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Publication Date: Friday, September 06, 2002

The birth and breaking of a forgotten community The birth and breaking of a forgotten community (September 06, 2002)

Part one of a three-part series Part one of a three-part series (September 06, 2002)

By Nick Perry

"I accuse the council of institutionalized racism in its systematic demolition of Mexican-American housing. I and my friends and sons of my friends fought for this country in a place called Vietnam.

". . . I come back to find the old people displaced and nothing done about them. One man has been moved three times on Bailey Avenue. Men, some with nine children, are bounced from place to place."

The city has generously planned to allow us to move to East Palo Alto, Milpitas and Gilroy . . . This is our home. We don't like to be crowded out."
-- Manuel Avila, former resident at 914 Washington Street as reported in the Sunnyvale Standard.

More than 30 years ago, Manuel Avila stood in front of the Mountain View City Council and charged that the city had forced hundreds of Hispanic residents to leave their homes.

He was referring to the council's effort to modernize the city's street system, which caused dozens of homes were to be removed, and in the process, an increasingly active and empowered Hispanic community was torn apart.

My great grandparents, grandparents and extended family lived in the neighborhood near the intersection of Bailey Avenue and Washington Street since the early 1940s. I grew up hearing stories about their old neighborhood, and its destruction in 1969.

But today most Mountain View residents have not heard of Bailey Avenue; what was once a two-lane street lined with trees and old homes is now a part of Shoreline Boulevard.

And the story of how it was transformed from a neighborhood street into a busy boulevard, and the controversy that surrounded it, is even less well known.

Bailey Avenue's widening is the story of Mountain View during an uncertain phase of its history. It is the story of a community whose small-town past was at odds with the plans for a modern urban future. Itdd is the story of a city learning to be proud of its diversity, yet still struggling to achieve ethnic and social justice.

Although our community has certainly come a long way since those times, the story of Bailey Avenue's widening is connected to many of the issues our city still faces today.

"In the agricultural valleys . . . new rural Mexican colonias formed as seasonal workers became permanently settled . . . these colonias were usually located across the railroad tracks from the Anglo neighborhoods."

-- Albert Camarillo, from his book Chicanos in California

Historian Albert Camarillo's studies reflected exactly what happened in the Mountain View community in the late 1930s and 1940s. Just north of the train tracks, across from the neighborhood now known as Old Mountain View, a Mexican colonia formed along Washington and Jackson Streets.

The portion of Mountain View north of the train tracks had a diverse population long before the Mexican colonia formed. The Portuguese Hall on Stierlin Road and the Buddhist Temple nearby still stand as reminders of the many Japanese nurseries and Portuguese dairies that were once common in this area of Mountain View.

Spanish immigrants had already settled on the other side of the tracks in the Washington Street neighborhood in the 1920s. They jokingly named the neighborhood "La Charca de La Rana," which translates to the "Frog Pond." During the rainy season unpaved streets would transform into giant mud ponds. As the Spaniards moved out to other neighborhoods and cities, newly arrived Mexican-Americans and other Spanish speaking peoples moved in.

During the Great Depression many Mexican-American families left the Southwest and headed toward California for agricultural jobs.

Many settled in the Santa Clara Valley, which had an abundance of orchards and canneries. Often faced with low wages and discrimination, these people grouped together at the outskirts of the more established neighborhoods of Mountain View, in the Washington Street area and in Castro City near Rengstorff Park.

At a time when speaking any language other then English was greatly frowned upon, and when the pressure to abandon non-European traditions was strong, these neighborhoods became places where Mexican-Americans could keep their cultural heritage and community traditions alive.

The Washington Street neighborhood grew into a thriving middle-class community of Mexican-Americans. Residents fondly remember a close-knit social group with strong ties to its Mexican heritage. Cultural celebrations were common in the neighborhood.

Early on the morning of a birthday, neighbors would gather together and sing Las Mananitas outside the celebrant's window. During Christmas, neighbors would go from house to house on Washington Street reenacting the journey of Mary and Joseph in the traditional Los Posadas celebration. Many of the homes would have large nacimientos, intricate nativity scenes filled with heirloom figures.

Community progress

As the neighborhood grew tighter, my grandparents, great grandparents and extended family joined other community members in the creation of neighborhood social organizations. One of the earliest was the Club Estrella.

Club Estrella was founded in February of 1948 by a group of women who wanted to celebrate their Mexican heritage and assist the poor and needy. Originally the ladies that formed the club had wanted to start an organization in honor of the Virgin de Guadalupe through Saint Joseph's Church, but the pastor at the time did not accept their proposal.

However a young priest from the church, Father Donald McDonnell, decided to go into the Hispanic community on his own, and help the women o11111f the neighborhood form the Club Estrella. Members went on to build it into a neighborhood organization that lived up to its motto of "Fe, Amistad y Progreso" -- Faith, Friendship and Progress.

My great-grandmother, Carmen Sias, was the first president of the club, which remained closely tied to Saint Joseph's Church through its first years. Colorful parades were organized in celebration of the Virgin de Guadalupe and Mexican-American culture.

The parades would start on Washington Street and go down Castro Street where they would end with a mass and fiesta at Saint Joseph's Church. The club also participated in the parade and celebration that Mountain View put on in honor of the state's Centennial in 1949. The Mexican-American "colony" on Washington Street was soon well known by most residents of Mountain View.

Shortly after Club Estrella was founded, the neighborhood formed its own credit union with the help of Father McDonnell. The Guadalupe Federal Credit Union allowed neighborhood residents to pull together their hard earned wages. With this resource, members were able secure loans to remodel their houses or buy homes, cars and other necessities when banks would often turn them down.

Father McDonnell left Saint Joseph's to work with the Mexican-American community of East San Jose in the early 1950s, where he later became a mentor of Cesar Chavez. With his departure, Club Estrella began to move away from its religious ties to Saint Joseph's Church. Instead, it grew into a social organization, holding dances and other events that attracted Mexican-Americans throughout the city.

By the 1960s the neighborhood had come a long way from the days when it was known as "the frog pond." With the hard work and dedication of its residents, the neighborhood grew into a vibrant and close-knit community proud of its Mexican-American heritage. Displaced residents like my grandfather, Simon Sias, remember that "it was a neighborhood where we all knew each other, and we all helped each other out."

Progress over preservation

"The making of the General Plan in the 1960s showed that the link between Bailey, Miramonte, and Stierlin was the main link and traffic carrier for the city. The idea was that this major set of roads would stretch all the way from the Bay to Foothill Expressway, and serve as the major artery for automobiles . . . We felt that for the future, that it might be if we're ever successful in supplementing the automobile with some type of mass transit, that this would be the route for it. So in our minds, but not in the plans, we wanted to make it wide enough to someday accommodate something like a fixed rail system."
-- Robert Lawrence, Planning Director for Mountain View in the 1960s

As the 1960s came to an end, Mountain View was beginning to feel the effects of two decades of rapid growth and suburbanization. City leaders envisioned even more growth for the future. Most of the historic neighborhoods around downtown were to become apartment areas. To reinvigorate downtown, the city planned for the construction of high rises and a new civic center that would have destroyed much of the neighborhood across from the Mountain View Library on Franklin and Oak Streets.

The existing roads were already carrying more traffic then they were designed for. With much more development on the way, city leaders began to draw up plans for a modern road system to sweep drivers in and out of the older part of the city. The 1968 general plan called for the creation of a loop system that would encircle downtown and transform many neighborhood streets into busy boulevards.

These plans had a devastating impact on the Washington Street neighborhood. Piece by piece, the neighborhood was dismantled and buried under ribbons of asphalt. The widening of two-lane Alma Street into the Central Expressway removed about 20 homes. The first widening of Bailey Avenue from a two-lane neighborhood street into a four-lane thoroughfare also removed a few homes, a corner store, but mostly consumed front yards. Unbeknownst to residents near the street, the widening of Bailey to four lanes was just the first step in the city's plans for turning the residential street into the city's busiest and largest road.

Most residents were too busy with their jobs and families to keep a close eye on what was being planned in city hall. No one of Mexican-American descent had ever been a member of the city council or any city commission. They had no idea that six wide lanes of traffic and an overpass would soon replace the homes and community that so many had worked so hard to create, stamping out an increasingly powerful group of residents and forcing many to permanently leave Mountain View.
Nick Perry is a Mountain View native and co-founder of the Mountain View Preservation Alliance. He is a student at UC Berkeley

Next week: Bulldozing the neighborhood


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