Historical or Racist? San Jose lawmakers are debating a new name

Efforts to create a new historic neighborhood in an affluent part of San Jose are cause for concern that the city is reminiscent of segregation and racism.

The elected leaders voted 4-1 at a city council committee meeting this week to nominate a new historic neighborhood near downtown called The Alameda Park / Schiele Avenue Historic District. Councilor Dev Davis campaigned for the nomination, which aims to keep the neighborhood’s unique architecture intact.

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, Councilors David Cohen and Raul Peralez also voted to give the area historic status. But Councilor Sylvia Arenas cast the only vote against after fighting to ensure the new district does not exclude color communities.

The proposed historic district consists of 132 single-family homes built in the late 1880s. It will extend from the south side of Pershing Avenue to the north side of Schiele Avenue and will include houses along Schiele Avenue between The Alameda and Stockton Avenues.

Davis said the area is full of superb displays of residential architecture and deserves historic status as an “intact display of early suburban development.”

But that could mean remembering the city’s history of exclusion and racism, Arenas said.

“I don’t know if we should be so proud of this district because of its redlining history,” said Arenas. She asked the committee to examine the implications of recognizing a district that has traditionally banned minority residents from living there.

“This particular neighborhood was also built to avoid people of color in it,” said Arenas. “There were no black or foreign-born residents in this neighborhood in 1937 … there is likely an opportunity that will continue to exist – with a few exceptions, of course.”

Arenas said the council should not uphold the exclusion policy by preserving neighborhoods with a racist history. She fears neighborhoods will use their historical designation or single-family home owner status – which, according to Arenas, often leads to “white” status – to exclude others.

Davis insisted that residents of the area not try to shut anyone out. The neighbors, who live mostly in one- or two-story houses, are more concerned about the impact of the new campus proposed by Google. They’re just trying to protect their property, she said.

“They are concerned about the value of their land and are losing structures because speculators come in to make McMansion’s cookie cutter because (the area) will be within walking distance of the Google property,” said Davis.

A house on Schiele Avenue. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

To be recognized as historic by the city, Davis said, would mean developers filing an application to demolish or renovate historic homes would have to go through an additional layer of verification by the city.

There are 15 historic neighborhoods in the city, ranging from the landmark St. James Square City to Naglee Park Conservation Area.

Plans for compaction

Arenas asked the housing department to evaluate the proposal for fairness.

She also feared the city might struggle to densify the neighborhood under the Opportunity Housing plan if it is approved. Opportunity Housing would enable the construction of duplex, triplex or fourplex apartments in single-family homes.

Planning director Rosalynn Hughey said historic neighborhoods would be subject to opportunity housing. There would be standards in place to ensure that new homes conform to the current neighborhood style.

“I want to make sure I keep pushing for history to be preserved, but we also need to be very aware and very sensitive to the impact of our actions to anchor past racist strategies like segregation and redlining,” said Arenas.

Davis suppressed Arenas’ efforts to involve the housing department and possibly delay plans.

Davis said the proposed historic neighborhood had nothing to do with opportunity housing or foreclosure policies. Residents advocated a new historic neighborhood for almost a decade, she added, before the debate about densification of single-family neighborhoods broke out.

Another single family home on Schiele Avenue. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Residents are not afraid of the neighbors changing but worry about what their homes will look like if they are not preserved, the councilor said.

“They like the way houses look,” said Davis. “It’s a beautiful tree-lined street with 100 year old houses. That wasn’t in danger until Google made their announcement. It has nothing to do with who lives in these houses. “

Arenas said it might be time for the neighborhood to look a little different.

“Maybe there should be more colored faces, and maybe we should have more ownership of people of color,” said Arenas. “Calling it ‘historic’ is an insult and an insult to the rest of us who got to live in this neighborhood.”

Davis, blinded by Arena’s demeanor, snapped back.

“If you’d like the historical conservation process to change, please don’t ambush me by robbing me at a rulebook (committee) meeting on a random Wednesday,” said Davis. “Bring your own memo to change the process. Don’t punish a neighborhood that has been working on it for a dozen years. “

Next Steps

HuGhey said the planning department was working on a historic status application. The application goes to the Commission for Historic Landmarks and the Planning Commission, then the city council could officially designate the district.

Hughey said Arenas’ stance on justice extends to other parts of the city as well. She said the planning department is open to a citywide conversation.

Peralez agreed that the discussion should continue.

“We have not asked any questions about the following topics in the past:” Should we give historical district names to areas in our city that have been mapped by redlining? “Said Peralez.” I think I think these are big questions and I think they are worth looking at. “

Arenas left the meeting determined to introduce a new policy that will force lawmakers to rethink the historic neighborhood memorial process.

“We deal with such guidelines every week and they accidentally create some inequalities for some of our communities – this is one of those guidelines,” said Arenas. “It is also my right and my duty to stand up and develop other guidelines. Thank you for encouraging me to do this – because that’s exactly what I’m going to do. “

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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