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July 20, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

People of the Creek: History unfolds beneath El Palo Alto People of the Creek: History unfolds beneath El Palo Alto (July 20, 2005)

This is the 16th part of the story of the people who have lived on the banks of the San Francisquito Creek and its tributaries through the centuries.

By Nancy Lund

Protecting the creek has been an ongoing process. In 1988, efforts began to restore the health of El Palo Alto, the mythic tree that has survived for centuries.

For a thousand years, it has witnessed the cavalcade of people passing beneath its branches. It stands on the south bank of the creek immediately adjacent to the railroad tracks and busy streets. Thus, it has been subject to pollution from trains and cars as well as the degradation of its bank from high, rushing water. Its steady decline in the 20th Century has served as a reminder of how human interaction with the natural environment can have disquieting consequences. Steps have been taken to revive the tree's damaged root system, buried decades ago during the construction of the railroad trestle, and to mist its withered top section. These efforts have resulted in amazing new growth. Throughout the watershed in the late 1980s and on into the present, the level of harmful substances carried into the creek system by rainwater washing over polluted streets and from homes perched on the banks has been reduced. School children stenciled warnings on storm drain entrances about the dangers of depositing harmful substances. Organizations such as the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association provide booklets on less-toxic ways to control garden pests and plant diseases. Bay Area Action and Community Impact recruited volunteers to work on habitat restoration. One especially active volunteer and creek advocate, Jim Johnson, has gathered seeds from the watershed and grown plants with which to reline the creeks' banks. These groups have removed non-native plants and set out hundreds of native plants along the banks of the creeks. Children from Portola Valley's Ormondale School replanted the banks of the creek behind their school. Meanwhile, people continued to make an impact of a different sort on the creek. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the Peninsula Times Tribune and the Palo Alto Weekly began to report that people were living under the bridges once again, reminiscent of the "hobo jungles" of the Depression. They were the homeless who found protection from the elements there. As many as 40 at a time set up camps at various spots around the El Camino/railroad overpasses and between Poe and Waverley. Some built shanties or dug caves into the banks. Police and city officials heard complaints from neighbors who feared fire from campfires or harm to themselves and their children. There were reports of drug sales and litter. Responding to the outcry and to the rule of 10:30 closing for parks (the creek is a city park between El Camino and Chaucer), the police made sweeps through the creek bed, giving twenty-four hour eviction notices. Once again reminiscent of the Depression, another ""Hotel de Zink" was set up, this time a rotating one among area churches. It offered temporary shelter and various services. Another new set of residents moved onto the banks in the early 2000s after Stanford gained permission to build 38 buildings with 628 housing units for its staff and faculty and a 500-unit senior housing complex on the 48 acres dubbed "Stanford West" or "Ohlone Field." The staff housing alone equals around 750,000 square feet. Since this was the last undeveloped site on the creek proper, the site of Native American discoveries, and home to countless animals, the debate before the Palo Alto vote to approve the plan was long and furious. It involved issues beyond flood control and creek protection-traffic, population density, and overall quality of life in the area. The final decisions included an 11-acre archaeology preserve along the creek's banks, set aside by Sanford, to protect the most sensitive Native American sites.
Next: The floods of the 1990s.

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