Although the two areas are only several hundred feet apart and are connected by a pedestrian-bike bridge, there is a huge demographic gulf between the neighborhoods that dates back to the 1950s. That is when hundreds of small homes were built on the east side for GIs returning from World War II, which a few years later gave way to a mostly lower-income black community that became known as Belle Haven. In recent years, the predominant ethnic group in Belle Haven has shifted to Hispanics.
Today, residents of the west side of the freeway tend to be white, own their own homes and earn relatively high incomes, while those on the east side are more often ethnic minorities who earn considerably less and often do not own their homes.
It was under this backdrop that residents from both sides of the freeway came to discuss the Caltrans plan to replace and possibly move the old bridge, which is mostly used by about 50 Menlo-Atherton High School students who walk to school from their Belle Haven homes.
But this benign use was elbowed aside by the testimony from west-side residents who blame the bridge for funneling criminals from Belle Haven into their neighborhoods and driving up the crime rate. More than a dozen spoke at the meeting and told stories ranging from one man's report of having his home broken into six times to a chilling report of sexual assault in the neighborhood.
These were gripping accounts, and we sympathize with residents who are fed up with living amid what appears to be an ongoing crime wave. But according to Menlo Park police, it is difficult, if not impossible, to trace the escape routes of burglars, robbers or assailants who prey on those who live on the west side of the freeway.
Ultimately, the council gave its support for the new bridge on a 4-1 vote. Mayor Andy Cohen opposed the action, he said, because Caltrans did not keep residents who live near the bridge fully informed of its plans.
Mayor Cohen made a good point. Caltrans certainly has room to improve, but we strongly believe that the bridge is needed and should be rebuilt near its present location, with some new safeguards to prevent crime.
For example, during a hearing before the city's Bicycle Commission, members discussed various ways of taking the bridge out of any potential criminal's plan to attack a home or person on the opposite side of the freeway. For starters, the bridge could be closed down at night and police could schedule more patrols in the neighborhood. Another idea: Have the bridge touch down near a major street, rather than in the midst of a neighborhood, like the current model.
Finally, neighbors should discard the racially insensitive idea of doing away with the bridge altogether. This link between the neighborhoods has existed for more than 40 years, longer than virtually any of the current residents have lived in their homes. The best way to approach locating the replacement bridge is through collaborative work with all the parties — not by jumping to conclusions that cannot be substantiated by the police.