn’t mention race or ethnicity, but it didn’t have to.
As Richard Rothstein explains in his book The Color of Law, Palo Alto real estate agents, developers, and government loan officers refused to allow Black families to move to the city after the second world war. Then in 1954, when a Black family bought a home in the neighboring town of East Palo Alto, white flight and real estate speculation sorted East Palo Alto into a Black community. By 1960, East Palo Alto was 80% Black, while Palo Alto remained primarily White. The school district quickly built a second school in East Palo Alto for Black children. So when the city added a rule restricting Foothills Park to only Palo Alto residents, the rule prevented Black residents from enjoying the park without even needing to mention race.
As I looked over the pattern of houses, tech firms, and university buildings to the north, I thought about the idea of statistics in W.H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen”:
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
Auden’s poem is about something more profound than the monotony of an unremarkable life. The final stanza of the poem imagines the complacent sameness of the middle class in a society run by eugenicists. For a time, that was Palo Alto, where many of Stanford University’s founders were leaders of the eugenics movement. This racist ideology sought to develop so-called superior humans by selective breeding and sterilization of those they considered inferior. That kind of sameness is maintained by more than conformity — it is also maintained by exclusion.
As a Guatemalan-American professor, I often feel the pull of both conformity and exclusion. I grew up in a family where my father sometimes carried his passport in case his citizenship was challenged, where a lifetime with “no official complaint” felt against the odds. Statistically speaking, the Foothills Park exclusion was created for people like me.
What changed? In 2020, Alyssa Cisneros and her family visited Foothills Park in an act of civil disobedience. Cisneros joined a class action lawsuit with the ACLU alongside many others in the region, including LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, the former Palo Alto Councilwoman who had unsuccessfully tried to convince the Council to change its policy. When Cordell’s term on the Council concluded, she organized the lawsuit. In 2020, the city council settled, accepting a court injunction against non-resident exclusions. The park is now open to all.
for many of us, the landscape is not an escape; it confronts us with complicated histories and risks
Why should I visit a park that reminds me about this country’s history of exclusion? Writers often describe adventures as an escape from the problems of the modern world. Yet for many of us, the landscape is not an escape; it confronts us with complicated histories and risks. Watching the morning sky this Saturday and thinking about the struggle that made this overlook accessible to me, I felt an even greater sense of gratitude and transcendence.
In a recent NPR interview, Baratunde Thurston spoke about this sense of gratitude: “We become very serious as adults, and the world becomes weighty. And nature can carry some of that burden if we share it lovingly and respectfully.” I’m glad that Foothills Park can now be shared in that way.
- Auden, W. H. (1942). “The Unknown Citizen”. Another Time. Random House.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- Chang, A., Bolarinwa, B. (2021) Breaking new ground: Judge LaDoris Cordell transforms Palo Alto. Verde Magazine
- Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing.