Environmental Racism in the Bay Area

unnamed“Have you ever wondered why all of the oil companies and industries are located in low-income neighborhoods with majority people of color?”

When my 9th grade Biology teacher asked our class this question, I was perplexed. Yet, being in an environment where students did not always challenge the authority nor immerse themselves in learning outside of the classroom, I was never really able to significantly ponder that question until 11th grade, when reality came crashing down.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Freedom Breathers, I became very acquainted with my city government, grassroots organizing, and, most importantly, knowledge, understanding, and questioning of complex and institutionalized injustices. From that experience, I learned that Pittsburg, California was only one of few marginalized communities that faces a large amount of industry, and thus, pollution, toxic plumes, and poor health conditions. I also learned that gentrification, income, skin color, education, and other factors are all linked, a concept that my freshman year Biology teacher had hinted at.

When reading the article, “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill,” I noticed a very interesting and important point: white people did not want African Americans entering or living in the same neighborhoods as them. This discrimination occurred during the World War 2 era, and still continues to this day. In fact, the tech boom has caused further acceleration of gentrification in most of the Bay Area.

Young, often white tech workers moved into San Francisco because of the many tech companies that house their headquarters in the city. The young tech workers are attracted to the city, and its abundance of food options, nightlife, and culture. Unfortunately, they are also affecting the local culture in a negative way, by pushing rents costs up. These higher costs can be afforded by the tech workers, but not the long-standing members of the community who are now being displaced out of San Francisco. These displaced people are often African Americans or Chicano/Latinos who have contributed to much of the culture and livelihood of the neighborhoods in San Francisco, such as the Mission District or Clarion Alley.

Where are these displaced people moving? They’re all being pushed more inland, to places like Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburg, and Antioch, where the population is predominantly low-income and from minority groups. They are being forced to live in places with limited resources and poor health conditions, which further divides the white population living in clean, healthy neighborhoods from the people of color living in – what should be -uninhabitable spaces.

These forced migrations into unsafe areas are definitely aspects of environmental racism. The fact that citizens in Porter Ranch, who are predominately white, received government help only a few months after a gas leakage, while communities of color facing environmental injustices continued to be ignored, even after years of asking for help. In many ways, discrimination against people of color is institutionalized and furthered by poor political practices.

I stand with the people of Richmond to increase more citizen level representation in city council and places of power, because only those who can identify with the issue can take the steps needed to fix it. By doing so, I hope that questions such as the one my 9th grade Biology teacher posed could be understood and discussed at an earlier age.



From fortune cookies to the story of Donaldina Cameron: My experience in Chinatown

CC BY-SA 2.0. Photographer:Ksayer1. Entitled: Fortune cookies 2

Last week our class visited 5 of the 41 alleyways in San Francisco’s Chinatown.An alleyway is defined as a street that is less than 32 feet wide between storefronts on either side of the street.

I had never been to Chinatown before and learning about it through a tour with Chinatown Alleyway Tours was an exciting and engaging experience for me. Through the tour we learned how the alleyways, have changed from dangerous walk ways that people avoided to the well lit and clean alleyways they are today. Additionally, the alleyways today reflect the culture and history and of Chinatown.

The alleyways used to have a high frequency of crime and grime since the city and the residents owning property on alleyways did not feel it was their responsibility to clean them up. The poor state of the alleyways motivated a group of teenagers to clean them themselves. Soon afterwards, store keepers became motivated by the teenagers and started cleaning the alleyways as well. The teenagers’ initiative to improve the alleyways is responsible for the pristine alleyways we see today and shows that teenagers can make a lasting impact in their towns.

The alleyways of Chinatown are historically rich. During our tour we visited a one room fortune cookie factory where the employees folded each tasty treat by hand. Although fortune cookies are often thought of as a part of Chinese cuisine, we learned that these cookies were originally created by a Japanese restaurant owner living in California who wanted to create a cookie that Americans would enjoy. His cookies proved to be very popular. When Japanese citizens were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II, the Chinese decided to start making fortune cookies. The cookies continued to be very popular and are still served today in American Chinese restaurants.

Not only are the alleyways historically rich they also reflect the culture of Chinatown. Today murals can be found in most of the alleyways. The murals were painted in the alleyways primarily to visually communicate the culture of Chinatown but also to discourage graffiti. Some alleyways also have themes, including the Alphabet Alleyway which shows the English alphabet ‘jumping’ down the sidewalk past an elementary school. I found the Cameron House located on the Alphabet Alleyway to be particularly fascinating. In the 1900s, Chinatown was a dirty and unsafe place. Many girls and woman who immigrated from China were enslaved in the brothels. Donaldina Cameron, a missionary, worked with policeman to rescue these enslaved immigrants. During the day she taught the rescued women to sow and cook, and during the night she disguised herself as a man and went to brothels where she would help the women escape. Donaldina’s story is one of courage and strength and is a great example of the rich history in Chinatown.

After our visit to Chinatown, I now appreciate the community for much more than the good food that can be found there. Chinatown has worked hard to maintain its culture and celebrate its history through the alleyways and community centers.

Housing in San Francisco Chinatown

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Street corner in the San Francisco Chinatown

Rainy though it was, Chinatown in San Francisco was filled with life last weekend. The shops displayed brightly painted signs, and old men gathered under the bridge and other shelters to play cards and discuss the day. About two blocks up from the Chinese Culture Center, a local elementary school had a carnival with arts and crafts, live music, and delicious-smelling food. I haven’t visited Chinatown in about ten years, and the place might not have changed, but my perspective and understanding of the community has, thanks to our trip with Chinatown Alleyway Tours.

Led by college students with local ties to the area, we got to see some of the more unique, interesting parts of Chinatown and learn more about its culture and history from people who understand the community more than we would have if we had wandered Chinatown alone.

The most interesting part of the tour for me was learning about the zoning and rent-controlled housing in Chinatown. Zoning laws in Chinatown state that no buildings may be built above 65 feet without a special permit, which makes it difficult for big companies to move in and take over Chinatown, allowing residents there to resist being pushed out by big corporations, and the cheap housing available there is some of the only accessible housing that exists in the city. Most people can benefit from this, and people of all income levels may be drawn to live in Chinatown due to the low-rent options. However, the housing is often absurdly cramped: our guides described the one-room apartments that are available cheaply – it sounds barely livable, and not enjoyable. I think this raises further questions of housing justice.

While it is good that these apartments are available, and they are obviously better than living on the streets, I question the fact that there is nowhere else available in the city to live cheaply. A one-room apartment for an entire three-generation family is tiny. I imagine it becomes more difficult to cook and plan meals when you have such limited cooking space, and it might be impossible to work at home. This means that children in school may need to find quieter areas with more space to do work, and working family members who bring work home may have to find elsewhere to do it as well. This would add stress that families with more room in their homes don’t have to deal with, and may make it more difficult to succeed in school and work.

San Francisco housing is becoming absurd – people are being priced out all over the city. While Chinatown is one of the few places left with affordable housing, it does not mean that it is a comfortable place to live. I think it’s important to raise awareness of this problem and work to change it. There should be more rent-controlled housing available all over the city, and landlords who evict people from rent-controlled living spaces in order to charge higher rent should be required to subsidize the higher rents their former tenants would be forced to pay. It is difficult to make these things happen, but worth it to help people get the housing they deserve.



Article Spotlight: Perspectives on the California Drought

Article Spotlight:

The California Drought: Who Gets The Water And Who’s Hung Out To Dry?

Earthjustice’s feature on the The California Drought: Who Gets The Water And Who’s Hung Out To Dry? presents multiple perspectives on the crisis. The article shares a range of voices including independent farmers, ranchers, and fishermen in the Bay Area Delta, a water policy expert, and a Native American tribal leader in California. Earthjustice raises concerns about the interests of industries such as commercial agriculture and fracking in California as the drought continues:

That wasteful, polluting practices like oil and gas exploration are allowed to continue in the midst of an acute water shortage shows there is still a long way to go toward rethinking the management of such a precious resource. That massive, taxpayer-subsidized farms are planting water intensive crops like almonds in the middle of semi-arid regions that, even in a wet year, don’t naturally receive enough rainfall to sustain the crops should force a similar rethinking of California’s agricultural practices.”

I thought this article effectively demonstrated that the question of water rights, especially in a time of scarcity, cannot be resolved simply. Oftentimes, the people who are most severely affected by the drought also depend on water in some way for their livelihoods, and ensuring equity can become a problem when it’s individuals against industries fighting for the same limited resources, for survival.


Environmental Justice and Urban Development: Contradictions and Solutions

The fundamental premise of the environmental justice movement is that environmental and social issues can be solved together, and that the struggles to rectify social injustice and to protect our natural world are inherently linked. In many situations, there is no doubt that environmental problems are disproportionately hurting marginalized populations, and this is especially true in large urban areas like the Bay Area, where industrial waste, pollution, and sea level rise immediately affect the poor, minority populations in areas like Bayview-Hunter’s Point, West Oakland, and East Palo Alto.

Yet in the case of perhaps the most pressing social issue facing our metropolitan area, the relationship is much trickier. Amid a boom in tech jobs, housing prices across the region are skyrocketing, especially in San Francisco, fueling rapid gentrification and high turnover in many neighborhoods. A classic story of gentrification involves the eviction of longtime residents from a block of old but affordable low-rise housing, which is then demolished to make room for a glittering high-rise condo building. This was the fear that inspired the failed “Mission Moratorium” proposition last year, and it remains a fear for Chinatown residents who have enacted zoning laws limiting height.

The social justice issue here is clear – new condos will almost certainly cater to wealthy new residents who don’t fit the socioeconomic profile of the neighborhood, and the displaced old residents will have a harder and harder time finding a place in the city. But what about the environmental impact of new development and gentrification? Surely new construction, high-rise buildings, and more crowding can’t be good for the environment?

Actually, despite the initial thoughts of many, new construction in cities, especially dense, high-rise residential construction, is one of the best things our society can do for the environment. As detailed in the groundbreaking New Yorker article Green Manhattan: Everywhere Should Be More Like New York by David Owen, the denser the city, the lower the per capita energy usage, pollution, and carbon footprint. Denser development reduces car dependence and decreases heating and cooling costs (as there is a spillover effect in large buildings). And in the case of new buildings in San Francisco, new construction represents an even larger improvement in terms of energy and greenhouse gas reduction because many new buildings are LEED certified, incorporate renewable energy, and advertise sustainability as a way to draw in environmentally conscious new tenants. A case in point is NEMA, a 37-floor, 4 building development in the rapidly gentrifying Mid-Market area, which is LEED-silver certified, heavily uses recycled building materials, and even includes green roofs – a studio costs over $3,200 in monthly rent.

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A plot showing new construction rate and housing price, in which San Francisco is the least affordable and slowest to build in the country. Photo from Trulia.

The “Green Manhattan” argument is part of the reason that the typical San Francisco progressive approach to housing – don’t build anything and demonize anyone who moves in – is misguided and even dangerous. The second reason is that while supply and demand may not be able to explain all of San Francisco’s complicated housing market, it is impossible to escape the reality that San Francisco has artificially held back housing supply and population growth for almost fifty years, and this lack of growth has greatly affected prices (an in-depth explanation of this dynamic can be found in TechCrunch’s excellent 2014 report). This, coupled with refusal to build new housing or upgrade transit throughout the region, has led to the real environmental cost of San Francisco’s gentrification: service workers are pushed into sprawling peripheral cities like Antioch, Fairfield, Tracy, and Morgan Hill, where commutes on crowded freeways regularly take over two hours.

The view from the office

New apartment buildings stand alongside old warehouse buildings in SoMa. Photo from AppDynamics.

So is the solution, then, to raze the low-lying Richmond district and build a hundred new LEED-certified towers? Probably not, because this would not only destroy the character of the city, but also worsen the transportation nightmare in San Francisco. But by imposing stringent affordable housing requirements on new residential and commercial development, carefully upzoning neighborhoods, improving transit services in the city and throughout the region, and improving tenant protection laws (which would encourage new San Franciscans to move into new development rather than properties cleared through unethical evictions), I believe that it’s possible to reduce the impact of the housing crisis on vulnerable populations while also reducing sprawl and capitalizing on the inherent environmental benefits of dense cities – a true environmental justice solution to the Bay Area’s greatest challenge.

Unique Initiatives Striving for Environmental Justice


Sunflowers at Veggielution

What is environmental justice?

Prior to this class, my response to this question would have been that environmental justice is providing justice for the environment. For example, one policy I would have considered to be “environmentally just” is called ‘spare the air’ which limits the number of days residents can burn wood fires to reduce the amount of pollutants emitted into the air. Through this class, however, my definition of environmental justice has changed quite significantly. So far we have examined environmental justice in food distribution, the tech industry, and housing availability. In studying these areas, my definition of environmental justice has broadened from something that only protects the environment to a basic human right that all people should have. We all require clean air, drinkable water and a safe place to live.

I see that here, in the Bay Area, there are many disparities between communities and their respective access to food. For example, there is a serious shortage of food available in West Oakland. Despite a population of 25,000 residents, West Oakland lacks a full service grocery store causing its residents to travel to nearby towns to buy their groceries. The fact that West Oakland does not have a full service grocery store while Palo Alto has about five shows that there is a lack of food justice in the city. Luckily, this problem is being addressed by the People’s Community Market which is working to start a local and affordable grocery store.

Similar to the lack of food distribution in West Oakland, some areas in San Jose also lack affordable fresh food. Veggielution, a six acre piece of land in urban San Jose, is working to solve this issue by selling fresh produce to locals for affordable prices. Three weeks ago our class visited and worked on the farm. While visiting Veggielution I was surprised by the apparent contrast between urban San Jose and the farm. Although the six acre plot complete with chickens, geese, ducks, and peacocks is located in an urban center and situated under a highway 280 off ramp, it is a working farm with crops, animals, and an orchard. Beyond its rows of crops and even a tractor, it is also a growing community center with many community programs. For example, Veggielution provides affordable cooking classes that cater to the cultures of people in its surrounding areas. I found it fascinating to learn about a unique initiative that not only improves its communities’ access to fresh produce but also teaches the community about sustainability and much more. It was also relaxing to get off campus and get my hands dirty in their apple orchard.

Overall, through this course I have expanded my definition of environmental justice and gained understanding about environmental injustices in the Bay Area. I also have learned about many creative ways organizations working to mitigate these injustices such as hosting community work days complete with a delicious lunch straight from the farm to the table. So far the organizations I’ve explored seem to be mitigating environmental injustices by educating the public about these issues and providing real solutions to these issues.

Unique Initiatives Striving for Environmental Justice

Chinatown Alleyway Tour

This weekend we had the honor of joining a tour led by two youth organizers with Chinatown Alleyway Tours in the San Francisco Chinatown.

As we toured the alleyways, we learned about the rich history of the district and the current struggles residents face. High density and a lack of new affordable housing have pressed community members. Despite this pressure, Chinatown is resilient and has persevered through community initiatives and active youth engagement.

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Belonging to/in the Mission

Credit: Maria Doerr

Mission District Mural Tour

During the past week, we had a conversation surrounding one of the most iconic neighborhoods of San Francisco: The Mission District. The area is known for being famous for its beautiful murals and its delicious food sold in many taquerias. Many people enjoy passing through the neighborhood, but few may realize the level of struggle that many of the current residents of the neighborhood are currently going through. Due to the large number of incoming workers, especially those following the riches of the tech boom and the success of Silicon Valley, gentrification has become the norm.

Many residents are being forced out of their long-time homes, while newcomers are pulled into purchasing high cost property. In A Changing Mission, a project by the San Francisco Chronicle, several stories are told from the perspective of those involved in both sides of the issue. While reading the content, I was very impressed with the amount of detail and investigation that went into not only the article but also the website in general. The stories that were shared really made me feel for the people being pushed out, and also it made me reflect on my role as a possible future resident of the area. Would I be pushing people out? Was I ever unintentionally responsible for gentrification?

One line that stood out to me in the article was as follows:

“There have long been questions about who belongs in the Mission — and to whom, exactly, the Mission belongs.”

I think this concept is interesting because when you really think about it, these two questions are very different. As of now, many people would say the Mission should be home to those who have been there first. The ones who have been there for years. The ones that are as of now, being evicted and cast out. They belong.

While I agree with this, I also think the question can be complicated, and I have so many more questions surrounding it. Like, who determines whether you are a “long-time resident”? What criteria would someone have to meet? What timeline is necessary to claim the area your home? 10 years? 25? A century? If one where to look historically, one could claim, that it is actually the Irish and German immigrants who should belong there. Or is it really up to the Ohlone tribe which inhabited the land for thousands of years? If you look at it this way, they faced the ultimate gentrification. But it’s hard. At one point in time, every person in the Mission District was new, and there was always someone who came before them. But if not history is to be looked to, what can? I think the issues that are being seen in the Mission are of a terrible nature, and I would really like to see a more unified community. Change is inevitable, but hopefully, in the case of the Mission, it can be made positive.

Pushing for Community-Led Solutions


People’s Climate Change March

At the end of Fall Quarter, I wrote an article about effective service at Stanford. I interviewed leaders from various organizations, analyzed trends in student perspectives, and concluded that Stanford students have the potential to make a meaningful contribution if they perform thoughtful service, with a thorough awareness of their privilege as members of a prestigious university and a willingness to learn from and work with outside communities rather than coming in and “saving” them.

Students often approach service with the wrong mindset. Each of us perceives the world in a slightly different way; our perceptions are colored by our differing backgrounds and identities. These paradigms combined with the privilege of many Stanford students often result in two incorrect beliefs – first, that our perception of the world is inherently better than everyone else’s and second, that we can fix everything by teaching underprivileged people the “right way” to improve their lives without having to fully understand their communities. These assumptions foster condescension and a white savior complex. Tensions arise when Stanford students step into another community’s space, uneducated about the context of the issues, and try to teach people or impose their own values.

Unfortunately, this problematic approach extends beyond Stanford students. During our class discussions, it became evident that much of the efforts to address environmental harms and inequality, especially the food initiatives in West Oakland.These efforts in West Oakland were outlined in a recent article from KQED, entitled 3 Food Initiatives That Could Transform West Oakland’s Food Desert. Some of the food initiatives faced the same limitations, with rich foreigners intruding into underserved communities to “help” them without understanding the communities or the needs of the people. One specific example is Tom Henderson’s plans for a 20,000 – square – foot supermarket in the Jack London Gateway shopping center. Henderson, “Oakland’s king of EB-5 investments,” is willing to spend upwards of $25 million (just in start-up costs) to fill the gap of affordable grocery stores – while churning out a profit – but has been met with skepticism by many merchants and community activists in the neighborhood because of his lack of basic understanding about the community.

First, the Jack London Gateway shopping center has poor street frontage and limited public transit; with a target consumer base of a community in which most people walk or take the bus to shop every few days, the location offers unnecessary logistical challenges. Instead, most of the customers will be more affluent people with access to cars and the market will do little to address the crisis of food deserts.

Moreover, Henderson’s expensive marketing push will most likely alienate those in the community who perceive the store to be pricey. Overall, Henderson’s efforts are well intentioned but misguided. They may even lead to more harm than good, because if Henderson manages to intimidate his competitors with his ambitious supermarket but ultimately fails because of his inability to connect with the community, the neighborhood will be left in a lurch without other options.

Luckily, there are other community-based incentives, often led by people from or at least familiar with the communities. These efforts analyze the needs of the community and specialize to fit their needs. Some examples include the People’s Community Market and Mandela Foods Cooperative, which sell healthy staples at affordable prices and improve the general nutrition of the communities they serve. Lasting change must begin with understanding, both in service and in environmental justice movements. It comes from working with communities to serve their needs in the most effective way possible instead of coming in, ignorant and arrogant, to save the world.


California’s Environmental Justice Crisis


In Julia Lurie’s article, Here’s What I Saw in a California Town Without Running Water, she speaks about the devastating conditions residents in East Porterville are living with due to the historic and current California’s drought. Lurie states that residents “use paper plates to avoid washing dishes, eat sandwiches instead of spaghetti so there’s no need to boil water, and collect water used for cooking and showers to pour in the toilet.” Families are also forced to use public facilities to take showers.

I find Lurie’s article meaningful because in the Bay Area we can get lost in the abstract idea of California’s drought, but East Porterville is a close by example on how the drought is directly affecting California’s residents. This proximity not only allows me to empathize with East Porterville residents, but it also motivates me to learn more about environmental justice with the hope that everyone in California will have clean running water access soon.

Article Spotlight:

Here’s What I Saw in a California Town Without Running Water

Julia Lurie